Why did I think flying would be easy right now?
In the days leading up to my trip, colleagues and family members had repeatedly expressed envy. “I’m so jealous,” one co-worker told me. “Taking a flight without kids sounds like heaven,” my wife said. The travel wasn’t anything extravagant; I was going on a short reporting trip that couldn’t be rescheduled. But I understood the sentiment. Like millions of Americans, I’d been social distancing for nearly two months—cooped up at home, growing a gnarly quarantine beard, and manically wiping down groceries with Lysol. The prospect of packing a suitcase, putting on real pants, and boarding an airplane sounded like a thrilling indulgence, a grand adventure. Travel by air! Who could even imagine such a thing?
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But flying during a pandemic turned out to be more stressful—and surreal—than I’d planned for. The scenes played out like a postapocalyptic movie: Paranoid travelers roamed the empty terminals in masks, eyeing one another warily as they misted themselves with disinfectant. Dystopian public-service announcements echoed through the airport—“This is a message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ...” Even the smallest, most routine tasks—such as dealing with the touch-screen ticketing kiosk—felt infused with danger.
My trip took place in two legs, and the first was weird mostly in the ways that I’d expected. All but a few of the shops and restaurants at Washington National Airport were closed. Beverage service in the main cabin was suspended (though apparently serving ginger ale to first-class passengers was ruled epidemiologically acceptable). My first flight was so empty that the pilot warned we would experience “a very rapid acceleration for takeoff.” The plane leapt into the sky and my stomach dropped. I spent much of the flight using my baggie of Lysol wipes to scrub and re-scrub every surface within reach.
The layover at O’Hare was where my fellow travelers’ fraying nerves came more fully into view. In the restroom, men hovered over sinks like warriors returning from battle, fervently washing their hands and shooting menacing looks at anyone who got too close. At the food court, a shouting match broke out among several stressed-out strangers, and police had to intervene.
Outside the gate, passengers sat five or six seats apart, barely acknowledging one another, let alone attempting conversation. The eerie silence wore on me after a while. When my wife texted to ask how it was going, the best description I could muster was a grimacing emoji.
Flying has always been unpleasant, and rife with small indignities. It’s likely that I was more alert than usual to the agitation of those around me. But as America lurches awkwardly toward an economic “reopening” in the weeks ahead, my fraught travel experience highlighted an unwelcome truth: The glittering allure of “normalcy” that waits on the other end of these stay-at-home orders is a mirage.