5 things I noticed about how flying has changed since the pandemic

Aug 19, 2020

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As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year. 

In This Post

For a pandemic year that upended travel as we knew it, I was able to rack up a considerable amount of miles.

I started the year watching fireworks in front of the Thames River in London. I greeted the start of the pandemic and shutdowns during a vacation at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Now I’m reflecting on what has happened in the past few months in Korea.

I flew to all these spots, and throughout these journeys, I was able to make some observations on how flying has transformed during the crisis. Will these changes stay the same even after an eventual vaccine restores the travel industry to pre-COVID days? Who knows, but here are several things that you can expect if you decide to book a ticket anytime soon.

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1) Flight attendants have gotten friendlier and more personable.

IN FLIGHT - APRIL 20: A flight attendant serves a snack on a Baltimore, Maryland bound Delta flight to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on April 20, 2020 in Linthicum Heights, Maryland. The airline industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the cancellation and consolidation of flights across the globe. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Ok, so all of my post-pandemic flights have been with Delta, so this may be skewed given my trips earlier in the year had all been in January on a combination of Ryanair, Aegean, KLM and Delta.

But the point is this: With so much uncertainty in the industry, I think it’s fair to say that flight attendants could be expected show some uneasiness while doing their day-to-day jobs during a pandemic. We’re all human, and I think that’s just natural. So, if anything, I expected the quality of in-flight service to decrease after airlines began making their myriad changes in response to the pandemic. Whether from new service routines or flagging morale, the pandemic can’t be easy on airline crews.

But that wasn’t the case on my transcontinental flight from Boston (BOS) to Phoenix (PHX) (connecting at Detroit) in late March. Nor was it the case on my latest journey in mid-July from Phoenix to Seoul (ICN) (connecting at Seattle). It has been my experience that post-pandemic in-flight food on international flights has worsened, but I was quite satisfied with everything else. It’s remarkable — at least from my personal experience — that the attention that I’ve gotten from flight attendants from the onset of this pandemic back in mid-March to the end of July has been very consistent.

I do think it helps that there are fewer passengers. Perhaps that allows flight attendants to be more attentive to individual customers, and maybe that’s what I’ve noticed. But I can’t ignore the crew is delivering this service amid concerns about face masks and flyers’ PPE, the U.S. government’s negotiations over the CARES Act and other financial uncertainties. Flight attendants are putting themselves out there at risk amidst the rising cases of COVID-19, and — in my mind — it has made their service feel even more special.

2) Connecting at hub airports may become more cumbersome.

A map showing American
A map showing American’s plan to focus growth at its hubs in Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth and Washington from late 2018. (Image courtesy of American Airlines)

Other than Southwest, most of the big U.S.-based airlines run on a hub-and-spoke model, which require most itineraries to make a connection. While my base in Phoenix is actually a hub for American, I’ve been consciously choosing to take Delta in recent years.

In the pre-pandemic world, when aviation figures were at all-time highs across the board, making a connection usually wasn’t too onerous as airlines geared their schedules to minimise connection times at their hubs to facilitate connections. The crowds could be tough, but the connection times were generally pretty favourable as long as your flights were on time.

That system works when there are enough flyers to connect. In the pandemic age, however, schedules can unravel when passenger traffic drops as much as it has.

While there are still some normal connection times in the schedule, longer connections appear to be inevitable as airlines cut back schedules to adjust to reduced demand.

And if you do face one of those longer-than-usual connections, you might face a dearth of amenities while waiting for your next flight. That’s because a number of airport restaurants and businesses have closed with passenger levels down. Lounges have reduced service or closed altogether, meaning there’s just not much you can do in the airport right now. Unless, that is, you’re okay watching Netflix videos or trying to finish work while waiting. The increased time you spend at your connecting airport without much being offered may be a bit annoying.

3) You’ll face fewer annoying travellers on your journey.

I can say I’ve had my fair share of experiences seeing questionable passenger etiquette while travelling.

But flying during the pandemic, you may find your fellow passengers to be more compliant and orderly.

For example, there won’t be the need to sit next to someone with a fat backpack taking up your space if you’re flying on airlines that are taking initiatives to block middle seats. And since passengers are required to wear masks, there is a lot less likelihood of chatty seatmates who are determined to talk and keep you from your nap.

Of course, you could end up on one of those flights where a passenger gets banned for refusing to wear a mask in flight. But, hopefully your planemates might be a little more zen about the whole experience given all the other sacrifices being made to travel during a pandemic.

More: 10 ways to not be an annoying passenger

4) Cleaner lavatories … and maybe shorter lines?

You’ve likely heard it on many of your flights. The pilot takes to the intercom, reminding passengers to not crowd around the lavatories. Now, with a pandemic, the announcements also add emphasis on the necessity of social distancing. Even without this reminder, it seemed to me that lavatories would still remain less busy because passengers want to minimize unnecessary contact in the air. There’s also dramatically fewer passengers on most flights.

Still, when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go — even if that’s at 35,000 feet. Fortunately,  airlines have taken great strides during the pandemic to improve their cleaning protocols to make sure that every part of their aircraft is safe — including lavatories.

Even with disappointing news that certain carriers seem to have scaled back in-flight cleaning, lavatories are still being prioritized for disinfection. During my recent journey from Phoenix to Seoul, I felt safe in using the airport restrooms and aeroplane lavatories. Still, I did notice passengers seemed to be waiting to dash for the restroom when the plane would land.

And, if it makes you feel better, bring extra disinfecting wipes to clean down any surfaces you might touch, even in the lavatory. No one would give you a second look for doing so right now. On most airlines, you can only count on a single complimentary wipe after you board. Maybe there’ll be spares, but what if there aren’t? You’ll likely want to use the one you do get to wipe your seat, tray tables and surroundings. TPG’s Summer Hull notes that TSA permitted her family to clear security with a full-size bottle of disinfecting wipes, so that may be an option to consider.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Having trouble finding where to buy these wipes? They might be available in the same airport vending machines selling masks. Costco and Amazon usually have quantities available to sell. Delivery companies like Instacart can also be helpful in trying to purchase these wipes.

5) Personal space even in economy class?

Delta in-cabin experience from Phoenix to Seattle.
Delta in-cabin experience from Phoenix to Seattle. Photo by Brian Kim / The Points Guy

Yes, and it helps greatly if the airline takes proactive measures to block middle seats. You may not see this on carriers like United and American, which will sell seats to capacity if the demand is there. But across all airlines, many flights are simply flying with very few passengers. That means you might benefit from an abundance of seats where you can have your pick — something that was practically unheard of prior to the pandemic.

It isn’t a financially sound policy for airlines to purposefully block middle seats, but there is a reason for doing so. These decisions are meant to make customers more comfortable about flying — and perhaps increasing customer loyalty in the process.

Get it in while you can, though, because it may not last. American indicated that not having flight caps helped with passenger revenue, perhaps tempting others to do the same.

But whether it’s this year or next, airlines will almost certainly end the blocked-middle seat policy and began selling flights to capacity if demand is there. Similarly, demand eventually will rebound to the point where planes may not be sold out, but they’ll be relatively full. The question is when?

Bottom line

International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade group representing airlines globally, does not expect the number of flyers to return to 2019 levels until at least 2024.

If this holds true, then the changes I mentioned may stick around until the industry is able to heal from the crisis. Of course, expect airlines to continue to put an emphasis on cleaning, something that helped Delta take the top spot in TPG’s recent annual ranking of airlines.

And, let’s call out the obvious. While some of these changes — like blocked middle seats — look good at first glance, they also come as carriers face an existential threat from the pandemic. For the aviation industry to recover, the airlines will even need help from passengers. Customers will need to step up to change their habits if flying is to be as safe as possible during the spread of COVID-19.

How? Wear a mask in the public correctly. Not putting it just over your mouth, but by wearing it correctly and making sure your nose and your mouth are properly covered — just as the CDC recommends. Wearing face coverings in public settings have been proven to reduce transmissions to significant levels even when social distancing measures are maintained.

Travelling has been taken for granted so long that we seem to have forgotten that it is a privilege, which we are feeling with all the border closures between states and countries. But we can bring things back to normal — as long as we uphold our civic responsibilities of wearing a mask and socially distancing whenever possible.

Related: I quarantined and tested abroad — here’s what it was like

Featured photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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