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  • Jen Bloss

What You Need to Know About Pandemic Air Travel

Updated: Nov 12, 2023

Because it's a totally different world, and you need to know how to navigate the changes

empty airport terminal during pandemic
Empty airport during covid-19 pandemic

If you’re anything like me, one of the major bummers about this pandemic is an ever-increasing restlessness to hop on a plane and explore the world. Even if the United States wasn’t a coronavirus hot spot, there is no corner of this earth welcoming tourists from any country these days. I’ve done my best to enjoy the time at home and do some local exploring, and it’s been a decent compromise. Oddly enough, I wrote a blog pre-pandemic called How to Satisfy Your Wanderlust When Stuck at Home, and I’ve taken a lot of my own advice. But eventually, I just needed to see family. And that involved a cross-country airplane trip. There are so many questions and uncertainties- and even some rumors- about what flying is like now.  So I’ve written this blog to address the nitty-gritty details that you may be wondering about. If you’re short on time, skip to the end for my recommendations to anyone considering air travel right now.

We’re mid-pandemic. Why Travel Now?

We’ve all been a bit stressed thanks to this COVID-19 pandemic. I’m an ICU nurse, and have been working long hours and lots of overtime. I care for the most critically-ill COVID patients every shift, and it’s hard work. With social activities on hiatus and family living on the opposite coast, I devoted myself to the battle in front of me. Then one day, I realized that I had no idea when I’d get to see my family again. And I got really sad. So I was determined to find a way to make it work. And when the time finally came, I was definitely ready for a break.


Flight Booking:

There were far fewer flight choices available than usual! Due to decreased demand, airlines are consolidating passengers onto fewer flights. This also meant that many of my layover choices were either very short or rather long. I was bummed to not find any red-eyes, my usual choice when heading back East. And my flight wasn’t cheap- so much for those rumors about killer flight deals!

Safety Measures:

My greatest concern before the trip was: how can I do this safely? I did not want to bring the virus home to my family. So, I left a week between my last shift and my flight, then got tested for COVID. I had negative results in hand before I got on the plane. Thanks to flexible flight change policies, I could have easily gotten a flight credit if I’d tested positive and needed to cancel my trip.

Day of Travel:

Getting to the airport:

Per usual, I called an Uber to take me to the airport. However, it took significantly longer than usual to find a car. There are fewer ride-share vehicles on the road these days- so give yourself extra time for the process. Both my driver and I wore masks, and I sat in the back seat on the passenger side for maximum space. On my way home, both Uber and Lyft were surging (again, fewer cars). So I saved $9 by taking one of those mythical things called a (*gasp*) taxi.


The security area at San Diego International Airport was a ghost town. It took nanoseconds to get through the screening. There were markings on the floor to assist in the distancing of passengers in line. I’ve heard some horror stories about hour-long security lines though, so give yourself some extra time, just in case. At the checkpoint, there was a plexiglass barrier between me and the TSA agent. You scan your own boarding pass and then pull down your mask face briefly for the ID check- a no-touch process.

San Diego airport social distancing decal
Social distancing decal at SAN security checkpoint

The Terminal Experience:

In 3 of the 4 airports I flew through, the terminals were mostly dead. Due to many shuttered stores and restaurants, and fewer passengers, there was actually a peaceful calm in the airport. I have never experienced that before! Though DFW was a definite exception to that observation. You can expect to see the vast majority of shops and restaurants closed. Bringing your own food is highly advised, as there are crazy lines at the few open establishments.

long line for Popeye's at DFW airport

Long lines form at the few open establishments in DFW

empty terminal at PIT airport

Closed terminal and stores at PIT

empty terminal at Pittsburgh airport
PIT airport is a ghost town


You may notice that the areas in which you arrive and depart from are very crowded and busy. As a pilot explained to me, flights arrive and depart in “banks.” Basically, all flights arrive within 45 minutes of each other, allowing travelers into the terminal for a connection. Then, an hour later all of the flights depart within 45 minutes of each other. This is not new due to the pandemic, although the number of banks has decreased. What this means is that everyone will be in the same area near the gates at the same time. There are no social distancing measures in the terminals. Aside from a mandatory mask requirement, it is your own personal responsibility to practice distancing. There are definitely some unused nooks and crannies away from the banks of flights, so get your steps in and explore. Also, BYO hand sanitizer– it can be hard to find (not all airports had it), and TSA is allowing you to pack up to 12oz of it in your carry on.


Boarding the plane was the same cattle herding process as always. You scan your own boarding pass, and there are some distancing decals on the floor… but only 2 of them. The one at the ticket scanner, and one six feet in front of it. The rest of the line, and the jetway, is a squishfest, per usual. Boarding still went by group number, not back of the plane to front of the plane.

The In-Flight Experience:

I flew on American Airlines. On all but my shortest flight, the flight attendants handed out small brown bags to each passenger when entering the plane. Each contained a bottle of water, a sanitizing wipe, and a snack. This is because they no longer do in-flight food and beverage service. If you wanted something else, it was available by request- except for alcohol. Once I sat down, I took out my own sanitizing wipes and wiped down everything I might touch in-flight: the button to recline the seat, the seatbelt, tray table, etc.

And then I sanitized my hands and my phone. Honestly, I should have been doing that stuff pre-pandemic!

snack bag given out for flight
A little goodie bag to replace in-flight service


I appreciated the overhead announcement regarding the in-flight mask requirement (except when eating or drinking). It even went so far as mentioning that if you claim an exception to wearing a mask, it can be reported to the CDC and you could be required to provide proof of the medical condition from your doctor. A refusal to wear a mask could get you kicked off the flight and up to a one year ban on flying in US. Yikes!

People were pretty good about the masks, most kept them on the whole time. However, the lady sitting next to me had on a mask with an exhalation valve on it (argh, a pet peeve!). These valves actually let your breath/germs out, which defeats the purpose of the mask. Please don’t wear those types of masks!

girl wearing mask on airplane
Pandemic style: surgical masks for the win! SO much comfier than cloth for long wear on the plane


The plane itself was packed- most middle seats were full. Contrary to popular belief, airlines are not keeping all of the middle seats open, and some airlines are running at 100% capacity now. The lady I sat down next to on my first flight actually looked at me in disgust and said to me, “I thought they weren’t seating people next to each other.” Sorry! After months of conditioning to increase our personal space bubbles, sitting in close proximity to other people in a tight space truly felt uncomfortable. But if there were open seats, you were allowed to move for more distancing.

The Air:

I also turned the air vents on high, and pointed them towards me. Why? Because it’s CLEAN air! It’s pulled from outside, coming in via the engines. In fact, the entire plane’s air is completely changed every 90 seconds or so, and it also passes through a HEPA filter. This is not a pandemic born upgrade either. If you want to geek out on the specifics of that process, check out this article written by a pilot.

That was a lot of info. If you would like specifics on what each airline is doing to make travel safer, check out their websites.


But for you skimmers out there, I’m going to summarize my top recommendations for flying, if you must, during this COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Plan for extra time for a rideshare, and maybe security

  2. Bring your own hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, and use them liberally on and off the plane

  3. Bring your own food and snacks to avoid long lines and limited choices

  4. Take it upon yourself to space out in the airport and lines

  5. Wear a mask you’re comfortable wearing for an extended period of time

  6. Expect all the seats around you to be full

  7. Turn the seat’s air vent on and point it towards you

Bottom line:

You can undertake airplane travel these days, and minimize your risk of getting ill. But there is a lot of hassle involved. I hate to say it, but traveling isn’t really fun right now. But once we get through this, I will be so ready.

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