You’re not just imagining that the sky overhead is quieter. Empty airports, parked aircraft and sharply reduced flight schedules show just how severely the pandemic has affected air travel in the United States. Passenger numbers from the Transportation Security Administration are even further proof. On Tuesday, the TSA screened just 110,913 people, a 95% decrease from the same day last year.
But as airplanes continue to fly across the country, airlines are changing the travel experience for the fewer people aboard. It starts at the airport, where frontline employees are wearing masks and some check-in kiosks are gone to give people more space. You’re likely to scan your own boarding pass at the gate, and to further encourage social distancing, most carriers are boarding passengers in smaller groups, starting with those seated in the back (sorry first-class flyers). Food and drink onboard, if you get it (more on that below), is likely to be served in single use containers, with bottled water largely the beverage of choice. And that hot-towel service? Don’t even ask for it.
Other precautions after takeoff vary by carrier. All the airlines I contacted say they’ve instituted deeper aircraft cleaning procedures between flights, such as wiping tray tables and overhead bin handles and “fogging” cabins with disinfectant. They’re also limiting upgrade options and are blocking some seats to keep passengers apart. Policies about masks, however, vary more widely. At the time of this writing, only JetBlue is mandating them for both crew and passengers. Other carriers are simply encouraging masks for passengers, and a couple are even providing them. But as the pandemic drags on, I wager that’ll change.
- Beginning May 1, flight attendants will be required to wear masks.
- Also in early May, the airlines will distribute sanitizing wipes and face masks to passengers. Though wearing the masks isn’t currently required, a spokeswoman said the airline is considering such a mandate.
- Most middle seats on flights, and those near flight attendant jump seats, are now blocked.
- Onboard food and drink service has been reduced and some airport lounges are closed.
- All employees regardless of role are required to wear masks.
- Passengers aren’t mandated to do so, but they’re strongly encouraged.
- Every other row of seats will be blocked on all flights through at least early May.
- Cabin crew members are required to wear masks.
- Starting May 4, passengers also will be required to wear face masks, beginning at check-in. A spokesman said that a small number of masks will be available for passengers who don’t bring their own.
- The number of available seats on all flights will be limited.
- There’ll be fewer food and beverage options.
- There are no mask requirements for flight attendants or passengers.
- Disposable sanitizing wipes are available on board transpacific and intra-Hawaii flights.
- Some airport lounges are closed.
- A spokesman says the airline “will soon launch updated seat maps with seat blocks specifically designed to maintain social distancing onboard.”
- All in-flight snack and drink service is currently suspended.
- Flight attendants and passengers aren’t required to wear masks, but they’re encouraged to do so.
- Though the airline isn’t adapting its open seating policy to block any seats, a spokesman said that because Southwest’s flights are now only about 6% full, passengers have room to social distance.