Flying cross-country during COVID-19 pandemic unmasks many of my fears

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Karen Lee

Buckled and ready for her first cross-country flight during the coronavirus pandemic, senior Karen Lee sits in her seat on Delta Air Lines as she waits for the pilot to take off from Los Angeles International Airport. The Accolade’s online graphics editor was excused from school for part of Aug. 14 and the whole day of Aug. 17 so she could travel with her parents and older brother, Daniel, to Georgia’s Emory University in Atlanta, where Lee’s brother will be attending his first year of college. Like several other businesses nationwide, airline passengers are required to wear a face mask before they board their flight.

Karen Lee

As the flight attendant handed me a snack bag with a pack of Biscoffs, Cheez-Its, a water bottle and a Purell hand sanitizer packet, I reached to take off my mask to eat the snacks.

But I paused, thinking about our nation’s current state regarding the coronavirus pandemic — 6.3 million people infected as of Sept. 10, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and I feared I could be an asymptomatic carrier unknowingly spreading the virus to other passengers on board.

But I had already been wearing my mask for three hours straight prior to boarding.

I took it off.

This was a snapshot of my flight from the Los Angeles International Airport [LAX] to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Aug. 14 so my parents and I could help my brother move into his dorm at Emory University and tour the college. A lengthy 33-hour cross-country drive wasn’t a viable option because the school year had already begun for me; the only alternative was to board a four-hour flight.

Upon arriving at LAX with my family, we checked in to our flight through a machine that asked three questions about COVID-19 such as if I had any symptoms or had been in contact with anyone infected in the past 14 days. As I filled out the questionnaire, I came to a frightening realization that everyone could have simply said no to all three questions to board the plane. 

I knew my family and I answered truthfully that we had not come in contact with anyone infected with COVID-19 and didn’t experience any symptoms, but I couldn’t trust that the other passengers were as honest.

At the Transportation Security Administration [TSA], it was as if the pandemic never happened. 

Like usual, I put my belongings into a basket, took off my shoes, got screened and received my items once approved by the TSA. However, I noticed immediately that none of the baskets were cleaned or sanitized after each use; the airport employees immediately stacked the baskets when we were done, and my family didn’t bring gloves.

Moreover, once I got past the TSA, my family and I did not receive a temperature check despite the Delta Airlines website stating they would begin temperature checks on Aug. 11 — three days before my flight. This added to my anxiety.

In the boarding lounge, every other seat was available for passengers to sit on, but the distance between the seats were obviously less than six feet. Moreover, some people weren’t wearing masks as they should have, no posters encouraged them to and no one enforced them to don face coverings.

Soon, Delta workers announced that my plane was ready to board and would begin filling up from back to front; usually, passengers would be seated from front to back, but because of COVID-19 regulations, the boarding method changed. When I entered the plane, flight attendants gave me a disinfectant wipe to clean my tray and seat.

 

According to the Delta screen behind the headrest, the cabin crew disinfected each plane and used High Efficiency Particulate Air [HEPA]-filters, which the Environmental Protection Agency states removes 99.7% of airborne particles to recirculate the air every two minutes. However, I didn’t know to what extent the flight attendants sanitized every individual seat, tray and window, and I couldn’t see with my own two eyes whether the plane was actually getting recirculated with new air. 

All I could do at this point was limit my trips to the bathroom and ,ultimately, trust the airline.

I got the row to myself, but for most people, the middle seat was vacant because of safety regulations — again, the seats weren’t exactly six feet apart and some people didn’t even bother wearing their masks. Since COVID-19 is airborne, I worried that the virus could potentially spread to me or my family while we were on this plane.

Finally, the four-hour plane ride came to an end. We knew my brother had to test negative for the coronavirus to enter the dorms, so we went to a drive-through testing facility near Emory’s medical center. My brother filled out the paperwork, got a swab test and 15 minutes later, results came out — thankfully, negative.

On my way home from Georgia, my experience on the plane was very similar. Despite all my worries, my family got through this trip safely.

But for those looking to travel by airplane, I wouldn’t recommend the risk — unless it’s an emergency, of course, or if wearing a mask for four hours seems that appealing to you.