Navigating pandemic-era air travel: What it’s like to fly internationally right now

An empty business class section on the May 9, 2020, Air France Flight 66 from Paris to Los Angeles; only 33 passengers checked in for the flight on the Boeing 777-300, which has a capacity of 296. Photo for The Washington Post by Christopher Elliot

As we dragged our luggage across Los Angeles International Airport’s cavernous customs processing hall, my 15-year-old son asked, “Are we in the right place?” Customs at LAX is typically overfilled with arrivals. This time, there were banners welcoming us to the United States, but no people. Only a maze of retractable belt barriers greeted us.

My kids and I had been asking the same question all day. We’d just discovered what it’s like to fly internationally during the coronavirus lockdown and were about to experience our first domestic flight since the pandemic. It had been a long day. We’d already crossed nine time zones and spent 12 hours flying from Nice, France, to California. And we still had a long way to go.

It was a series of flights that would expose us to the reality of flying during the covid-19 outbreak – a strange new world of deserted terminals, Purell packets parceled out to passengers and social distancing requirements.

My three teenage kids and I had been stuck in Nice during the outbreak. We battened down the hatches for two months while the virus raged through Europe and then planned our escape to Uncle Pete’s basement in Spokane, Washington.

Getting out wasn’t easy. My travel agent had recommended a flight from Nice to Los Angeles via Paris on Air France, and then connecting to a nonstop on Alaska Airlines to Spokane. But airlines were canceling various legs of our trip before we could book them. Ultimately, we had help from our Medjet membership, which contracted with a company called FocusPoint International to help secure our departure.

That brings us to the first time we asked ourselves if we were in the right place: when we arrived at the Nice airport early on a Saturday morning. In the airport, we found a small group of masked passengers waiting in a roped-off area for the terminal to open. It felt like a doctor’s office. No one said a word, and there was a sense of anticipation, as if someone was about to receive a bleak diagnosis.

Half an hour later, after a police officer checked our passports and collected affidavits declaring that we were traveling for an essential purpose, we were allowed inside the terminal.

Nice’s airport is the third-busiest in France, but remarkably, there were only two flights leaving that day: one to Paris, the other to London. That made gate announcements unnecessary. On the aircraft, everyone wore masks and every middle seat remained empty. No snacks, no drinks. And as in the waiting area, there was almost complete silence on the half-full flight.

On any other Saturday, the international terminal at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport would be controlled chaos. But when we arrived, it had been drained of passengers and sat like an empty monument to a forgotten war. I saw vacant gates, empty waiting areas, shuttered shops but almost no sign of human life. At passport control, the customs agent didn’t flinch at our overstayed visa.

We found our Los Angeles flight at the far end of the terminal, with a few passengers milling around the gate. A flight attendant later told me that they expected 64 passengers on a Boeing 777-300 with a capacity of 296. Only 33 passengers checked in for Flight 66. It was an improvement, she said, from last week’s L.A. flight, where only 13 people boarded. Shortly after takeoff, the crew distributed health declaration forms that asked us where we’d been and whether we had any covid-19 symptoms.

Air France takes social distancing seriously. Our section of the cabin had only three other passengers, all seated on the other side of the aircraft. The flight attendants appeared only occasionally on the almost 11-hour flight to offer a shrink-wrapped meal or snack and then disappeared behind the curtain. Otherwise, we were free to do what we wanted. We stood and walked around and practiced our yoga stretches and nobody cared.

Keeping a face mask on for 11 hours isn’t easy. With no one else in the cabin, I saw other passengers reverting to “half mask” after a few hours, with the cloth covering only their mouth or chin. Breathing through a mask can be difficult, and with no cabin crew to enforce the mask rule, it was clear that for now, full mask usage, like seat belts, was meant for takeoff and landing.

Air France disembarked the plane a few rows at a time to maintain social distancing. At the end of the boarding ramp, a customs agent wearing a clear plastic face shield checked our declarations and asked us how we were feeling. He didn’t perform a temperature check. Then he motioned for us to continue down the passageway, past several more uniformed agents.

Based on media reports, I had assumed that Los Angeles would be busier. It wasn’t. Maybe they’d moved to a smaller room, I wondered. But no. At the end of the hall, a lone customs agent scanned our passports and waved us through. The kids, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, didn’t seem to care that we’d just made it through customs without having to wait.

It was a short, memorable walk from the international terminal to Terminal 2. It led past a completely shut down Terminal 3 formerly occupied by Delta Air Lines. It’s been closed since the first week of April. Fortunately, what’s left of Delta’s operations looked almost normal. Some of the shops in Terminal 2 were open, including a Starbucks where I could re-caffeinate. Masks have been mandatory at LAX since May 11, but not everyone wore them.

Delta boarded our Seattle flight a few rows at a time to keep passengers apart. The moment I stepped on board, a flight attendant pressed a sanitizing wipe into my hand without telling me when to use it. Should I disinfect my hands? The tray table? The armrest? The in-flight announcements were different, too – the usual safety information combined with messages about Delta Clean, the airline’s initiative to block middle seats and sanitize the aircraft. I fell asleep after takeoff and woke up to find a goody bag in the seat between my son and me. It was a clear plastic bag with a mini-bottle of water, Cheez-It crackers, Biscoff cookies and another sanitizing wipe.

It had been nearly 20 hours since we left France, and we were starting to feel the sleep deprivation when we landed in Seattle. My two youngest kids found our gate and fell asleep in their chairs. My oldest son and I decided to take a walk around the airport to see if this was the Sea-Tac we remembered from just a few years before, when we’d been here on a stopover on our way to Alaska.

Most of Seattle’s flights appeared to be operating out of the main terminal. The Terminal A gates looked completely abandoned. This emptiness prompted me to wonder once again whether I was in the right place. This didn’t look like any airport I’d ever seen; I felt like an extra in a movie about Armageddon.

On our puddle jumper from Seattle to Spokane, I was too tired to sleep. I fidgeted nervously with my third Purell packet. I was still trying to process what I’d seen that day: Sharing a terminal with passengers who all seemed to be traveling to a funeral. Boarding an almost empty plane to cross the Atlantic. Walking through a deserted customs area. Entire terminals shut down, seemingly forever.

I asked my kids what they thought of the adventure. They just offered a collective shrug, the default response of a teenager. OK, maybe they don’t have half a lifetime of memories of full airports and a vibrant travel industry. They just know that they’re back in America after being trapped abroad for months. But maybe they’re onto something. Instead of focusing on what’s changed, I should think about what hasn’t. The planes are still flying. The airports are still open. People are traveling.

All along the way, we saw signs of an imminent comeback. If passenger numbers continue to grow at this rate, our Air France plane to LAX will be full by June and they’ll add another flight, and then another. It’s just a matter of time before Terminal 3 is back in business in Los Angeles. And for every downbeat passenger, we also met people like the family from Alabama who were on our last leg from Seattle to Spokane, who acted like it was just another flight. Except they were all wearing face masks, of course.

What’s it like to fly during the outbreak? It’s weird and emotionally exhausting. Two days after arriving in the United States, my kids and I are symptom-free. But we’ll stay in my uncle’s basement during our two-week self-quarantine, just to be sure. And then, who knows? I’d like to document the recovery of America’s tourism industry – if my kids let me.

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