A Few of Us, Finally,
Are Flying Again
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2020 -- Nineteen years ago, on the day after 9/11, I wrote a column assuring the world--and myself--that we would fly again.

Today, I write a column celebrating the few of us who are now flying even as we remain in the grip of the Coronavirus, a pandemic most of the rest of the developed world has largely conquered.

I find that a bitter irony and, honestly, I am not in the mood for bitter irony on this day before 9/11. I spit on bitter irony. I curse bitter irony. I shake my fist at bitter irony.

And, yet, bitter irony is what it is. So few of us are traveling that I have to write about them as if they are odd and curious adventurers.

We all will fly again. Eventually, I guess. But bitter irony sucks. Those of us who carry the mark of 9/11 on our souls really deserve better.

A Chicago-based JoeSentMe member flew twice to Los Angeles and once to Las Vegas in recent weeks and what struck him was the enforcement of the in-flight mask mandate. "We flew American up front," he told me. "I was uncomfortable in the waiting area because there were a couple dozen people with no masks or masks not covering their nose." Onboard, he was in the first or second row and watched flight attendants laboring to make sure passengers wore their mask--and wore them properly. There were dozens attempting to evade or inadvertently evading the rules. "Of the six legs, this crew was diligent about enforcing rules" on five. "The sixth leg, from Vegas to ORD, the crew didn't give a shit," he said. One [flight attendant] was wearing his mask incorrectly and the guy across the aisle from me never pulled his up."

How you feel about flying clearly depends on when you fly. The loads are about 30 percent of last year's volume. But if you happened to fly on two of the busiest days since the pandemic began--the Thursday before and Labor Day--it might not seem all that different than the before time. "We flew from Charlotte to Portland [Maine] and planes were full. Needed volunteers," one member told me. "So far, I still have my sense of smell. But not gonna do it again for a while."

After the death of his partner, a Las Vegas-based doctor has commuted to Tennessee every week to cover his clinics there. "I fly in and out of TRI [Blountville] and TYS [Knoxville] via Atlanta," he said. "I've found the Delta Air Lines flights excellent and roomy. First class is not necessary with Comfort+ having a seat between passengers. The food and drink leave a lot to be desired (no G+Ts), but doing it this way is less risky for staff and passengers. Since I am using small airports, getting through them is very easy. I left my laptop on the plane when I arrived in TRI on Monday and the gate agent (whom I know well) had me paged before I even left the building. What service!"

It will take a while before most of us will see a meeting or convention again, but a Washington-based JoeSentMe member recently had to venture to a seaside Georgia resort for a conference. "They did a decent job of enforcing some safety protocols," the member explained. "We all had to fill out a health survey every morning and then get a temperature check. Once that was done, we got a wristband each day that allowed access to the meeting." Attendance was limited--200 instead of the usual 500--and "the chairs in the discussion sessions were at least six feet apart in all directions." Masks were required at all times and no coffee service was available. Only bottled water was served. "The only thing the meeting planners didn't have control over was the after-dinner casual meetings at the bar," the member noted. "No one wore masks once they ordered their first drink. Even here though, I noticed that more people were willing to sit outside in very humid weather rather than inside with AC."

"It's no kidding that it's mostly leisure travel and not frequent flyers," an Alaska-based member told me after an Anchorage-Seattle-Pittsburgh-Seattle-Anchorage roundtrip. "On the PIT-to-SEA leg, I was the only one on the upgrade list." The food? "I was in first for all the legs. Alaska Airlines' Fruit and Cheese Plate was served in the box it's always in. No other choice. Not much of a liquor list, so I opted for wine, which was Lil' Rascal in a can, with a plastic cup." In Pittsburgh, "the Priority Pass club was open, but it closes [early] since there is so little traffic." How did the mask mandate go? "The gate agents and flight attendants were vigilant about passengers wearing masks. I didn't hear one sneeze or cough. I guess no one wanted to be looked at askance."

A JoeSentMe member who'd been off the road since late February had several flights last month and the experiences were middling. But then there was the Southwest Airlines flight out of St. Louis. "A young woman plops down [in the aisle seat] and unmasks as she continues a face time call with her boyfriend," the member said. "I ask her to cover--nicely--and she pulls the mask up, then pulls it down because her boyfriend [objected]. At this point I pull out a face shield and try to ignore her." After the call, the member explained, "she pulls up her mask, but pulls it down or off her nose multiple times. Asked her again to use it. She jumps out of her seat at cruising altitude and I don't see her for a while. She returns on descent. Expresses her distress at needing a smoke. A-ha. Hinky. I think it must be tough for flight attendants to be the mask police."