Culture / Travel

Flying Southwest During a Pandemic — A Surreal Trip

It Wasn't Dystopian Chaos, but It Was Weird

BY // 05.08.20

I typically have stress-fueled dreams the night before flying. I’ve slept in and miss my flight. I get to the gate but my ticket isn’t accepted. The Southwest attendants have run out of Bloody Mary mix.

The stress dreams were a little different before my flight this week. Throughout the night, my subconscious conjured up images of overcrowded planes, TSA agents opening my suitcase and glovelessly touching everything inside, and someone whipping their mask off just to cough in my general direction. Flying during a global pandemic will do that to you.

In the morning, to soothe myself before my Southwest flight, I fired up a video the airline had made to showcase their “new stringent cleaning standards and physical-distancing measures.” Watching a man wipe down a surface with a Clorox wipe is practically pornography for me now.

Instead of calling a Lyft like I would normally, I drove myself to Love Field. As I walked toward the entrance, I put my face mask on, hopeful that everyone else would be doing the same. I’m a Clear member, a distinction that bought me all of 30 seconds in the extremely sparse security line, where I would say about half the travelers were wearing masks. Part of the Clear process involves fingerprint identification — my heart sank as I pressed my two fingers on the machine. A brand agent quickly handed me Clear branded antiseptic wipes, which I suppose was helpful.

Only one security line was available, and there were big bright red dots (spaced six feet apart) on the floor leading you up to the machines. There were so few of us, it wasn’t too hard to to space ourselves out — I do wonder how effective a few bright red dots would be with more of a crowd.

I would have taken better note of what was going on throughout Love Field, in the dining areas or at Starbucks, had I not been in such a mad rush to get to my gate. (My wonky quarantine brain thought my flight took off 30 minutes after it actually did.) I did notice that Moe’s Southwest Grill did not seem to be open at peak lunch hours, if that happens to be your Love Field food court drug of choice.

When I got to my gate, most people had masks on and were relatively spaced out as we waited for our group to be called. It wasn’t perfect social distancing, but it wasn’t nightmare fuel. Instead of allowing 30 people to board the plane at a time, groups were reduced to 10. When my turn arrived, the gate agent waited a handful of seconds before scanning my mobile boarding pass and allowing me through. To mitigate the awkward beat, I smiled at him. I wonder if he could tell.

southwest flight during a pandemic
Floor markings encouraging passengers to stand six feet apart during boarding — they mostly worked.

The red dots made their triumphant return on the path to the plane, where everyone around me (to my surprise) dutifully obeyed their intended message. The flight attendant’s eyes were warm and welcoming as I stepped on board. “You can sit anywhere but a middle seat, the first three rows, or the last three rows,” she projected through her mask. I sat next to a nice looking man with a mask on and Airpods in — the middle seat empty between us. (For a sense of how many people were allowed on the plane, my boarding position was B23, and I was probably one of the last ones on.)

As I tucked my tote under the seat in front of me, a woman across the row caught my attention. “I love Dagne Dover! I want more of their bags,” she said through her mask. “Right? They’re so great for traveling!” I replied. Face masks can’t stop airport small talk.

I didn’t catch everything said over the loudspeaker, but there was something along the lines of, “We are in a global pandemic, so there won’t be drink or snack service.” What a weird time to be alive.

The flight was quick and painless. True to their word, there was no snack or drink service, just attendants walking up and down the aisle offering antiseptic wipes. (I took as many as they’d give me.) I noticed a lot of passengers who boarded with masks took them off during the flight — I’m no virologist, but isn’t the point of putting masks on in public places keeping them on in public places?

We weren’t quite as orderly exiting the plane as we were boarding it, but it wasn’t pure dystopian chaos like I had feared. You got a sense that everyone, mask or not, was more mindful of personal space. During the flight, there wasn’t much talking, but I did hear one woman behind me say to a Southwest attendant, “I’m just so happy to be on a plane, you have no idea.”

Several friends expressed jealousy when I told them I’d be flying, and I get it. As the world begins to open up again (and Texas seems to be doing that with a fervor), of course we’ll be tempted to go out into it. I’ve been sheltering in place alone for two months and being literally anywhere but home is a thrill. But flying during a global pandemic is not an enviable activity. It was surreal — a sterile shadow of the pre-pandemic experience, not a return to normal.

It’s hard to know where you’ll feel comfortable going or bringing your family in the coming weeks. Trust and transparency is more crucial than ever, and I appreciated how closely the actual Southwest experience mirrored the video I had watched earlier that day. I can’t expect every business to produce a video featuring a man wiping down surfaces with a Clorox wipe before I visit, but, then again, I certainly wouldn’t mind it.

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