If my sample is at all representative, the airlines and airports falling well short of their promises to make travel safe, most of all by doing a poor job with face mask discipline. Not only is that a risk in and of itself, above all to the workers, it sends a poor message to the general public. If airlines, whose business has collapsed to the degree that Hubert Horan estimates the US big four will have $65 billion in losses even after allowing for their bailout, can’t shape up, why should we expect more from mere travelers?
And what I saw from passengers was even more discouraging. My sightings suggest that the US won’t have much success in combatting coronavirus absent a treatment, a vaccine, or a massive PR campaign to change attitudes about masks (along with requirement to have employers supply them or reimburse the cost to all but at-home workers).
It isn’t just that too many people had no mask. What is worse is that we have mask theater: people who wear masks in such a way that it reduces or vitiates their value, like wearing them below their chins even though they are in a public place and have no excuse (eating or drinking) for having taken them off, or pulling them down when talking (!!!) or wearing them well below their noses.1
Before readers chide me for traveling at all, both trips were medical, and I was masked and gloved up, and carrying my trusty alcohol spray bottle. On this trip, I even have some n95 masks thanks to the generosity of a reader, which I deploy as needed.2
The first trip was at the end of March to the West Coast. This was before there was much contagion in Alabama. This was also a week when the airlines were slashing their schedules. I flew in the front of the bus to minimize risk, which due to the dearth of passengers, was very affordable. However, as an aside, the hassle was considerable. I had to switch from American to Delta because American got rid of all direct flights to Dallas the week I was traveling (they since restored some) and the alternate routes were horrific. My trip back was rescheduled twice, and because Delta cut itself back to only one flight daily from Atlanta to Birmingham, I had a four hour layover (which was vastly less terrible than it might have been. Due to the emptiness of the airport, I found a row of seats with no arms and got a pretty good nap).
I’ll belabor the March flights less because that was while the airlines were only starting to cope with coronavirus (although Delta had taken even then to sending regular messages to customers stressing how they’d become cleaning freaks) and outside New York City and Washington State, the infection levels had not yet moves into the red zone. Of all four flights, only one had one attendant wearing a mask, and that was on the last short leg, from Atlanta to Birmingham. However, the planes had very few passengers. The airlines flight-cutting had not caught up with the level of cancellations and no-shows. The only flight with as high as a 40% load factor (again that final leg) about half the passengers in my area wore masks, so the risk was not as bad as it might seem. In fact, in California, about 60% of the passengers in the waiting area had face coverings and were wearing them properly.
And the airports were ghost towns. I was the only passenger at TSA the times I went through. The TSA employees were all masked and gloved. It was creepy to see about 90% of the airport shops closed in Atlanta, the highest passenger traffic airport in the world, and only one or two other people in the terminal corridors.
But what was disconcerting was the behavior of the flight crew. In one of the long coastal flights, I was on an international plane with only three seats sold in a 30 seat first class (and the other paying passengers were a couple). There were two attendants and another four Delta employees hitching a ride in the section.
I was appalled to see the Delta types, unmasked, sitting close together and gabbing. I even had to shoo one of the unmasked attendants away from me when she got involved in the gossip-fest for getting closer than six feet (the Delta flight attendants did have gloves).
When I flew on the final leg, the one flight attendant wearing a mask tried to stop me from cleaning my seat area with alcohol, I assume because she didn’t like me demonstrating that I didn’t trust Delta’s housekeeping.
This was a pale comparison of what I saw today, when everyone in the travel business is touting how much they are doing to make things safe for customers. What I can’t fathom is why they aren’t doing a better job for the benefit of their co-workers, who are even more at risk.
Today I flew American and American has a lot to answer for.
In Birmingham, the cab driver disconcertingly was not wearing a mask so I talked up the importance of masks while trying not to sound accusatory.
Inside, all of the TSA staff were masked and gloved, and the wheelchair attendant wore his mask properly. However, TSA does not clean its bins, which are the dirtiest things in the airport.3 Moreover, the Birmingham airport does not require masks, so fewer than 25% of the passengers had them on. And the gate attendant didn’t have a mask, but offered hand sanitizer when I removed my gloves4 and thanked me for flying since it helped keep him employed.
On the first flight, American did seem successful in getting everyone to keep their masks on…except its own crew. One of the two stewardesses wore hers only when the flight was landing in Charlotte. The second had hers off her face when she asked me what I wanted to drink while we were on the ground, and did have it on for most of the flight. But towards the end, she sat with her unmasked colleague in the empty first row, and pulled her mask off to talk to her. I was less than six feet away and very pissed off.
But the big horrorshow was the Charlotte airport. It was a precursor to see the pilot of my inbound plane strip his mask when he stepped off, meaning he entered the terminal bare-faced.
Admittedly, current passengers no doubt skew towards those who are skeptical about virus risk, so I should have been prepared for the sight of the overwhelming majority of people in the surprisingly busy Charlotte airport not have masks on or have them pulled below their chins. Mask wearing, as opposed to mask display, was worse than in the quiet Birmingham airport.
In addition, that attitude seemed to be widely shared by airport employees. Staff in most stores were not wearing masks or not wearing them properly. My wheelchair attendant had hers below her nose, and when I asked her to pull it up, she didn’t. One of her colleagues came by, with his mask similarly at half mast. I had to tell him to move away because he had gotten too close, and I was downwind from him and the air conditioners to boot.
About half way through my trek across the terminal, I decided to count just the people wearing badges, meaning they were airline or terminal employees, and classify them as mask complaint or not. I got more than 25 in total, with about 60% non-compliant.
Oh, and the airport had me sign for the ride and rate the wheelchair person using a touch screen. I wound up giving her a green because anything less might have required me to interact even more with that microbe vector.
On the next flight, the flight attendants kept their masks on throughout the flight. However, my section was full this time. A deadheading pilot who sat next to me had his mask firmly on when he took his seat, but pulled it off his face after the flight started. I thought to say something and decided to do so when I was on the way back from the loo (I figured standing above him and having him feel at risk of other passengers hearing me call him out would increase the shame factor and thus the odds of cooperation) but he put it back on when I asked him to let me get past him.
On the Birmingham to Charlotte flight, the crew successfully instructed passengers to get off a few at a time to allow for some distancing. That did not happen in New York, even though the flight to Charlotte had come in when there were many connecting flights (like mine) while this second flight arrived when only three flights were departing after its arrival, and they all looked to be too close to be viable connections. In other words, Laguardia looked pretty sure to be everyone’s final destination, so there would be no real hardship in making passengers wait at most four minutes in the interest of safety.
At Laguardia, my wheelchair attendant was properly masked up. But the attendants for the other two chairs waiting weren’t, and they were way too close to each other for their and their charges’ good.
So if you are risk averse, and in particular, if you can’t justify paying for a first class seat, flying still looks like a bad idea. And the airlines and airports are a big part of the problem.
1 These nose refusniks very rarely are wearing glasses; surgical masks can steam up glasses, but the cloth/filter ones seem much less prone to do so.
2 I would have done mask +f ace shield, and I even got some good shields, but you can’t read through them, nor do better googles work with glasses.
3 This is not an exaggeration. A study found that everything in the bathrooms was cleaner. I am too lazy to fight with search engines to provide the link.
4 The best bad solution I can come up with to the TSA dirty bins problem is to don gloves before I get into the cab and wear them though the TSA checkpoint, and then strip them off.