I Just Flew. It Was Worse Than I Thought It Would Be.

The surreal experience of flying during a pandemic, and the false promise of a return to normal

A man wears a gas mask as he travels on a flight from Miami to Atlanta on April 23, 2020.
Chandan Khanna / AFP / Getty

The cabin was restless. It was a weekday afternoon in late April, and I was among dozens of people boarding an airplane that most of us had assumed would be empty. Flight attendants were scrambling to accommodate seat-change requests. Travelers—stuffed shoulder to shoulder into two-seat rows—grumbled at one another from behind masks. An ominous announcement came over the in-flight PA system: “We apologize for the alarming amount of passengers on this flight.” Each of us was a potential vector of deadly disease.

I arrived at my assigned row, and found a stocky, gray-haired man in the seat next to mine. When I moved to sit down, he stopped me. “Sit there,” he said gruffly, pointing to the aisle behind us. “Social distance.”

Not eager for a confrontation, I decided to comply. Within seconds, though, a flight attendant materialized and ordered me back to my assigned seat. My recalcitrant would-be seatmate, vigorously objecting to this development, responded by blocking my entrance to the row with his leg.

A standoff ensued, with the irate passenger protesting that there were plenty of empty rows where I could sit (there weren’t) and the long-suffering flight attendant all but threatening to kick him off the plane (she didn’t). Finally, he relented and I squeezed awkwardly into my seat as the man muttered profanities under his breath.

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?

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.

The things we miss most about our pre-pandemic lives—dine-in restaurants and recreational travel, karaoke nights and baseball games—require more than government permission to be enjoyed. These activities are predicated not only on close human contact but mutual affection and good-natured patience, on our ability to put up with one another. Governors can lift restrictions and companies can implement public-health protocols. But until we stop reflexively seeing people as viral threats, those old small pleasures we crave are likely to remain elusive.

I only had to sit next to my angry seatmate for a few minutes. Shortly after his tantrum, a flight attendant came back to our row and—after treating the man to a withering glare—informed me that I was being upgraded. I gathered my things and sheepishly made my way up the aisle while the aggrieved passenger sarcastically exclaimed, “Ooh, first class!”

As the plane ascended, I pressed my head against the window and peered down at the disappearing runway. I tried to ponder the miracle of human flight, to savor this rare privilege I was experiencing. But then an unhappy thought asserted itself: How many people have touched this window today with their filthy hands? I jerked back, and squirted some hand sanitizer onto my forehead.