Flying During COVID From A Physician Assistant

It felt like a teeter-totter, walking into the airport for the first time in almost a year. Mixed emotions of excited and scared like a tight rope walk. I knew that flying during the time of COVID was a risk, but I needed to get out of my house. I needed to visit supportive friends and get a hug from those I cared about. 

So for those who are nervous to fly during COVID, for those who (like me) are trying to balance their mental health and need to see friends and/or family. Here is what you can expect when going into the airport for the first time during a pandemic in the USA. 

Healthcare Background

It was interesting to watch the psychology of humans unfold as I made my way through the airport. As a Physician Assistant and former trauma surgical technician, it was hard for me not to go on sterile technique overload.

Everything looks great when you first enter the airport, at least here in Salt Lake City. Sneeze guards are up, fancy lighted hand sanitizer is everywhere. Each check-in kiosk is being wiped down after each use. Everyone was keeping the recommended 6-foot distance. Masks are required signs everywhere, even for small children. It seems that face shields are an ok alternative for those unable to wear a mask. 

I know with my Veterans it is hard for some with PTSD or claustrophobia they cannot wear a mask without being triggered. I even have one veteran who had been waterboarded and cannot have anything over his mouth. So I was grateful they were allowing face shields to be worn.

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Getting to the security check-in is when I noticed things start to breakdown a little. It makes sense since the government doesn’t seem to care about PR or safety for that matter. 

Lest I digress, I went through TSA precheck, and once you get to the TSA agent, your standing back to back with another traveler checking in. They will then ask you to pull your mask down briefly to check your ID, so make sure you have at least one hand free to do this. 

The next stage was the baggage check. Bins aren’t being wiped down, your bag goes on a conveyer that hasn’t seen a good wipe down since it was installed. TSA agents are wearing gloves and masks, but your fellow passengers may not be. 

The two guys behind me were right up on me. They were so close that if he too another step we would have been halfway to dry humping. I was grateful I had brought my eye shield and 3M face mask. Not only was the social distancing lacking, but they also had their masks pulled down over their chins. Talking about business and how they were planning the best meeting ever. 

Here is the thing, when you work in a hospital, you MUST stay vigilant & AWARE. You have to be aware of where you putting your hands, what your items are touching, even just reaching over the operating room table can drop small flakes of skin or dust mites. If you don’t stay focused and vigilant, someone could end up with a massive infection with months of hospital and ICU bills. 

I realize not everyone works in healthcare, but I was irritated that they weren’t even paying attention. The problem is if I say ANYTHING they could choose to verbally assault me. I could step out of line and say that “I’m trying to social distance. It doesn’t appear you are. So I will let you go ahead because I’m a high-risk individual because of my Asthma”. I settled for putting a few more empty bins between us, and spreading my leg stance out wide, and kept turning around with dirty looks. They didn’t put their masks on, but got quiet and eventually got the hint and steered clear of me. I feel that when you project enough anger around you, even the subconscious brain of those near you can instinctively pick up on it. 

The Airport

Once through security things got better....a little.... 

Many shops are closed still, only a few food/beverage stores are open. I was able to snag a sanitizer wipe pack that also had lip balm and a face mask in it. Don’t know why they would sell those all together since I do not recommend touching your face, lips etc... when you’re in a space that has high public access & likely contaminated surfaces. 

Yet, I bought one so that when I am in a car or reach my friend’s house I can clean my sweaty face up from my mask. 

They closed the escalator many surfaces for people to touch/contaminate. 

Airport Bathrooms

The bathrooms and fountains are still open. No there is not someone washing surface after each use like at the entrance/check-in. 

There are no doors on the bathrooms in SLC, but you will have to close your bathroom stall door. 

So what I recommend is grabbing a short piece of a paper towel. Use it with one hand to open the door and close the door. Always touch the same side of the paper towel when picking it up and putting it down. 

Washing my hands wasn’t an issue, but make sure you don’t set anything on the countertop. 

Airport Seating

Seats are marked to allow every other seat to be open. When you sit down you do have someone right behind you, but when they breathe it is hopefully going into the mask and not behind them. I wasn’t super comfortable with sitting DIRECTLY behind someone else, so I wandered until I found a place that was a little more isolated and sat down. 

Try to not touch, what I call, public surfaces with the palms of your hands. Once I was seated I sanitized my hands and then removed my 3M face mask and an eye shield for something a little more comfortable, a regular store-bought mask. 

If I needed to set my phone, 3M mask down or anything else, it was set on the top of my carryon luggage - not the seat next to me.

Boarding The Plane

Everyone is required to wear a mask and wear it appropriately. Thank you Delta. They ask the back of the plane to load first due to minimizing contact with other passengers. 

If you are business or first class though, apparently you can Board at any time. If you try to sneak on before your turn, Delta basically slaps your hand and announces it over the intercom. 

I appreciated the steps they are taking, including blocking out the middle seat. Sitting that close to someone for an extended period of time does NOT bode well with my medical training. Is blocking the middle seat a cure-all? No. Does it help at least minimize the anxiety passengers are already going to have about flying again? Absolutely yes. 

In-Flight Experience

Flight attendants are wearing gloves and a mask. They announce everyone is required to wear a mask as this is a Delta policy. They also ask that all vents remain open to help with the HEPA airflow. 

There was a mishap with my seat where someone was somehow placed in the seat right next to mine (a window seat). I didn’t have anyone sitting in front of me, and there was a woman who requested to sit right behind me in an empty seat. To be fair she was sitting between two families with children so I don’t blame her. 

I immediately got out my Clorox wipes and wiped the seat belt (top and under the flip part). I wiped the tray, all buttons, crevices, hinges, handles, armrests, headrests, all corners of the big pocket, and front pocket. I wiped the window cover and while still wet slid it all the way up. I wiped the wall next to my seat. I also wiped the seat next to me so I could set things on it as well. 

They don’t have blankets, so make sure to bring your own pillow, blanket, coat, beanie if needed. I actually had a sun hat on and it really helped with the dispersion of the airflow. 

I made sure to sanitize my hands prior to touching my face or eating something. 

After watching the flight attendants pass out the snack bags. I didn’t see them change their gloves, it was a hand to hand hand-off. The gloves look like they had been worn for a while, and watched them touch the backs of the seats before handing out the snack bag to a few people. 

Monitoring this a few times I would suggest not taking the snack bag and pack or buy your own food for your flight. 

Bathrooms look well kept, and smell clean - but there was some water from a previous occupant on the counter. So I’m not going to tell you not to relieve yourself, but I wouldn’t touch anything on your person unless necessary. 

To be honest.....there really isn’t a way while in an airplane to remain “Uncontaminated”. The best you can do is pack your own food and drink, clean everything in your immediate area as soon as you sit down. Trying to clean everything prior to sitting down or shoving your bag under the seat in front of you, is impossible. You still have the same culture of people getting irritated by holding up the boarding line to make your area clean. 

Wearing an eye shield helps me remember to not touch my face, so definitely wear that. 

One of the flight attendants were on edge for sure and a bit short-tempered with me. I was coming out of the bathroom trying to go to the forward part of the plane where my seat was. She had to make a call and the phone wouldn’t come out so she pulled so hard she nearly hit me. 

She quietly said something into the phone and then looked at me. We did the two-step shuffle after I finally was able to understand her grumbling of where to stand. 

Honestly, I couldn’t do her job though. There is a lot of strain on flight attendants and the fear of losing their jobs. So I kept my mouth shut and sent some silent love towards her. I know what it is like to have patients yell at me about not wanting to wear a mask. Except in an airplane you can’t get away from the people who feel it is ok to put others at risk by not wearing a mask. 

Other than the few things I saw as a healthcare worker could use improvement in sanitization. I was relatively pleased at how Delta truly was putting the customer comfort and peace of mind first. The only easy fix I could see is giving each food cart a massive Costco sized hand sanitizer and have the flight attendants sanitize their hands every few rows and before handling any of the snack bags. Also leaving some wipes near the bathroom to wipe down the areas we would touch before and after each use. 

Arriving in Atlanta

Utah is used to following rules because of the predominant religion here. So I was curious to fly into a more liberal area & major international airport hub. 

The arrival terminal was absolutely packed! I was honestly nervous to traverse to the next terminal and was so incredibly grateful I had an eye shield and my leftover 3M N95 mask from work. In this airport, only about 60% of the folks were actually wearing their mask. There wasn’t any social distancing. Bars were open, people sitting less than 6 feet away from each other without masks, including the bartenders. The Mac makeup store was open in a high traffic area, common areas were open and I wasn’t seeing a plethora of cleaning personnel. 

I think it was at this point I realized just how much risk I put myself in by buying a flight out here. Again, thank goodness for my eye shield and mask. This portion was absolutely NUTS to me. Even the Delta flight attendants were huddled together in a group exclaiming, “OMG, this is NUTS! This is just like normal like there is nothing happening. I cannot believe how crowded this terminal is!” — that’s when I knew my own thoughts weren’t that far off. It is no wonder the cases are exploding in the south. 

I made my way as quickly as possible through this part to the train. Weaving and bobbing through the crowds like I was a quarterback trying to get to the safety of the goal line. 

I reached the train and was grateful to see it was only about 50% as crowded as the terminal was. After entering there was nowhere to stand that I wasn’t able to socially distance so I took a wide stance and didn’t touch anything. 

Endeavor airline crew members started complaining about the announcement to wash our hands. He had his mask pulled down so it was barely covering his top lip. He said, “Yeah, they want us to wash our hands, but for what. They never come in and wash the train, so why wash my hands”. I tried to read his name but it was a little bit too small. I’m once we arrived in the D terminal, I stood aside and waited until the people in a hurry who likely wouldn’t socially distance on an escalator go by. After the initial rush to get on the escalator to hurry up and wait to slowly go to the next floor, the remaining strangers slowly took turns and socially distancing on the way up the escalator.

Connecting Terminal to Huntsville Alabama

After getting off the escalator I noticed this terminal was much less crowded, which immediately allowed a bit of relief. I immediately sanitized my hands and the handle on my suitcase. I made my way over to my connecting gate to Huntsville and was grateful I was headed to the Rocket City. Why? Huntsville is known for its high concentration of engineers, who are required to follow everything by the book. 

Once I was in this terminal (terminal D in the Atlanta airport) I felt a lot more comfortable taking off my 3M Non-Medical Grade Mask and switching to my regular basic patient mask. I waited for my flight to start boarding. I always ended up switching back to my 3M mask until I was more stationary and not passing by more than 4 people at a time.

My Flight To Huntsville

Unfortunately, I was seated behind an asshole who refused to wear his face covering. He made fun of the flight attendant for wearing gloves, said it was ‘weird and un-necessary’. He then said he had been traveling all over the USA including San Diego for work to his friend across the isle who was wearing his mask. 

I was so frustrated I kept looking through the crack between the seats at him. When a flight attendant would approach, he would put his mask on. When they would pass by, he would take it back off. 

I decided to just keep my 3M mask on the whole 1-hour flight to Huntsville from Atlanta. The straps hurt my ears, the mask was so tight it put pressure under my eye and gave me a headache. 

We were on a 4 seat per row small plane, which means higher rate of particulate in the cabin from those who occupy the seats in it. What I mean by particulate is the potential concentration of viral load within the plan from what the passengers in the plane breathe out who are potential carriers. 

When we went to de-plane, I ended up taking a photo of the guy, who deplaned without wearing his mask the entire way. He didn’t put it on until he was approaching the cop down by the baggage claim. I have never been more frustrated about something in my entire life. It is people like him that are making it impossible to decrease the numbers in the USA and why I don’t think I will fly again until there is a vaccine. It isn’t worth the risk, and I didn’t count on people being selfish and belligerent about the risks of those around them. 

Baggage Claim

Once in Baggage Claim, we were all able to socially distance ourselves. I grabbed my luggage, used a few Clorox wipes on the outside of the luggage, sanitized my hands, and headed outside to be picked up. 

Flying Home to Utah

The flight home to Utah was a lot less stressful than my first flight during the pandemic. It was two days after getting off the flight to Huntsville that Delta made an announcement that passengers who do not wear masks during the flight were banned for life and flights were returning to the point of origin if passengers refused to wear the mask while in-flight. 

The flight attendants were much more stringent on de-planing, you are asked to remain seated and deplane row by row and to avoid standing in the aisle. 

Flight attendants would regularly patrol the aisle to ensure that the masks are worn over their nose and mouth. 

My Suggestions for Flying During COVID

If you need to fly to help your mental health, I would do it. I think the risk of being suicidal because of the isolation during this time has increased exponentially. If you are choosing to fly because you want to feel special and take a vacation to make friends jealous, I would ask you to please stay home. 

If you need to fly for work, obviously you don’t have a choice. So hopefully this article has given you some suggestions on what to look for, and how to do it safely. 

Be safe, be vigilant, sanitize any surface you can think of that someone would have touched before you. Sanitize your hands, and use the same hand each time to put something in your mouth or touch your face. After each bite of your snack or drink of water/soda make sure to replace your mask. Until the vaccine has been out in the public for at least 6 months, I will still take all the precautions I need, to keep myself safe. I will keep and reuse my non-medical grade 3M mask, I will wear an eye-shield in high traffic areas. I will sanitize my hands after touching high traffic surface areas, as well as my phone. 

I do not think it is safe to fly to high traffic international hubs, but if you are flying from one small airport to another I think it is the SAFER option, but not completely devoid of risk. 

Ultimately it comes down to your decision, just like I explain to my patients. Is the risk of staying home going to affect your mental health or your livelihood? If the answer is yes, then the risk of staying home is greater than the risk of flying - and I would go ahead and book that flight. If you cannot answer yes to that question, then I strongly encourage you to stay home based off what I have witnessed as a healthcare professional. 

It has been two weeks since I returned home from Alabama and I did not have any symptoms. I did daily temperature checks and did not have any variation from my baseline. 

If you choose to fly or travel before a vaccine comes out and is effective. Please, please, please make sure you have travel insurance, and that it will cover medical care, long term hospital care, medical transport, and especially all of these things if it is due to COVID. 

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I hope you have a wonderful time on your next adventure, whatever it may be. Remember to enjoy the little things in life, and try and see the beauty between the contrasts of life. 

All the best to you and yours! 

Travel Insurance I recommend

World Nomads is the travel insurance I highly recommend because of their customizability for not just flights, luggage, emergencies, but also for high risk activities. High risk activities like Scuba Diving, Rock climbing, mountain biking etc... No matter what insurance you decide to purchase, always always always make sure to read it carefully and thoroughly to ensure you can get back to your HOME, not just the nearest airport. This is imperative for situations where medical transport may be required, which can be close to $10,000+ just to get from one end of the country to another. 

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My name is Janiel, a medical professional, and solo adventurer. I have over 23 years of international travel experience and have a sincere passion for celebrating humanity, connecting with cultures, finding unique art and adventure. I’m an advocate for animals and sustainable travel and want to invite you to join the Culture Trekking community.



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