What it’s Like to Fly Through the World’s Busiest Airport During the Covid-19 Pandemic

As an aviation geek, the thrill of flying never wears off for me. I love the sound of the jet engines revving up to thrust the plane down the runway. I love the slight G-force felt upon ascension, and shifting my perspective on the world as everything at once becomes small yet also big.  To this day, I still find it mind-boggling that we as humans can hurl ourselves through the air at over 500 MPH in a metal tube and arrive in a foreign land in a matter of hours. The whole experience still mystifies me.

Like the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought my travels to a screeching halt. As an avid traveler, I’ve missed so many aspects of the travel experience, including flying and even going to the airport (yes, really). While I’ve dreamed of planning many far-flung adventures during the lock-down period, my better judgement has prevented me from actually booking any of those trips just yet.  However, a need popped up for me to take a quick flight from Atlanta to Orlando in June so I excitedly booked my flight and burned through some of that flight credit I now have from several canceled trips.

The Airport Experience

My home base is Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (ATL), which has been consistently billed as the world’s busiest airport since 1998 (2019 passenger traffic count was 110.5 million passengers). For as long as I have been flying, ATL has always been harried with passengers rushing to catch connecting flights, yet always runs as a very efficient and relatively smooth operation. Since the world has been turned upside down with the COVID-19 pandemic, I was eager to see what exactly the epicenter of commercial aviation would look like in this brave new world. As such, I set out to document my experience and provide a preview of what flying may look like for the foreseeable future.

Airport Arrival

Upon arrival at the airport, the first thing I noticed was how incredibly close I was able to park. The parking lot appeared rather empty, setting an expectation for me that the airport would likely be a ghost town. However, I was surprised to find standard-size queues of passengers waiting to check baggage. Fortunately, most travelers were masked (about 80%), and most people respected the 6 foot social distancing requests. There were plentiful hand sanitizer stations located throughout the airport as well. However, I was grateful to not have to check a bag and skipped right through the ticketing counters and on to security.

I’ve read mixed reports that security lines can be long with reduced TSA staff. However, this was not my experience for an early morning flight. I breezed through pre-check security in about 10 minutes, which is about 5-10 minutes less time than usual. Throughout the security process, most other passengers respected the 6 feet of distance mandate.

Scroll through the photos below for glimpse of the arrival experience.

The Terminal Experience

Once I started to enter the passenger terminals, things started to feel weird. I was reminded of scene from the Stephen King’s made-for-TV movie, The Langnoliers.  There is a scene where the passengers land a half-filled plane at an airport, only to find that everyone in the world has seemingly vanished. They traipse through an empty airport terminal with zero signs of human life.  As I went throughout the post-COVID airport experience, I was eerily reminded of that scene time and time again. Terminal T was roped off. Terminal B was completely shuttered. And although Terminal F (International) was open, it was a shell of its former self. Even the trams to travel between terminals were empty. The silver lining to all of this emptiness was that I actually felt relatively safe in the terminals; once past security, social distancing was a breeze given the amount of space to spread out and lack of crowds.

Scroll through the photos below for a glimpse of the nearly empty terminals.

Pro Tip: Given that food places may not be open, I highly suggest packing your own meals with you

The Delta Sky Club Experience

I’ve never been so grateful to have access to the Delta Sky Club as I was on this particular morning. All of the food outlets were closed in my departing terminal (Terminal F), and the Delta Sky Club felt like a calming oasis compared to the unsettling stillness of the terminal. The Sky Club was empty as I expected, but I was pleased to see a varied selection of individually-packaged foods I could turn into a meal. I was also elated to see that the Sky Club still had a self-service coffee machine active, so I was able to grab my standard pre-flight cappuccino. As Delta is only operating a fraction of the available Sky Club’s right now, I highly suggest checking their list of open Sky Clubs so you can plan accordingly.

Scroll through the photos below to view the mostly-empty Delta Sky Club.

The In-Flight Experience

The boarding process for Delta has completely changed, and not necessarily in a bad way. Gone are the days of everyone clamoring at the gate, vying to be the first to board. In the pre-COVID era, travelers with the Skymiles status board first, but with COVID-19, all of that is out the window. The new way of boarding is by row, which simplifies the process. The aircraft now boards from the rear forward, about 10 rows at time. Since middle seats are blocked, there is ample room overhead for luggage. Because of the smaller boarding clusters, the jet way is also less crowded (passengers kept to the 6ft rule). I actually welcomed this change, even though I’m a Delta Skymiles Platinum member; there was less jockeying to be the first in line.

Upon boarding, you’re greeted by a masked flight attendant and given a single-use sanitation wipe to clean your seat area. This is a helpful extra step on top of all the Delta cleaning initiatives the airline is already doing. While I had no lingering concern about any contaminated surfaces within my ‘bubble’, I did have a lingering concern about my proximity to other passengers. I quickly counted 6 passengers that were within arms-reach, despite having an empty middle seat. The seats in front of me, behind me, and across the aisle from me were all occupied. Being in close proximity to other passengers was by far the most unnerving part. However, this did encourage me to keep my guard up the entire flight, using hand sanitizer religiously. For a moment I actually wished I had one of those unsightly (but apparently effective) face shields.

This is when the reality of the ‘new normal’ began to sink in for me. Flying with a mask on the entire time is not pleasant. Aside from the general discomfort, what happens when you become hungry or thirsty? I decided to go for maximum protection, and would only remove my mask for a brief moment to take a sip of water (I even went so far as held my breath during this process). It was not easy, and I was grateful that my flight was just one hour. I pondered how uncomfortable an overseas flight would be in this circumstance, no matter how cushy or comfortable the seat and service might be. Additionally, just because all passengers are required to wear a mask for boarding, it does not mean they keep them on the entire flight. I noticed at some point before landing that the other passenger in my immediate row (window seat) was no longer wearing his mask. I have no idea how much of the flight he actually had it on, and it was a stark reminder that you cannot control all of the risk factors surrounding you despite your best efforts. This is what made the experience still unnerving despite all of the cleanliness efforts.

Scroll through the photos to see my Delta in-flight experience.

Arrival

The silver lining to the flying experience is that with fewer passengers, every thing moves a bit faster. This includes deplaning, which went fairly quickly. Upon entering the terminal at Orlando International Airport (MCO), I was greeted by a similarly empty airport terminal devoid of passenger traffic. Most food outlets and shops here were closed as well, including the Delta Sky Club.

Scroll through the photos to see a barren Orlando International Airport.

Reflections

As much as I still enjoy the thrill of flying and dream daily about my next international trip (think of all the deals!), I think flying will be highly uncomfortable for the foreseeable future. The primary challenge is that it’s nearly impossible to socially distance from other passengers on the aircraft. Using the mask helps to minimize risk, but it certainly is not foolproof. Additionally, not all passengers will be 100% compliant all the time. This is the unfortunate reality that I can’t escape during this pandemic, no matter how much I want to. Even though the airport process felt safe (there are fewer passengers and plenty of space to spread out), the aircraft itself is still just a small metal tube hurling through the air, filled with many people that may or may not have COVID-19. Until that risk can somehow be mitigated, I plan to minimize air travel as much as possible. But all hope is not lost when it comes to planning travel in the near future: there are still plenty parts of America for us to explore on future road trips!

My oldest daughter as my co-pilot for the ride back to ATL.

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