The things you do for love.
Earlier this week, I braved the skies mid-pandemic — three packed airplanes, two different airlines and a one-hour layover in Orlando — to visit my far-flung girlfriend, who is finishing her degree in Louisiana (long distance ain’t easy, folks!).
While well aware of what the CDC says about crowded flights and subsequent COVID-19 risks, I also knew I was one of far fewer travelers looking to fly these days, a mass grounding that has crippled the airline industry.
So imagine my surprise when Spirit Airlines began sending me notifications, asking for volunteers to switch flights due to how full both of mine would be. Feelings of panic began to creep up.
I had hoped for at least one empty seat beside me, for some semblance of social distancing. Instead, my basic economy ticket dropped me in 36E — the middle seat.
For this I could not stand (or sit). I trudged through Newark Liberty International Airport, relishing the non-existent security lines and arrived early at the gate, pacing nervously.
When an employee finally appeared, I donned my most pathetic, puppy-eyed “please help me” face — for a 6-foot-tall bearded man, anyway — and explained my fear of being wedged between two strangers for three hours during a pandemic.
Against the odds, my sob story worked. I was switched to 25D, a window seat, which public health experts counsel is the safest choice to avoid contact with others. I profusely thanked the attendant and returned to pacing.
Boarding began soon after. Ticket-holders congregated together as they normally would, shirking the lines in effort to secure precious overhead luggage space. I hung back, boarding last, curious to observe how full the flight truly was.
I took a fake phone call and tightened my sandal straps over and over — anything to out-dawdle the other slowpokes.
Little good this did me; they weren’t lying when they said the flight was packed. I still had to share an armrest, which I dutifully wiped down beforehand with my stash of Wet Wipes.
After our ascent, the seatbelt sign dinged off and I heard a familiar, comforting sound coming down the aisle: the snack and drink cart. I always drink a Diet Coke when I fly. Wild, I know. But this time, I abstained, opting to keep my mask on as long as humanly possible. I scarfed down a protein bar and sat covered up the rest of flight.
My seat-mates, however, didn’t seem to mind pulling their face coverings down, indulging in happy hour with miniature wine bottles and overpriced PopCorners, the clear snack of choice down the aisle. Some passengers were clearly on edge like me, but many seemed carefree, acting as though it were still February instead of the hellish seven months the rest of us have been living through.
Another emblem of the bizarre travel experience came on my return flight with United. As I marched to my seat, I watched a mystery chemical spray down from overhead onto the seats and touch surfaces, wafting through the cabin. “Uh, what the heck is this?” I wondered.
Turns out United now sprays an antimicrobial mist on flights as part of its cleaning procedure. Once I realized what was happening, I appreciated the whimsical shower of microbe-fighting chemicals and unmistakable taste of antiseptic as an extra safety precaution. It would’ve been nice to be warned beforehand, though I could have missed the memo from the back of the pack.
All three flights, from Newark to Orlando, Orlando to New Orleans, and New Orleans back to Newark, were otherwise tolerable, though I spent much of the flight trying to keep my masked breathing even and my arms and legs as rightward as possible.
All of the flight attendants I encountered were abundantly friendly and professional, increasing the pleasantness of the trip from disquieting to endurable. One crew thanked passengers over the intercom for choosing to fly, alluding to furloughs and layoffs for a ham-stringed industry, which relies on its essential workers coming to work and facing these dangers daily.
When I arrived back in Newark, gloomily wishing I could eke just a few more hours out of a rejuvenating visit with my girlfriend, I passed by signage regarding the state’s travel advisory. Because I visited Louisiana, one of 35 states on New Jersey’s list, I and other returning visitors would be asked to quarantine for 14 days.
The state’s guidance says, “self-quarantine is voluntary, but compliance is expected,” which sounds a little counter-intuitive — the state is putting an awful lot of onus on visitors to comply. No TSA staffers mentioned anything to me as I exited and the only messaging came from the two signs, which passengers could easily miss.
Still, being the good citizen that I am, I filled out the voluntary online survey, describing where I’d traveled to, what dates I was gone, and what county I’d be residing in. I’ve yet to hear any response.
The advisory FAQ states that the 14 days cannot be overruled by a negative COVID-19 test, a loophole I’d previously thought of while receiving my pre-travel antigen test. The administering nurse explained to me how the virus takes time to show up in our systems and a test upon my return would not assuage the state that I was virus-free.
So after some mental calculations, making note to reschedule a doctor’s appointment and a lunch date with a friend, I exited the airport and shed my mask.
I returned home, unpacked my souvenirs — a wood-carving of jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, some new reading material and colorful photos of the New Orleans sun poking through Spanish moss — and wondered when I’d be able to see my girlfriend next.
As much as I’d like to jet back to New Orleans tomorrow, it’ll be some time before I fly again. The trip was doable, sure, but I was a nervous wreck throughout.
Thankful I could finally stretch out my legs without fear of personal contact, I cracked open a much-needed Diet Coke and prayed the next trip would come nearer to the end of this mess.
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Josh Axelrod may be reached at [email protected].