When I think back to last March, flying home New Zealand with a brief pit stop for some work in Las Vegas definitely didn’t seem normal When I was on the tarmac in Auckland waiting to take-off, the United States closed the borders to anyone arriving from Europe. That seemed pretty serious at the time. Still, I told my wife I was coming home and would probably be off the road for four or five weeks. 14 months later and fully vaccinated, I got back on the road last week with my first work trip in over a year. Sure, there were some camping trips. But, other than a quick visit to pick someone up earlier this year, I hadn’t even stepped foot in an airport. I decided to put together a quick summary of my flights this past week. As with most things I write, it didn’t end up being a quick summary. It’s a bit lengthy but should give you a good impression of what my trip was like.
Planning My First Flight In 14 Months
As I started checking into flights, I got a first-hand look at how much airline schedules have changed. While I’m sure business travel will influence schedules in the future, today’s schedules are geared towards leisure travelers. Or, in some cases they’re just geared to what the airlines can operate cheaply, since leisure travelers generally care about flight times a lot less than business travelers.
I had some decisions to make based on those schedule changes. If I took the earliest nonstop flight out of IAD (my home airport) to Las Vegas, I wouldn’t arrive until the afternoon. That’s what lead me to start thinking about a Delta status run. They had multiple connecting options and I’ve been curious for a while if the grass is truly greener in Delta land versus United town.
Due to some personal commitments I ended up choosing a Delta connecting flight for my outbound to Las Vegas. I would be flying IAD-ATL in the evening and spending the night in Atlanta. Then, I would take the first flight of the morning to Las Vegas. United had a nonstop option that would work for my return. Delta is running a pretty aggressive status acceleration promotion right now, so I ended up earning a boatload of MQMs (Delta’s version of elite qualifying miles) for my flights.
First Flight Experience
I am firmly in the camp that believes masks are an effective deterrent to the spread of COVID-19. Still, I wasn’t looking forward to wearing a mask for long periods of time. It’s not just flight time, a mask is required as soon as you enter the airport. I arrived at Washington-Dulles Airport about 90 minutes prior to my departure. I didn’t need nearly that much time, but I was curious what the airport would look like. It is important to note that United Airlines has adopted an interesting scheduling practice, essentially eliminating the nighttime bank of flights from a number of airports (including both IAD and LAS). I expected, and found, a mostly empty airport. Security was completely empty when I arrived.
Once I was through security I walked around the concourses. It was clear there were many stores that hadn’t reopened, along with a slew that closed before the final flights of the night. Walking the entire A and B concourse, I found two newsstands and Wendy’s open. Everything else was closed. Hummus was the choice for dinner over Wendy’s.
Our Delta flight to Atlanta was mostly “full”, in that Delta was still blocking middle seats that day. There were a handful of empty rows. We boarded quickly and pushed back from the gate. And waited. Then, waited some more. After almost 14 months since my most recent flight, it was only fitting to have a mechanical delay. Still, the Delta crew was super friendly and kept us well-informed. They offered us drinks twice in the 45 minutes we were delayed. And, I’m not sure we ever went more than five minutes or so without an update from the captain. I’m a road warrior so I’ve seen my fair share of delays. Maybe it was the humor the captain shared every time he updated us, but I just didn’t feel that stressed out (other than the additional time wearing a mask) about the delay. All told, we were delayed just shy of an hour but had an otherwise uneventful flight.
Along with the way the crew expertly handled the delay, I had one “whoa” moment. One of the flight attendants approached me during the flight to thank me for my status (I had made it to Platinum by that point, IIRC) and noted that it had been over a year since I’d flown on Delta. She asked if this was my first flight back in the air since the start of the pandemic. We had a quick chat about the state of the industry and what it was like for her to work all day in a mask and deal with stressed out passengers.
I’ve been a road warrior for over a decade. Some years that meant 100 individual flights. Every year (with the exception of 2020) found me on at least 50 flights. I’ve sat in virtually every type of seat, eaten hundreds of airline meals, sat in dozens of lounges and interacted with thousands of airline employees. After a while, the interactions start to blend together. The food looks different but tastes the same. And, the employee interactions take on a sameness. It’s not that the employees are faking it. But, when you hear the same line over and over again (and you can generally hear it when the flight attendant is talking to the person in front of you, or right beside you) it just becomes less genuine, almost robotic.
This interaction was different. The flight attendant was actively engaged in the conversation. She wasn’t checking a box and trying to hurry on to the next row. The airline had given her a couple bits of information about me, and she was using that to connect with me. This conversation stands out as I sit here typing this a few days after my trip mostly because everything else was pretty much as expected, except for one humorous moment on my United flight (we’ll get to that in a bit).
When we landed in Atlanta at around 10:45pm I was expecting the terminal to be empty. To the contrary, it was much busier than IAD. From a quick check of the departures board there didn’t appear to be any weather events that delayed flights. Delta just appears to be running a later bank of flights than United. It’s possible United has later flights at other hubs, but I also noted that flights out of Las Vegas to other United hubs left earlier than those of their competitors.
From the time I entered Dulles Airport until the time I reached my airport hotel room in Atlanta, I wore a mask nonstop for about five hours. It wasn’t horrible, but it was in no way pleasant. While I’ve worn masks for longer periods of time there’s generally the chance to “step outside” and catch a breath without your mask on. That’s a bit more troublesome at 30,000 feet.
From Atlanta To Vegas
The flight to Vegas was obviously longer than my first flight. Blocked at about 4.5 hours of actual flight time, I was in a mask for just over seven hours from the time I entered ATL until I walked outside at LAS to catch the rental car shuttle. I got to the airport earlier than normal because I wanted to get a sense for what it was like. I also expected to wait much longer than normal to find food based on recent stories from other travelers. At 6am, things were already hopping.
My flight departed out of the F concourse. For those unfamiliar with Atlanta Airport, that’s a pretty good hike from the terminal entrance. The terminal was pretty crowded when I entered. The main line for security stretched further than I can ever recall, though I chalked that up to social distancing in the line. I headed towards TSA PreCheck and it became clear the wait was longer I expected. Even with social distancing, there were well over 100 people waiting in the PreCheck line. I headed to the Clear line where there were only three people in front of me. It seemed like there were a total of three checkpoints open for PreCheck folks, with one pretty much dedicated to Clear customers. These checkpoints all had the streamlined stations that allow four or five people to prep their luggage for scanning at the same time. That may mean the lines were shorter than I thought. Still, if you’re headed to Atlanta for a flight anytime soon, I wouldn’t expect to get through security quickly.
Once I was through security the terminal was fairly crowded. Even though I’m vaccinated it still feels weird to be in a crowd. And, there’s some level of risk to catching COVID even after vaccination, though it’s highly unlikely. For those reasons, I chose to walk through the underground tunnel to my gate rather than hop on a crowded train. I popped my head up in the C Concourse to grab an adapter I needed for my flight that I had left at home. The breakfast choices in that concourse were limited with longer lines. I decided to check out the D Concourse instead. Those lines were even longer. Einstein Brothers looked like a pack of teenagers trying to get Taylor Swift tickets. And, some choices like Five Guys and Auntie Anne’s weren’t open. This was a consistent theme.
As I approached the E Concourse, I took a look at the food court. McDonald’s had the shortest line but it was still brutal. I stood in line for about 10 minutes and then decided to look for another option. That’s when I noticed there appeared to be a grand total of two employees working at McDonald’s. Between the lack of choices and the lack of staffing, it’s not surprising that getting food turned out to be a chore.
The only place without a line was one of the newsstands. A quick scan of the selections and I settled on some hummus for breakfast. I bought a pack of beef jerky and peanut butter crackers for later in the day. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of food on the flight. When I got to the F Concourse, the food situation was similar. Hudson News was the only viable option.
A Premium Cabin Widebody Experience, Minus The Experience
I had snagged a seat in first class on this flight. Because of all the changes to flights over the past year (and the lack of international traffic) Delta was running a 767-300 on this Vegas flight. It was one of a handful of widebody flights between the two cities. I don’t think that’s typical, but I wouldn’t swear by it. I’m never one to turn down a lie-flat seat for a longer flight. This 767 had definitely seen better days, but the seat reclined perfectly fine for a short nap after take-off.
Once I woke up my goal was to get some work done. I was able to purchase a Gogo wi-fi pass and get some work done. At one point, I checked the in-flight entertainment system to see if there were any interesting movies to watch in the background while I worked. Alas, I couldn’t get the screen to work. I flagged a flight attendant and asked if she could try to assist. This flight attendant was not as cordial as the crew from the night before. She noted that these were old systems and the screens frequently had trouble. She said she would write it up for maintenance. There was no apology nor an offer to move to another seat (the first class cabin was full with some seats blocked for distancing).
I wasn’t overly concerned about it, though it was noteworthy how this flight attendant seemed to be very frazzled. I can certainly relate, since the current travel experience is anything but normal. I imagine there are also more than the normal amount of frazzled customers to deal with. I decided to wait until a different flight attendant walked through the cabin to ask for a drink. That wait would turn out to be about 30 minutes, but when a flight attendant did come through the cabin again she was more than happy to help.
When she returned with a drink I asked her if there was any food served on the flight. She was surprised I hadn’t been offered anything earlier. I told her I had grabbed a quick nap. She brought me two different snack boxes and walked through what was in each (pretzels, beef jerky, almonds etc). I picked one and thanked her. Other than those two interactions the crew was mostly absent from the cabin.
Upon arrival in Las Vegas, I found a relatively short line for the rental car shuttle. After less than 10 minutes of socially distant waiting I was at the front of the line. They were filling every seat on the shuttle bus for the 10 minute ride to the rental car facility. During the pandemic, my status with Hertz dropped from Platinum (my favorite status ever) to President’s Circle. Though my online profile reflected that, there was no car waiting for me at the Gold area. The Gold desk onsite told me I had no status level but they would make an exception and process my reservation rather than make me walk back inside and wait in line. I’ll have to figure that out at some point.
Nonstop Flight Home
My flight home was on United Airlines. It was a morning flight nonstop from Las Vegas to Washington-Dulles. The flight home was about the same 4.5 hours that the flight from Atlanta to Las Vegas was. I got to the airport a bit later than in Atlanta since I noticed more restaurants open in Las Vegas when I landed. TSA PreCheck had no other passengers in line when I arrived at around 6:45am.
The E terminal at Las Vegas was shut completely. That area is mostly for international flights, though Frontier and Alaska have historically used that terminal. I assume the E terminal will reopen when demand increases. For now, I saw Frontier jets parked at the D Concourse.
The D Concourse looked much closer to normal than Atlanta or Dulles. Still, there were a handful of shops and restaurants not open yet. But, because there were at least half a dozen restaurants and an equal number of newsstands, the only line longer than a handful of people was at Starbucks. With the exception of one set of gates where the restaurants were all closed this was a pretty “normal” terminal experience.
The experience onboard my United flight was also pretty normal, at least from what I can remember prior to the pandemic. I was also seated in first class on this flight. That cabin was 100% full, whereas coach was almost full with a smattering of middle seats empty.
After take-off I was given a small bag which constituted the meal service for the flight. There was a sanitizing wipe along with a small bottle of water, a stroopwafel and a tiny bag of pretzels. I was also offered a drink. After that the flight attendant retreated to the galley and did not come back around again to ask about refills for the remainder of the flight.
At one point during the flight I made my way to the back of the plane to use the rear lavatories so I could stretch my back after sitting for a while. As I was finishing up in the restroom I hit what I thought was the button to flush the toilet. After 14 months I am clearly out of practice, since I hit the flight attendant call button. I figured I could just hit it a second time to disable the call. Nope! I quickly washed my hands so I could exit and tell the flight attendant at the rear of the plane that I was okay. She laughed and said, “I was ready to come in after you! But, I thought maybe you hit it by mistake, so I was going to give you another minute.” We had a good conversation about what it’s like for them to be flying long days with a mask. That day, they were doing LAS-IAD and then back to Las Vegas. That’s one long day with no mask breaks. Both her and the other attendant in the rear galley said that they were thankful to be working. They noted how fatigued they feel after a long day with a mask on. Both of them said that the vast majority of passengers have been easy to deal with. We landed on time at Dulles after a fairly uneventful flight.
The Final Two Pennies
The three flights I took this week were largely as I expected. All three were fairly full. Mask wearing seemed to be consistent at Washington-Dulles. Masks were anything but consistent in Atlanta. Plenty of smiles to be seen walking around the terminal but everyone seemed to comply onboard the flight. Las Vegas was surprisingly pretty good at mask wearing, with a few stragglers here and there.
Dulles was a ghost town when it came to finding available food options. Atlanta had a few more options but nowhere enough to support the number of passengers. Whether through lack of available staffing or poor planning, the restaurants were not staffed to handle the demand. The food available onboard both Delta and United was severely lacking if you plan to rely on it for a meal. The bottom line on food is you should absolutely pack snacks if you have anything other than a very short flight. This is especially true for families as a number of the newsstands I visited still had lots of empty spots on shelves.
The flight crews were largely similar to the way things were pre-pandemic. Most of the crew I came in contact with were passive, disengaged. I had one great experience with one Delta crew member and a pleasant conversation with a couple of United flight attendants.
I was surprised by how much wearing a mask annoyed me. The long stretches with no break were frustrating. I’m not in incredible shape right now, and wearing a mask all day definitely made me feel more tired by the end of the day. Probably the most awkward part of the trip was when I sneezed on one of the flights. Talk about the quickest way to get dirty looks during a pandemic. And, what exactly is proper protocol for blowing your nose on a plane in a pandemic? I chose to head to the lavatory.
The federal government just extended the mask mandate in airports and on planes until September of this year. I’ll have some necessary travel over the summer. Other than that, I plan to minimize air travel until the mask mandate goes away. I support wearing masks in public 100%. It’s just not a great way to spend a day.
All in all, my trip was uneventful. It’s not hard to avoid crowds if that concerns you. Flights are pretty full and I would expect that to continue throughout the rest of the year. More people will book leisure travel as they get vaccinated and business travel will slowly return. When key amenities will return, such as fully staffed restaurants in airports or meals on airplanes, is harder to say.
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