Women travellers on flying in the COVID Era

Featured Image: Air travel has signifcantly decreased, though there are those that still need – and want – to leave on a jet plane. Heading to the airport? You might not be prepared for what you encounter. / Photo credit: NaruFoto on Adobe Stock

JourneyWomen share their pandemic flight experiences & recommendations

Like so many post-lockdown firsts, my recent flight to Calgary through Toronto’s Pearson Airport felt surreal. It was my first flight since mid-March, when I flew home to Canada following a two-month travel adventure. I’d spent the last month of my trip solo in Bali, where I was largely insulated from international news. The sight of so many people wearing masks at the airport shocked me — masks weren’t being advised for people without symptoms back then. Still, there were distressingly few safety measures being undertaken at any of the airports I flew through on my way home. Not in Bali. Not in Taiwan. Only a single question upon my return to Toronto: Had you been to mainland China at any point since you left Canada?

On July 30, I strolled back into Pearson for the first time since I shuffled out of it on March 15. Back then, I was travel-weary, shellshocked, and a bit numb as I headed grudgingly into my post-travel quarantine cocoon. This time, I was flying out willingly for a hiking adventure with friends. But this was not the airport I once knew as well as my own neighbourhood.

My experience flying WestJet from YYZ to CGY

Pearson Airport was a ghost town. An eerily silent ghost town. On a Thursday afternoon in the high season. Cognitive dissonance. It was a level of surreal I’ve experienced only once before — the day I hauled my luggage for more than 10 city blocks in Manhattan to the Jersey ferry two days after 9/11. You read that right: I was in Manhattan on 9/11, and the CEO of the publishing company I worked for chartered a bus to get us stranded Canadians home. I trudged 10 deserted blocks at 5 am, each step ringing out in the eerie silence of New York at a standstill. On every block, a Marine with a machine gun stood vigil.

In 2001 and 2020 both, it felt as though I’d been thrust into an alternate universe. This time, I walked into the deserted airport and almost ran into the giant sanitizer dispenser blocking the automatic doors, reminding me in both official languages to sanitize my hands. I did. Another sign reminded me of my responsibility to wear a mask, while still more promoted enhanced cleaning standards, and physical distancing measures.

Even with the pre-security temperature check and sharing more conversation than I ever have with airport security staff, I breezed through security in record time. That left far too much time on the other side with very little to do. Only Tim Horton’s and Gateway Newstand outlets were open in the domestic terminal. I grabbed a tea and sat at an empty gate to drink it. My airport time is typically part of my travel experience. I love to wander and browse, particularly in unfamiliar airports overseas. There was no wandering and no browsing this time, by design and choice both.

At my gate, every second seat was x’d off with tape to promote physical distancing. The white noise of a near-silent gate buzzed in my ears like a swarm of bees. No happy pre-flight conversation as background noise. Just a mass of masked humans staring at one another wide-eyed and shifting uncomfortably where they sat or stood.

Boarding was slightly more orderly than usual. My friend Grant and I, as usual, waited until the last possible second to board. As we entered the aircraft, we were handed a disinfectant wipe to wipe down our chair table, touchscreen, and armrests.

Mask compliance in the terminal and on my WestJet flight was high. I heard the flight attendants instruct passengers to replace their masks a couple of times, with surrounding passengers serving serious cut-eye to the offenders. As direct as Canadian public shaming gets. Each one complied without argument. The flight was also eerily silent, but for the odd – and oddly welcome – cry of a baby.

I had an entire row to myself, which provided a modicum of comfort. I sat there, slowly broiling in my mask, my mind turning to our essential workers who have to spend entire shifts in them. Sending them a silent salute from the sky.

Deplaning was quicker, more orderly and more tense than usual. I always travel with carry-on only, so I didn’t need to brave the luggage carousel and sailed out of the airport and into an Uber swiftly and smoothly.

Will I fly again, with WestJet or another airline, any time soon? Absolutely. Will I enjoy the experience as much as I once did? Absolutely not. For the foreseeable future, air travel will be about the destination, not the journey.

I reached out to our JourneyWoman community to ferret out stories of recent flight experiences on different airlines in different countries. With slight variations to make things interesting and enlightening, each shared some common threads: Air travel isn’t what it used to be. Neither are we as travellers. Read on for a summary of experiences and some confidence-boosting recommendations from seasoned travellers for airports and airlines.

Flying in the COVID Era - Trust and Confidence Chart

Jeanne Marie B. – flying from Phoenix to St. Louis on American Airlines

Two weeks ago, Jeanne Marie flew one way from Phoenix to St. Louis to meet her husband and drive home with him. She cancelled her original flight on Southwest because the airline cancelled her flight and rebooked her in a nearly full plane with three connecting flights and long layovers. She ended up booking with American and got a direct flight with a middle-seats-empty guarantee.

The airport experience

“Everyone in the terminal wore masks, except for anyone eating. TSA was fast. People did a bare minimal job staying six feet apart. The boarding areas were very crowded. I stayed away from people, standing in a remote corner. Every seat in the boarding area had a person sitting in it. Airports need more seating and space between seats. The plane boarded in groups of ten. It was orderly and fast,” she says.

The flight experience

American Airlines

“I was uncomfortable with the flight experience overall. Travellers and staff were very quiet but nice. A few people boarding walked past me with noses sticking out of masks, and this definitely made me extremely uncomfortable. What went through my mind as I saw that: One person can transmit COVID-19 to 52 people in one hour,” Jeanne Marie says.

Voluntary safety precautions

“We are considering purchasing access to airport lounges in order to reduce exposure to crowded boarding areas. Flying first class on longer flights so we can board last and disembark first. We use only medical grade N95 masks and I suggest airlines hand them out to passengers. If I fly with my spouse, we try to fly in less full planes so the seat between us is empty,” she says. “I bring hand sanitizing wipes and wipe my seat, tray table and seatbelt. We bring our own food and beverages so the crew does not need to hand us anything or hover near us.”

“I will find flights at odd times that typically are less full. If it fills up, I will find another flight or cancel and find another airline. I like to fly on days that tend to be less crowded,” she says. “I will look for direct flights in the future, even changing travel days in order to do so. The fewer flights, the fewer airports, the less my exposure. If the airline is cost prohibitive, I will manage my time differently and drive my RV. I get good internet at KOA campgrounds and they are booking only 25% of their RV spaces to maintain social distancing.”

Current comfort and confidence level with air travel

“I will avoid it unless absolutely necessary. I purchased an RV so that I can travel with increased safety. I only get out to gas up,” she says. “I love flying. I normally fly round trip on average once every four weeks. I love cross-country and especially international travel. I cannot wait to resume my adventures.”

Rachel H. – flying from Amsterdam to Reykjavik on Icelandair

Rachel H. recently flew from The Netherlands to Iceland on Iceland Air. Some parts of the experience, like mandatory COVID tests upon arrival in Iceland, raised her confidence. Others raised her eyebrows.

The airport experience

“At Schiphol, masks are required. This seems an obvious rule, given that people pass through the airport from all over the world. What I saw at the airport, though, did not impress me with the level of concern about spreading the virus. I saw numerous airport employees without masks, or with masks that didn’t cover their noses,” Rachel says. “Waiting for security, every second line was marked with stickers on the floor indicating the 1½-meter distance required between people. The alternate lines, unmarked, were meant to stay empty. Yet we didn’t only use every second line. For part of the way, the ropes led us into adjoining lines. That meant that even if we were careful and kept 1.5 meters away from the people in front of us and behind us, we could have someone standing right next to us on either side. This completely undermines the whole concept of distancing.”

Rachel's Icelandair flight

Rachel’s experience on Icelandair was calm and reasonable, but if not for business, she won’t be flying anytime soon. / Photo credit: Rachel C.

The flight experience

Icelandair

“The flight was full, no service, no food, masks required. They loaded us row by row from the back and made everyone check carry-on bags. Almost everyone stayed in their seats the whole flight. At Reykjavik, everyone has to get tested. We had to wait in the plane a half hour or so because they were backed up. Then the wait was quite long, but the snaking lines were done properly,” she says. “We’d been told by email that we’d pay less for the test if we paid ahead, so we just needed to show proof of payment. Took the test, went to our hotel, and received our results within 12 hours. Iceland has a tracking app which I downloaded that sends me the stats every day: How many came in, how many tested positive on arrival, how many have been quarantined.”

“Both flights were calmer than usual. People stayed in their seats, so I didn’t get bumped as people walked down the aisle or have to get up to let anyone go to the toilet. And the airline only allowed us to take bags that would fit under the seats,” she says. “That didn’t stop people from sticking them in the overhead compartment, but there wasn’t the usual frantic feeling about finding a spot. It was generally quieter too; I suppose that was because it was hard to be heard through a mask.”

Current comfort and confidence level with air travel

“I have a work trip booked in October and I’ll go ahead and do it, but I don’t think I’ll fly just for a vacation again anytime soon,” Rachel says.

Willingness to pay for a COVID test following every flight, if option were available

“Absolutely yes. It’s not foolproof, of course, but it gave me a secure feeling not just to know that my results were negative, but also to know that anyone on my flight who tested positive would be put in quarantine immediately” she says. “It would be great if all airports did this for a while. It would raise prices considerably but would mean more people could travel and countries wouldn’t have to impose quarantines on everyone coming in.”

Voluntary safety precautions

“I brought disinfectant wipes for in the plane and a supply of masks so I could change masks if it got too damp. I also made sure to have cough drops with me on the flight. I get a cough sometimes on planes because the air is so dry, and I can imagine that my coughing would freak out other passengers,” says Rachel. “I did my best to stay distant from everyone, including during my whole trip in Iceland, and to use the hand disinfectant that was available whenever I entered or exited a café or restaurant.

Kathryn S. – flying from Stanstead to Istanbul SAW on Pegasus

Kathryn S. recently flew from London to Istanbul on Turkish airline Pegasus. While she felt as safe as anyone could in these times, what she missed most about the experience was sharing conversation with fellow passengers, especially those also flying solo. At a time when she was more curious than ever to hear people’s stories and see how they’re doing, she was hesitant to intrude on other travellers’ bubbles.

The airport experience

“Masks were required in the airport but not strictly enforced, though people did mostly adhere to social distancing in seating areas and restrooms. The airport has installed hand sanitation stations and mask vending machines. It was very quiet for a summer Friday, though the flight was 90% full,” says Kathryn.

“About a week after arriving in Istanbul, I met my brother and sister-in-law at the airport, and as I waited outside the doors for them, I felt like I was in the 2020 COVID version of Love, Actually,” she says. “It truly warmed my heart to see so many families reunited for the first time in months. Smiles and laughter mixed with tears and some very tight hugs.”

The flight experience

Pegasus

“Our temperatures were taken as we boarded. Only one small handbag was allowed in the cabin, but we could bring food and drink onboard and snacks were for sale. Before landing, we had to fill out a COVID form for Turkish immigration, listing our contact info and confirming no symptoms or exposure.”

“It was a fairly straightforward journey, but what I missed was the ability to converse with my fellow passengers. It’s hard to strike up a conversation through masks, especially with the noise of the plane,” she says. “I’m not usually a big talker, but this time I was so curious to know people’s stories! Where were they going, who were they visiting, how are they doing as humans in 2020?!? I was sitting across the aisle from a British woman who appeared to by flying alone, and I wish I’d had the courage to strike up a conversation. We were all cautiously navigating our first post-lockdown flights and, sensing a collective wariness, I was hesitant to intrude on anyone’s bubble. Now that I have my first flight under my belt, if I were seated next to a solo female traveler on my next flight, I wouldn’t hold myself back from asking whether she was open to conversation.”

Current comfort and confidence level with air travel

“I don’t have any more international travel plans at the moment, and I am unlikely to plan a purely pleasure trip for a while. In Turkey, I’ve been able to combine non-urgent medical care, family, friends, R&R and business,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have been able to spend a month here, and definitely foresee longer, slower travel as my schedule allows. Turkey has an excellent healthcare system and low COVID rates (and the UK doesn’t require quarantine upon return). I also have a local network here to help if needed; I’d be more hesitant otherwise.”

“In the wake of the Beirut explosion, I came across a quote from an avid golfer in the 1980’s, in the midst of Lebanon’s civil war: I know I am crazy to do it, but I would be even crazier if I didn’t. That pretty much sums up my thoughts about travel right now.”

Willingness to pay for a COVID test following every flight, if option were available

“I would be willing to pay up to ~$100 USD for a test before traveling out of my country of residence in order to avoid inadvertently spreading the virus,” Kathryn says.

Empty departure area for Kathryn's flight

Empty departures area at Stanstead / Photo credit: Kathryn S.

Mask dispenser in airport
SSanitizing stations at Stantead

Stanstead Airport puts safety first with mask dispensers and sanitization stations. / Photo credit: Kathryn S.

Voluntary safety precautions

“I wore a mask the whole flight (as mandated) except to drink some water – I’m not eager to eat on a flight yet even though it was permitted to do so on mine,” she says. “Lots of hand sanitizer! In the future, I may consider covering my eyes with glasses or a face shield for extra protection. And of course, I wouldn’t travel if I had any symptoms or had been potentially exposed to anyone with the virus.”

Shawna Robins – flying from LAX to Idaho on United

JourneyWoman Travel Advisory Council member and sleep expert Shawna Robins recently flew from Los Angeles to Idaho on United Airlines and found the entire process easy and pleasant. Check out her pre- and post-flight safety precautions, which include some immune system-boosting measures.

The airport experience

“LAX was very quiet. We parked at a local Hilton hotel and rode the shuttle over. The driver was very nice,” she says. “Everyone had masks on. Check in was easy, no lines at security. We went to the United Club, got coffee and used the wifi. Not many restaurants open for food at LAX.”

The flight experience

United

“There was plenty of room on the airplane to social distance, the flight attendants were nice and relaxed. Everything was just easy and lovely. Masks were worn the entire flight. There were no in-flight snacks, only bottled water. I wish travel was always like this!” she says. “We were told about cleaning, no food on board, requirement to wear masks for the entire flight with exceptions for kids under the age of two. The flight attendants gave us anti-bacterial wipes to wipe down our area, people kept to themselves mostly. Everyone was relaxed and friendly.”

Current comfort and confidence level with air travel

“It felt so amazing to be back on an airplane – I feel whole again!” says Shawna.

Willingness to pay for a COVID test following every flight, if option were available

“YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Voluntary safety precautions

“We took tons of supplements beforehand and after – elderberry, zinc, liposomal Vitamin C, essential oils – and used hand sanitizer, washed our hands after the flight, drank lots of water, and got good sleep,” she says.

What more can be done by airports and airlines to raise traveller comfort and confidence

Airports

Better physical distancing & signage

“American could have done more to manage the seating in their area of the terminal with increased safety. Bringing in chairs to spread people out further in the American seating area in the terminal would be a good start. C-19 is spread more by droplets than anything else. Distancing is imperative to safety.” – Jeanne Marie

 “I think more dividers, Xs on floors, and signage is needed in TSA lives to remind folks to keep their distance. More seating, spaced further apart in boarding areas. Family seating areas for groups would be nice. – Jeanne Marie

 “Monitors in the airport to ensure folks wear masks and wear them correctly. Hand out better-quality masks to the bandana and lace mask wearers.” – Jeanne Marie

“Better signage and more (louder) announcements about new in-flight rules, like keeping masks on correctly.” – Jeanne Marie

Airlines

Separation and sanitization

“Another thing that would help, I think, would be to have sheets of plastic separating seats or separating rows between family groups. That wouldn’t be too hard to arrange. I wiped down the tray table and armrests and seat belt at my seat on each flight. It would be nice if airlines provided the wipes to do that.” – Rachel H.

“As far as safety, I’m comforted that airplane air filtering systems are on par with hospitals’. And while I assume and hope they clean everything between flights, it would have been nice for the airline to leave us wipes for our seats/trays just to confirm.” – Kathryn S.

“The risk will never be 0, but I believe it’s a very personal decision of whether to venture out – in my case, balancing my physical and mental wellbeing. For me, a change of scenery and quality time with loved ones is worth the risk.” – Kathryn S.

COVID testing and contact tracing

“We were all tested at the airport, and the ones who tested positive were then given an antibody test as well. If they had antibodies and no symptoms, they were allowed out of quarantine. We were also all urged to download a tracking app so they would be able to let us know as we traveled around the country if we came in contact with someone who turned out later to have the virus. A system like that makes a lot of sense. It would be better if the app was required, rather than just recommended.” – Rachel H.

Both airports & airlines

Masks & mask enforcement

“Real masks, not a bandana is required. Handing out medical grade masks as you board would be optimal to ensuring each passenger is wearing optimal protection. Many masks people buy are truly minimal in protection.” – Jeanne Marie

“I was not happy on the way back from Reykjavik to Amsterdam with the lack of strictness about masks in the Reykjavik Airport or in Schiphol Airport. There were two passengers that I saw who took off their masks at the gate in Reykjavik and while I didn’t see them on the plane, I assume they did it there as well. Then I saw them with their masks off in Schiphol as well. They simply should not be allowed on the plane if they can’t even wear a mask in the airport, but no one said anything to them at either airport.” – Rachel H.

“Staff monitoring and enforcing masks at front, middle and back of plane and during flights would help. Also, the flight crew huddled at the stations. They were not confident about the situation, either. I would suggest two larger seats per row with a shielding wall between seats. Every other row seating. Better ventilation. Boarding back to front in order. First class last on, first off. But realistically – a vaccine! – Jeanne Marie

The bottom line

Air travel has changed. Some of the changes are welcome, while we miss other aspects of the experience. Airports and airlines alike are doing their level best to navigate a tricky and evolving situation.

Can more be done to boost traveller confidence? Absolutely. But for the most part, the women travellers we interviewed have a positive view of air travel and are willing to take whatever precautions they need to themselves to feel more comfortable with the experience.

Whether you have a planned trip coming up, for business or pleasure – or if you are delaying all travel until you feel safe to do so – we hope these stories offer you some practical insights into a world we all miss and may never experience in quite the same way again.

Amanda Burgess

Amanda Burgess is a Toronto-based writer and creative strategist whose bags are always packed for her next adventure; co-founder of the Sharyn Mandel School in Gobele, Ethiopia; and Acting Editor of Journeywoman. Follow her and her adventures on Instagram @unshakeable.me.

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2 Comments

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    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Journeywoman for this month. I’ve followed Evelyn for a few years and was sad to hear of her passing, but so pleased to see someone else taking up the reins. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
    • JourneyWoman

      thank you Cynthia! We love every moment and your positive feedback means the world to us! Carolyn

      Reply

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