Over the last decade, I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional time on the road, sometimes for weeks at a time. I’ve also done the “five cities in three days” shuffle, which isn’t my favorite but can be a fun challenge. I haven’t been on a plane since March 3rd of this year, which seems strange when you’re used to traveling all the time. I had over a dozen trips booked when COVID reared its ugly head, and until this week wasn’t sure when I’d fly again. COVID or not, I was called back into duty this week and traveled to help a friend in need. Now that I’ve dipped my toe in the travel waters, I’ll share what I learned for any healthcare IT road warriors who might be called back into service.
I’ll admit that as I got ready, I had forgotten some of my travel routines. I had to make a point of going through all of my things to make sure I had what I needed. Since I rarely go anywhere but work, I rarely have more than $20 in my wallet, so I had to restock that. I also had to find my airport parking card, which luckily was in the coffee mug on the kitchen counter where I left it, along with some random gift cards that I’m not sure I’ll ever use. I also realized I didn’t remember how to use my iPod, which was pretty embarrassing, although I did figure it out before I had to visit the Apple support website. (Yes, I still use an iPod for music, because I don’t want to drain my phone battery, and it fits in a shirt pocket on the plane so it’s one less thing to have in your hands.)
The parking shuttle had seats clearly marked with bright yellow “don’t sit here” signs, and the other folks on the bus with me were playing along. However, I failed to notice the sign on the parking garage’s lobby that said I’d have to call for a pickup when I arrived back, which came to haunt me later. Now I know, but it seems like they should have had that signage on the bus and not just on the building. The garage has eliminated valet parking and I’d estimate that less than 10% of spaces were in use.
The terminal lobby was fairly busy, with security looking pretty “normal” for the time of day I was traveling, although the TSA Precheck line was empty. The whole Precheck process at my departure airport was unchanged, except for the TSA agent making me lower my mask briefly while she checked my ID. I’m glad I didn’t have my N95 on at the time because that would have been a production. They did have a hand sanitizer dispenser at the end of the security screening area where people organize their things, but there was a group of people standing in front of it, which wasn’t ideal. Fortunately, I had three different kinds in my bag, so a quick spritz and I was on my way.
The volumes are low enough at my airport that Southwest Airlines was only using every other gate, and they had a funny stream of rotating messages at the empty ones. That allowed travelers to spread out in the gate areas, which were the only places to sit because the seating areas at the takeout restaurants had been removed in favor of stickers on the floor for people to stand in line. Only one of the bar/restaurants was open and it had reduced seating. Less than half of the newsstand/snack places were open, which led to some lines that were not very socially distanced, and only one of two Starbucks locations was open. Bottom line, if you’re going to travel, you should bring your own snacks just in case.
There seemed to be a lot of families traveling (even a few groups with shirts and accessories that marked them as obviously Disney-bound) along with a sports team, which was kind of surprising. I saw very few solo travelers, which tells me there weren’t a lot of business types, unless they were taking their family in tow. Very few people had roller bags or hand luggage, which was a change from what I usually see.
I did notice that the Benefit makeup kiosk had been replaced by one selling personal hygiene products including hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes, and masks. Speaking of masks, I saw entirely too many adults with masks off, most were eating and drinking coffee but were unmasked for an extended period of time. I saw no children with bad mask habits, and even the teenagers were doing pretty well. The boarding process was good with Southwest only boarding 10 people at a time and only on one side of their usual line-up area, so we were well-spaced. They are still serving snacks and water, but nothing else, and the seat back pockets are empty except for the safety information cards. Southwest is only booking 2/3 of the flight so that middle seats can remain open, and I had the emergency exit row to myself.
I landed at Dallas Love Field and was the only person on the rental car shuttle, and it took me a minute to realize that the shuttles had been combined for National, Enterprise, and Alamo, and that all three vendors were operating out of the same building. There were exactly three available cars on the giant (but empty) lot and with two of them I could smell smoke through my mask, so those were a big nope. The traffic on the Dallas North Tollway was every bit as wild as it usually is, so at least there was a small bit of the trip that was consistent with the “old normal.”
When it was time to head home, I was screened at the rental car drop off and asked if I or anyone I had been in contact with on the trip had been tested for COVID or had a positive result return. I wonder how many people actually say yes to that? Since I was on the ground for less than eight hours, it was a resounding no for me. The rental shuttle back to the terminal was also serving as a shuttle for airport staff, who weren’t great about masking until they actually stepped onto the bus. The shuttle was packed, which wasn’t great.
Security at Love Field was nearly empty for my return trip, although I did have one of the last flights of the day scheduled. The DAL TSA procedure was a little different, with the TSA agents in glass booths with louvered speaking openings (kind of like a movie theater ticket booth). They wanted the passenger to put their boarding pass on the scanner but wanted to personally handle the ID, which was different from my earlier flight. Also, all the TSA agents working the scanners and x-ray machines were wearing face shields.
I did see a few passengers with face shields in Dallas, and the mask wearing there was pretty solid. The terminal at Love Field was much busier than the one at home, and the food court was fully open although seating was reduced by about half. Many of the newsstands and carry outs were closed, including my favorite gelato one, but fortunately I still had trail mix. My flight was delayed by a medical issue on the incoming plane, which the folks from Dallas Fire and Rescue handled quickly. The flight only had 50 ticketed passengers on a plane that seats somewhere near 170, and they actually made people space out for weight and balance. Only two of six emergency rows had people in them, so once again I had all the legroom. Only about one passenger in five had luggage for the overhead bin.
Deplaning was another issue entirely, as people raced up the aisle as soon as the seatbelt sign turned off, crowding up in the front of the plane. It was easy to avoid by staying in my seat, and the flight attendants were pretty aggravated and made people back up right away. All services in the airport were closed by the time we arrived, and then my failure to notice the “call for pickup” sign at the parking garage bit me. It was a decent night to sit outside and wait for one to come, which fortunately happened sooner than later.
Knowing that I traveled, lots of people have asked whether I thought it was safe and whether I’d do it again. I was very comfortable with the spacing on the plane, but I know other airlines aren’t doing it as reliably as Southwest. In deciding to make this trip it was a calculated risk, and given the circumstances was worth making. I’m not sure I’d be as crazy about leisure travel though or having to do it under more crowded conditions. I’m scheduled for another flight next month, so we’ll have to see what things look like then.
Have you done any business travel recently? What did you think? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.