A Road Warrior Visits the Business Travel Battlefield

Last weekend, my wife and I flew to Pittsburgh, PA from Charleston, SC to retrieve our daughter from college where she graduated on Saturday (with no ceremony). I’ve been traveling for business at least monthly pretty much my entire professional career. I am a “million miler” on Delta, as is my wife, so both of us have spent a lot of time in the air travel ecosystem. I confess that it was liberating to leave the house and the neighborhood and get back to an airport and onto a plane. I have always enjoyed business travel, or travel of any kind, and I looked forward to the trip. And what a trip it was—traveling during a pandemic! If you are thinking of traveling by air in the next several weeks or months, you’re going to encounter a very different travel environment than any you’ve experienced before. 

This is a picture of Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta Airport (Concourse A) at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday.

Here are a few of the things that have really changed in just these past 12 weeks or so: 

  • Number of flights: There are very few flights available. In our case, we had only one flight option for every leg on the trip, instead of the 30 or 40 options that we are used to having.
  • Emptiness: Parking garages, check-in areas, TSA, and concourses are very empty. The Atlanta airport has only three of its seven concourses open, and even then, there aren’t many people around.
  • Inconsistency: Some restaurants and newsstands are open, a lot are closed, and it appears that the decision on whether to be open or closed is being made by the companies that run the outlets. So, in Atlanta, Shake Shack is open in Concourse A, but you can’t buy a magazine in Concourse D.
  • Masks: Delta is requiring masks on all their flights, and pretty much everyone has one. Style and design variations are starting to show up in the different masks that people are wearing, and I predict that interesting, artistic, or “statement” masks are going to be a “thing.” When people are wearing masks, the eyes matter—they are the only visual cue available to an observer—and I found myself trying to figure out if people were smiling by looking at their eyes.
  • Pre-boarding: There’s not much difference here, except for the periodic COVID-19 announcements on the public address system. There is obviously a lot more cleaning and sanitation going on prior to boarding than there was before the pandemic. The cleaners are being given more time, and they’re carrying a fogging device to help disinfect the plane.
  • Boarding: Delta is loading its planes rear-first, with first class able to board at any time. Social distancing signs are posted every six feet in the jetway, and when boarding, a flight attendant gave us a plastic bag with water, Delta’s Biscoff cookies, Cheez-Its, and a sanitary wipe. That’s all the service available on the plane. With so few people, boarding happens very quickly, and there’s plenty of overhead luggage capacity. Don’t worry about checking a bag, at least for the time being.
  • Space: The planes that we were on were about 20 percent occupied, so everyone pretty much had their own row of seats. Upgrades are more available, but they’re only using about half the seats, so there aren’t as many seats to offer for upgrades. 

Overall, I felt that the airports, the airlines (at least Delta), and the passengers are all going out of their way to ensure that risk of exposure to COVID-19 is as low as it can possibly be. With everyone wearing masks and a clear obsession for cleanliness, flying felt safer to me than my weekly visit to the supermarket, where mask wearing is hit-or-miss and social distancing is more a concept than a practice. Would I fly again? Absolutely, and tomorrow if I could. But then there’s the hotel situation, and that’s a whole different story. More on that next time.

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