What it’s like to fly with new pandemic guidelines: Heightened anxiety and not enough masks

“Aha! Put your mask on!” says the United Airlines flight attendant whom I’d asked, a few minutes earlier, if there was a reason he had his mask pulled down under his nose when boarding passengers.

Now he’s caught me with my mask down. I’d just torn through a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my seat as we waited for takeoff and had left my Rainforest Cafe–themed cloth mask dangling from my ears. As I heard someone approaching, I snapped it back into place, but it was too late to avoid his jab.

I never expected my trip from Dallas/Fort Worth to Newark on May 20 to be a day at the spa. It was my first flight since the airlines implemented new guidelines. But I was surprised by the lax compliance when it came to following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and company rules to wear masks and stay six feet away from others.

I was distressed by this at first, but as the day progressed, I was able to gain a deeper understanding of how difficult it is for ride-share drivers and airline and airport workers to do their jobs right now. Companies and government agencies involved with travel are changing the rules frequently to keep up with public health guidance. The burden of properly carrying out these policy changes lies with their employees, many of whom have stressful jobs in an industry that has been completely shaken up by the pandemic.

These concerns, though, were barely on my mind when I flew to Dallas on March 22. Back then, I believed that the novel coronavirus did not pose much of a threat to a healthy thirtysomething like myself. I was mostly concerned that I might infect my mom and her husband—both over 60—since I was flying to stay with them in the Dallas metro area. (After I started making a music video about isolation in my Brooklyn one-bedroom, I decided it might be smart to ride out the quarantine with other human beings.)

Back in March, basically no one was wearing a mask, including me. I didn’t even own one. Newark airport and the plane were essentially empty; some passengers behind me had to be moved to the back of the plane to balance its weight distribution. The trip was unremarkable.

For my flight this week, I spent ample time researching how safe it was to fly—reading about virus spread in enclosed spaces, HEPA filters, and airline policies on leaving empty seats between passengers. We called the airline to ask about that last one. Their response: We will try to keep a seat between you and others, but if the flight is booked up, we can’t guarantee it. Hoping to reduce that chance, my mom booked us all Economy Plus seats. A few days after making our reservations, I saw the viral picture of a packed United flight, which cranked my anxiety up a few more notches.

Little as we wanted to fly, we had to: I’m moving out of my apartment, and my mom and her husband are relocating to their home in the New York City area. So we decided we would pack our masks and do what we could to stay safe.

I prepare for other passengers to not be wearing masks and to brutally judge them for it. But I learn quickly there’s an even bigger issue: Not everyone working for organizations with COVID-19 safety policies is following them, starting with our Lyft driver who takes us to the airport. He’s not wearing a mask, a violation of the company’s standards.

By the time we pull up to the departures terminal, I’m angry, but I resolve not to say anything, to avoid making a scene. As the driver tries to help us unload our baggage—normally a kind gesture—I aggressively motion for him to stay back from us. He smiles awkwardly and steps away in surprise. I walk away feeling sad and unsure if I overreacted.

Entering the terminal, we find two unmasked United workers at baggage check. As my mom checks her bag, I ask one employee what United’s policy is regarding their employees wearing masks. 

“We have to, but my shift is over, and I’m leaving,” she responds. 

“I understand. And what about him?” I ask, pointing to the man checking my mom’s suitcase.

“You don’t have to wear one if there’s a shield between you and the customer.”

He is behind a shield, but he has to move to the side of it to weigh my mom’s bag and say something to her.

Once my mom’s bag is checked, we walk through a mostly empty terminal toward security. A woman stands at the entrance of TGI Fridays asking people if they want to come in for lunch, like a shop owner at a flea market. The Bubble presented by Coca-Cola, an open and very red lounge, is as empty as its name suggests. I feel more like I’m walking through a New Jersey shopping mall on a Monday afternoon than one of the most highly trafficked airports in the country.

The TSA agents working the checkpoints are all wearing masks, though four of them who enter alongside us are uncovered. But at this next stop on our journey, we encounter a new issue: social distancing. Fifteen or so TSA agents are pooled at the end of the checkpoint, talking to each other with far less than six feet of distance. One employee retrieves me to watch them search my bag since I forgot to take out my laptop. He stands and walks only about a foot away from me.

Once we’re on the plane, the situation feels safer. The flight attendants all wear masks throughout the flight. It looks like they’ve done their best to leave empty seats next to people traveling alone, including mine. The attendants do an admirable job maintaining a sense of normalcy in the cabin.

During the flight, I reflect on the start of our trip. I still feel that all the employees we interacted with should have been wearing masks, and I wonder whether companies are being strict enough in enforcing their safety policies. But I also can’t imagine what it’s like to have to work in a service position with a mask on every day. Even over the course of a three-and-a-half hour flight, there were several times I wanted to rip mine off and gulp in some fresh recirculated air. 

My trip was a crucial reminder that many people are doing their best at a time when we have so little reassurance and so much stress—every interaction is potentially a life or death situation. I nobly intended to wear my mask for the entire journey and help my mom and her husband stay as far away from others as possible. But after devouring two sandwiches at high speed—an action that was itself probably a stress response to our ride to the airport—and getting lost in my phone, I completely forgot about trying to keep myself and others safe. 

I’ve been fortunate to be able to work remotely without much shift in my day-to-day responsibilities, but even then, it’s been a major adjustment. So I can’t imagine how difficult it’s been for travel industry workers to make drastic changes on such a short timeline. At a time when social behavior and safety go hand in hand, we need to be patient with one another, and remember that we’re all still learning to get by in new and unfamiliar ways.

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