When I returned from Africa in March, the COVID-19 shutdown was still a few days away. Three subsequent air itineraries to Tampa, to New Orleans, and to Minneapolis were all scrubbed on account of the pandemic crisis.
It wasn’t until the very end of May that I braved another flight. I wrote these notes below in real time as I made the journey with my wife and daughter from Raleigh (RDU) to Billings, Montana (BIL) on American Airlines via DFW.
My principal takeaway from the experience of flying for the first time since the shutdown? Uncertainty.
Uncertain risk at airports and on board planes, a risk which exacerbated by packed airports and airplanes as if everything was normal.
But it’s not normal. Because of the unseen viral menace, flying is scary.
Here’s how it happened, from end to end, exactly as it happened.
GETTING TO THE AIRPORT
Ordered an Uber Friday night for 450am pickup Saturday for our 700am departure RDU/DFW. Wanted to be sure to be there early in case of temp checks, other delays.
UberX was on time at 450am. Driver was chatty, a New Yorker with 7 siblings from Queens. We were masks; he didn’t, explaining that he didn’t need to because he’d had COVID-19 in January while visiting his family in NYC and doing contract driving for healthcare workers.
Said his brother, age 54, also had it and was on a ventilator for a week, is now okay, but weak. This was all disconcerting, felt a little like a sci-fi film being with a guy who’d been sick with the deadly disease. He talked nonstop to the airport and drove very fast. I checked the Uber app once at RDU, and it claimed our driver had been rigorously screened and was well. I hope so…
Left home 450am, arrived RDU 505am.
CHECK-IN AND SECURITY
We checked in online Friday as usual and so proceeded directly to the security portal. Hardly anyone at the airport, but busier than the visit I’d made to RDU just to see what it looked like 3 weeks ago. And now the Pre line has thankfully reopened. No queue in the regular line, however, both because of the hour (by then 510am) and because of so few flights departing (see photo of anemic arrivals and departures). TSA now behind plastic barrier; scanned my own boarding pass, but still had to hand my drivers license to agent and remove mask for ID.
No temperature check and no mask requirement signs posted. Some travelers among the few going through security not wearing masks. Most were.
AT THE GATE
Few places were open along the walk to our gate, but Bruegger’s Bagels was. Gate area somewhat crowded for the single flight to DFW (or anywhere), but people spread out.
We are in first class and boarding passes say the usual “Group 1” but I expect American will bypass its usual process and board rear to front. We will see.
I was wrong to think the boarding process was changed. The usual Concierge, then Group 1 (first class), etc. Flight is oversold and completely full. So, so glad I opted for first class. The usual sardine class. This cannot be safe despite everyone being told face coverings are mandatory. Alarming.
Everyone, first class included, was issued a “snack bag,” which is pathetic: a bag of pistachios and a small bottle of water. I asked the front cabin FA if that was all first class cabin would get, he said, yep, but maybe some beverages. No more boarding drinks, however.
Looks like you don’t get anything in first class any more except a bigger seat. Can’t even get a Bloody Mary.
The usual crowding in the aisle during boarding. Zero distance between people in the conga line to find their seats. Every freaking seat full. I’m depressed if this is the new level of flying.
Couldn’t understand why every seat was full except the starboard side two seats in the first row of first class. Got my answer when one of the flight attendants sat in the aisle seat for takeoff and climbout. She was still there 20 minutes after takeoff.
Looks like AA has eliminated two front cabin seats to accommodate more spacial separation for the cabin crew. Fewer first class seats for us flyers to compete for, but given the low-grade service now offered, maybe it doesn’t matter, except symbolically.
If they don’t at least offer beverages to first class, I won’t fly AA again until pre-Covid service levels resume, if ever they do. It was bad enough before.
… [20 minutes later]
The new AA drill in first class has been revealed: beverages on request, but customers have to ask. Nothing offered proactively for flights under 2,200 miles. Over 2,200, meals in first are served all at once to limit FA back–and-forth movements, but you still have to request a beverage, whether water or something stronger.
I asked for a Bloody Mary (hey, I’m on vacation), and it came in a plastic glass, which I expected. No limes, though, which I didn’t anticipate, as such small extras are not catered any longer for “safety” (?)–another cost saving, no doubt under the guise of ensuring our health.
No limes, for God’s sake? A Bloody Mary without a lime is not civilized. Pitiful.
Minimalist enough for first class. Coach gets nothing, however. Well, except the same tiny water and bag of nuts we got in first (see photo above). And if this flight wasn’t 2 hrs, 30 mins and 1,000 miles, then no nuts, either. Not in coach or first.
We left the gate 30 minutes behind schedule due to a maintenance light in the cockpit of this newish 737, an 800 series, I think. What spectacular irony if this Boeing product went wonky like the MAX planes and smashed into the dirt, all of us aboard instantly dissolved to dust while safely wearing masks and me imbibing a lime-less Bloody Mary in heavy coronavirus air service sacrifice mode. At least I would have gone down in first class with a stiff drink in my hand. How humiliating it would be to die like that in row 44 with naught but a minuscule water bottle.
A bit later, I politely asked for a 2nd Bloody Mary and got it from the cheerful young flight attendant. I think he was happy to hold sufficient seniority to be working and to get paid. Thousands of layoffs in his profession loom on the near horizon, it seems. Hopefully, I will doze off before I finish the repeat order. I laid off alcohol this week because I had too much work. Nice to relax now.
Even better, the flight attendant found some shriveled lime pieces for my 2nd drink, likely long aged, when I bemoaned the incivility of a Bloody Mary without citrus overtones. The itty-bitty lime slices could be a year old, but now, at least, if we go down screaming, I’ll be meeting my maker in style, with head held high.
I always feel more optimistic after a cocktail, so I’m going to stop complaining about the dearth of service in first class.
That is, until the buzz wears off.
Truth is, something I’ve recognized in myself for years: if the airlines give me a comfortable seat with reasonable space sideways and frontways and a couple of adult beverages and don’t kill me, then my basic needs are met.
Forgot to mention in boarding that there were no restrictions whatsoever on carryon. The 1 bag + 1 personal item rule remains. At least on AA.
One more late observation is that a microscopic squirt of Purell is included in the “snack bag” hidden at the bottom. Not edible, but thoughtful.
CONNECTING AT DFW
We made up the lost half hour and then some to land at DFW 848am CT. Allows ample time to get from D20 to B2 for our flight to Billings, which boards at 1015am.
How many times have I connected at DFW over the past four decades? Surely over a hundred. Dallas/Fort Worth is always wall-to-wall packed.
Though not so much today, I was still surprised at the airport terminal foot traffic, especially given what I gather is AA’s greatly reduced schedule. Lots of folks here even so. See shots of crowded AirLink train and pedestrian congestion in the B terminal.
The Admirals Club in the B terminal is open, not sure about other clubs. Most retail places are open and crowded.
My conclusion so far from RDU and DFW is that the airports and airlines are operating on a business-as-usual basis other than requiring masks and on sub-normal frequencies. So much for the coronavirus. Pandemic? Wear a mask, and keep in truckin’!
DFW/BIL – THE PLOT SICKENS
Embraer 175, a “big” regional jet with 1-2 seating in first, 2-2 in the back.
On AA.com we had selected the 3 seats in row 1 when we booked. But we were told at the gate that row 1 had to be kept open for flight attendant social distance safety because of the row’s proximity to the forward door jump seat.
Yet the flight attendant up front admitted that when AA booked such E-175 flights full that they would assign even the three first row seats despite the dictum not to. So if it suited the airline to endanger the flight attendant for a few extra dollars, well, then…
Okay, but the gate agents didn’t keep us together, and I had to argue to get us two seats in row 2 and one in row 3. Once we boarded, the gentleman in 2A kindly switched with my wife in 3A so we could be together again.
Repeated announcements at the gate and on board stressed that NO SERVICE AT ALL, neither food nor beverage, would be available on this flight “temporarily” (with no direct reference to the virus), so buy your own or do without.
Even in first class? I asked the forward cabin FA once we found our seats on board.
She sternly said she would provide first class customers with drinks “only if asked” once airborne. No boarding beverages, not even water.
Why no service on this particular flight? I asked. Due to its duration, she replied. I let it go because it would have been a no-win argument.
However, I considered pointing out that Dallas to Billings is 1,084 miles compared to 1,061 miles Raleigh to Dallas, a flight which warranted at least a “snack bag”, shockingly meager though it was.
So why didn’t American even provide a bottle of water for folks to pick up at the gate as they boarded on this longer flight? I put it down to typical airline “down the rabbit hole” insanity.
Certainly not the flight attendant’s decision. Although her attitude needed improvement.
We had heeded the warning and obtained an apple fritter and some pretzels before boarding. So much for the 57,500 miles per person I spent to be in American Airline’s classless first class: “Here’s your whole lot of nothing. Hope you enjoy it ’cause we aim to do our best to make your flight with us a great experience. Have a nice day.”
Once in the air, the forward FA disappeared with her personal water bottle to the back of the plane to socialize with her companion. I had to ring the call button to get anything for the three of us. She seemed annoyed to have had to traipse all the way back to first class and that we needed anything, despite a conversation she and I had at the gate about us wanting drinks after takeoff. Like I said, poor attitude. She obviously had not listened.
Perhaps most Covid-era air passengers just hunker down and resign themselves to getting nothing despite having paid in dollars or miles the same steep price for first class as before the crisis when, up front, we all got some sort of food and lots to drink.
After getting us drinks, she scurried rearward again to hang out with her cabin mate. We never saw her again until almost to Billings.
Good riddance, I thought, but then what’s the big deal about keeping the first row empty on account of social distancing to benefit the forward cabin FA if she is never there except for takeoff and landing?
This is only my second flight since lockdown, and I’m already getting real tired of American’s hypocrisy justified around COVID-19.
They haven’t reduced fares a penny, nor reduced AAdvantage awards a mile.
They stuff people onto planes until full, including (of course) center seats, with every row already scrunched uncomfortably close together.
They board same as always, with people literally touching each other as they crowd the gate podium, the aircraft aisle, and as they brush by those already seated.
AA can’t even throw first class a water bottle or keep to their own rules about when to provide a “snack” and when not to.
I see this for what it is: American using the pandemic crisis to their own AAdvantage (misspelling intended). Their only sop to the deathly pandemic is making face coverings mandatory.
Gotta wonder how Concierge Key and Executive Platinum customers are taking this crummy attitude and abysmal service.
For me as a lifetime frequent flyer it’s another nail in the airline loyalty coffin. Customer service differentiation gone the way of the Dodo. I intend to try Delta, JetBlue, and Alaska to compare. Forget United with its sewer service.
I don’t expect to be showered with Bollinger R.D. Champagne on those or any carriers, just to feel I’ve achieved fair value for the premium I’m willing to pay in exchange for a better product and service.
ARRIVING IN BILLINGS
Exiting BIL airport security, National Guardsmen are taking everyone’s temp, mandatory. I wondered that good were the temperature checks if one of us had contracted the stealthy virus en route due to the incessant close contact with strangers in the airports and on full flights. Had CV-19 infected us, none would show symptoms for up to 14 days.
Inside Billings security, a few wore masks, and I saw people crowded together as normal at a small food retailer.
Outside security, almost no one wearing a mask. I guess the coronavirus scare was all fake news.
Picked up our Alamo Rental Car which I reserved through Costco at a discount, a new Jeep Cherokee. Car rental counters across from the BIL luggage carousels were pretty busy, and, again, no one wore masks. Lines marked on the floor indicated appropriate social distancing, but were mostly ignored.
I was suprised at my feeling of relief as we walked out of the Billings Airport terminal to the rental car lot. I didn’t realize how tense I’d been since entering the RDU terminal.