How to Get on the Road
Again in Relative Safety
THURSDAY, AUGUST 6, 2020 -- A Gallup survey released this morning suggests that more than half the Americans who flew at least once a year before the pandemic are now not comfortable flying.

I think that's understating the degree of national anxiety about stepping on a commercial aircraft.

Anecdotally, I'd guess that three-quarters of JoeSentMe members have similar reservations. And we're the travelers who were flying once a month or once a week before the pandemic hit. When we are not storming the airport ramparts--uh, security checkpoints--looking to get to a meeting or a mid-summer holiday, the reality seems bleaker than Gallup suggests.

Statistics support this bearish outlook, too. Since traffic bottomed out early in the spring--just 87,534 people passed through TSA airport checkpoints on April 14--Americans haven't exactly rushed back to the skies. On Tuesday, 543,601 people reached a TSA airport checkpoint. That's more than six times the number of folks who flew on April 14, of course, but it is still less than 23 percent of the air-travel volume on the same August day last year. The numbers have bounced up and down a bit, but we've largely lived in this 25 percent range for about five weeks. For the entire month of July, according to the TSA stats, airports registered 26 percent of 2019's flight volume.

Still, some of us are flying and you may be considering joining those happy few, those band of brothers, who are doing what the rest of us did without thinking only a few months ago. If you plan to get back on the road sometime before St. Crispin's Day--hey, brush up your Shakespeare for the references--might I humbly offer these considerations.

Several airlines tightened their rules this week and even legitimate medical reasons for not wearing a mask won't cut it anymore. So if you don't want to--or can't--wear a mask, stop reading right here. You won't be allowed to fly. And don't try circumventing the rules with those masks with air vents or valves. Those, too, have been banned. A good mask is now as important as having a ticket. You'll need both to fly. Expect to don the mask from the moment you enter the terminal until you grab your baggage and depart. Except when you're eating or drinking, masks are required garb for the entire flying experience.

Since we basically can't travel internationally, let's consider the domestic landscape. JetBlue Airways yesterday extended until October 15 its pledge to keep an empty middle seat or block the aisle seat on aircraft configured 2x2. That's essentially how all carriers except American and United are doing it. Their pledges vary a bit in execution and commitment date, but generally the industry has settled seat-blocking for the time being. United and American, on the other hand, are the outliers. They are spitting in the metaphoric face of good marketing and good enough science and filling up all seats if they can. Don't fly United or American. Don't reward their arrogance and willingness to risk your health. JetBlue, Southwest, Delta and Alaska Air can get you pretty much anywhere you need to go.

If keeping an empty middle seat is part science and part marketing, aircraft cleaning is almost totally a function of marketing. Why else would airlines rush to line up with names you might recognize--Lysol, Clorox, Cleveland Clinic--to buttress their claims that they are cleaning aircraft within a metaphoric inch of their lives. Personally, I don't believe a word of it. I will grant that airlines have invested some money in better cleaning, deeper cleaning and more disinfecting cleaning. But I know enough about the realities of airline travel to know it is all, in the end, kabuki. There's zero guarantee that what the airlines are doing is effective--or that they are actually doing what they promise at every seat on every flight. Southwest Airlines inadvertently admitted as much this week when it reduced its new cleaning regimens. The reason? The supposedly painstaking between-flight routines were keeping aircraft on the ground too long and "slow turns" are anathema to Southwest's fragile finances.

What do you do? Be responsible for yourself. Carefully wipe down everything you might touch before you touch it. Consider bringing along lots of disposable gloves and wearing them from the moment you arrive at the terminal until the moment you depart at your destination.

One other thing: It does seem that you are more likely to catch this nasty virus from human contact or from airborne transmission. So keep as much physical distance as you can at the airport--arrive as late as possible, beware crowds at security checkpoints and during boarding and don't tarry anywhere, including club lounges. And beware the smallest regional jets. They don't have the HEPA filters most experts believe keep the confined spaces of larger jets relatively clean and safe.

If you cannot fly without eating, bring your own snacks and meals. In an effort to reduce contact points (and, um, save money), the airlines have slashed food and beverage offerings in all classes. If anything is available, it'll probably be boxed, boring and sparse. Airport F&B options are also severely restricted because it's not profitable to open many outlets with so few people traveling. By the way, it's technically illegal (or, at a minimum, against airline rules) to bring your own booze and consume it in flight. If you bring a mini or two and are discreet, you probably won't get hassled. But maybe leave the magnum of bubbly or the quart bottle of vodka at home.

Desperate for your business, airlines have dramatically loosened their restrictions on changes and cancellations. Although the new rules vary by carrier, you can generally change flights without a fee until the end of the year if you purchase a ticket before the end of the month. Do check your preferred carrier's current rules before you fly, however.

Allow me to make one suggestion about lodging if you do get on the road: Reconsider your options. Your best bet these days? An extended-stay hotel that's fully equipped with a kitchen and dining area. Second-best option: Hotels that offer rooms kitted with a microwave and mini-fridge. Why? The simple reality is that many restaurants are closed or only offer take-out service. The extended-stay properties and other hotels with kitchen-like perks allow you the opportunity to store and reheat meals as you need. And if no decent dining options are available at least you can hit a market and buy what you need to assemble breakfast, a sandwich or a quick dinner salad.