This is what it’s like to fly across the Pacific during COVID
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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.
The flying experience has been turned upside down since the coronavirus pandemic began affecting travel earlier this year. Perhaps nowhere is the disruption to air travel more pronounced than on international flights, which have borne the worst fallout of the pandemic.
So, what is it like to fly overseas right now? I took a transpacific trip in mid-July, a trip I needed to take now for personal reasons. While TPG recommends you give careful consideration as to whether now is the right time to travel, we thought sharing this flight experience would offer a glimpse into how long-haul flying has changed amid the current and ongoing health crisis.
As expected, my journey was a lot different than what I was used to in the pre-pandemic days. From the check-in process to stepping on that jet bridge upon arrival, everything felt a little bit different as airlines enact new procedures to protect both passengers and their own crews. Based on my journey from Phoenix (PHX) to Seoul (ICN) with a connection in Seattle (SEA), here’s my glimpse into how long-distance international flights have changed.
Please note — while U.S. and U.K. passport holders can technically visit Seoul without a Korean visa, you will not be automatically welcomed into the country. Most international arrivals will be required to quarantine at a government facility at a cost of about $1,760 (2.1 million South Korean won) for 14 days. Visitors with either Korean passports or long-term resident visas with a local Korean address, which is how I entered, are able to self-quarantine upon arrival.
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Check-in Process and Pre-Departure (Domestic)
I flew with Delta in the Comfort+ cabin for both my domestic and international legs. Normally when I’d make trips like this, I would be able to check in advance on the Fly Delta app and issue mobile boarding passes even when I had documents for verification. However, I was forced to check in at the airport for the purposes of a “staff member checking [my] documents”.
When I got to Phoenix Sky Harbor, facilities were eerily quiet. This might have been because Delta doesn’t have a large presence at PHX, but Arizona after all was one of the leading states in new coronavirus cases — which could explain the emptiness at the airport.
The check-in counters had plexiglass shields, with social-distancing decals and hand-sanitizing stations everywhere. While I knew that these were some of the initiatives Delta was pursuing in its new CareStandard programme, it was reassuring to see them in action as a customer.
Once I got through security using TSA PreCheck, I saw a terminal nothing like I had seen before. I went to the newly rebuilt North Concourse in Terminal 3 of PHX, which houses operations for United, Alaska, Air Canada and several other airlines. It still seemed to be fresh and new from its opening back in February. Delta’s operations in the South Concourse were a bit livelier than those of its competitors in the terminal, but the gates felt a lot more deserted than I would have imagined on a normal day.
Social distancing decals were placed on boarding lanes, Delta staff members consistently reminded passengers to wear their masks, and the kids play area was closed as a safety precaution. In the pre-boarding announcements, the Delta staff member even encouraged us to purchase any snacks and beverages we might want on our flight (as long as we didn’t purchase alcohol).
As expected, boarding took place from back to front — and everyone tried to observe social distancing when possible. Customers who needed assistance were invited to board first, and anyone with priority status could go through the gates anytime they wished. Even with the seating caps Delta had instituted for all its cabins, I thought that the boarding process went a lot quicker than expected.
Boarding and In-Flight Service (Domestic)
Thanks to social distancing and efforts to board in smaller groups, the jet bridge was a lot emptier than what it would be normally. Upon boarding, a flight attendant handed me a complimentary Purell wipe which I gladly took to my seat to wipe my surroundings.
Contrary to reports of full flights on other airlines, I felt like I was actually able to somewhat distance myself on my flight to Seattle with Delta. I did have the luxury of sitting in Comfort+, but Delta’s main cabin seemed to be more spaced out than what it could have been with other airlines.
As we were preparing to leave the desert sunrise behind, I noticed an interesting change with Delta’s in-flight safety video. Normally, CEO Ed Bastian would come on the video monitors to emphasize Delta’s mission of “connecting the world”. Instead, the coronavirus-special safety video featured Delta’s Chief Customer Experience Officer Bill Lentsch talking about Delta’s safety measures and some tips for in-flight personal safety.
After we took off, flight attendants gave us snack bags which included two snacks, a water bottle, hand sanitizer and napkins. I really wanted a Biscoff cookie, which I didn’t get with my own bag — so I decided to use this opportunity to do my own “call button test”, which our TPG staff do on each flight review to test the amount of time it takes for service from the flight attendants.
The result? Fifteen seconds on the dot, and this was the flight attendant coming from all the way in the back of a 737-800 — which I thought was quite impressive. I asked to see if they had any Biscoffs, and the flight attendant just brought a whole snack bag which had one in it. It seemed like the policy going forward for domestic flights was to just give entire snack bags to minimize contact with the passenger, which I greatly appreciated.
When the flight finally landed at Seattle, it seemed like the urge to deplane right away is something that even the new policies could not fix. Passengers rushed to get their bags and stood in the aisle, which ended the streak of everyone socially distancing. Perhaps Delta and other airlines can think of policies to make sure that customers are safe even when getting out.
Connection in Seattle
At first glance, it seemed like Seattle had returned to business as usual. That is, if you don’t consider the part about wearing a mask.
Security at the main terminal was bustling as it would be on a typical summer day, and passengers were walking around the building trying to grab some quick eats. What I found most surprising was the gate areas for certain domestic destinations that required some form of quarantine, such as Anchorage and Honolulu, were the busiest ones that I saw.
There were some areas of the airport that hadn’t come back to normalcy just yet, for whatever reason that may be. For example, the B Concourse station for the South Train Loop appeared to be closed — perhaps part of the evolving precautions taken by the airport since the pandemic began. The American Express Centurion Lounge across gate B3 was also closed indefinitely, with no word of reopening when I passed through in mid-July.
Other than those two exceptions, however, airport traffic seemed to me mostly humming along in the areas of the airport that catered to domestic flights.
As I got to the South Satellite gates in Seattle, where nearly all the international traffic is handled, I got a truer sense of how the pandemic has been affecting travel. Seoul is typically a popular international destination from Seattle, but the relatively empty gate area snapped me into the sombre reality of shut-down borders.
Other than the aforementioned boarding procedure — which was the same for my Incheon-bound flight — Delta instituted a separate temperature-check station to adhere to recently enacted requirements for all inbound international flights into Korea. Per regulations, passengers who show fevers higher than 37.5 degrees C (99.5 F) or higher are turned away (and are supposed to be given the option of a refund).
A relatively short socially distanced line snaked around the gate area to get temperatures checked by an agent who was wearing a face shield and other protective gear. After passing the temperature check, another agent puts a red “Delta Security” sticker on your passport to indicate your clearance.
Another new procedure required passengers to download either a self-diagnosis app or a self-quarantine app. A handy flowchart was shown to passengers before boarding to suggest compliance. While the app wasn’t necessarily a requirement to board, gate agents highly encouraged passengers to download in advance as immigration and health officials were going to check for it anyways upon arrival.
Boarding and In-Flight Service (International)
Upon boarding the Airbus A330-900, a Purell wipe again welcomed me to start my journey. My fellow passengers also were busy wiping their seats and their surroundings. As I was looking around the plane — and after I had done my duty to clean my seat — I noticed that the Comfort+ and main cabins were extraordinarily empty. So much so that I couldn’t help but think about the fact that both Delta and joint-venture partner Korean Air have Seattle-Seoul nonstops that depart within in minutes of each other.
While my seating area had many empty seats, I noticed that the Premium Select and Delta One cabins were much fuller than their cheaper counterparts — something to consider if you need to take a lengthy journey like mine.
One minor part of my in-flight service that felt disappointing was that flight attendants handed out main cabin travel kits in the Comfort+ cabin, presumably part of the shake-up of inflight service during the pandemic. In my previous transatlantic experiences with Delta, Comfort+ had its dedicated travel kit for long international flights. I acknowledge the kits aren’t much of a difference when it comes down to what’s actually in them, I would have appreciated some extra recognition from Delta for having paid a little bit more to be in that cabin.
Related: When is premium economy worth it?
An interesting difference that I had noticed between my international and domestic flights — putting the other inflight service elements aside — was the difference in coronavirus safety videos. I had mentioned earlier that the domestic safety video seemed to offer tips to protect oneself onboard; the international version seemed to have focused more heavily on trying to reassure passengers of their safety in the cabin, including visual graphics of how some of the aircraft features like HEPA filters worked.
Once we departed, everything else seemed relatively normal. Flight attendants gave us immigration forms, served us meals and beverages (including alcohol!) and eventually dimmed the lights as we headed toward Incheon. While we could not get them ourselves, we were able to ask for snacks anytime during the flight. Inflight Wi-Fi and the entertainment systems all worked perfectly.
One pandemic-related observation from the flight: It was remarkable to see how all the passengers that I could see kept their face coverings on at all times — even while sleeping. Anyone could have easily taken them off for a prolonged period of time as the flight attendants weren’t always walking down the aisle, but my fellow passengers all seemed to be abiding by Delta’s mask rules. It seemed like a new normal that will be with us for quite a while.
As I was walking down the jet bridge in Seoul, I had noticed Delta’s cleaning crew already waiting to board the plane with what appeared to be fresh new bedding material — not surprising given how vocal Delta has been with its cleanliness and hygiene initiatives rolled out since the beginning of the pandemic.
Overall, I was content with almost every level of my journey — except maybe the inflight food, which I found bland and unappealing compared to what I had on past international flights. Delta’s marketing strategy of restoring consumer confidence was not just something it talks about on paper — the carrier seemed to take it to heart, and I felt like I could really see and feel it for myself.
This all comes as airline employees face an uncertainty, with the potential for layoffs looming for nearly all big U.S. carriers. Despite that, the Delta employees I had encountered on my trip — from the check-in agent at Phoenix laughing at my terrible morning joke to the pilot who thanked me for my business upon landing in Seoul — were personable and came across as genuine in their commitment to serving their customers. Perhaps there’s a reason why Delta was ranked the winner among the U.S.-based airlines during this pandemic.
Again, I would not have taken this journey if I had no reason to do so. I would have been perfectly content staying inside, going through Zoom calls and daydreaming about a possible first-class flight, rather than to expose myself in a populated space like an airport.
But to feel it for myself, the sombre realities of air travel amidst the pandemic was a refreshing check on the privilege to fly that I had taken for granted. All I can do, as I complete my self-quarantine in Seoul, is to just pray that aviation will come back to what it once was before — and take seriously my civic responsibilities, like wearing a mask, to help contain the spread and return to life as we knew it before.
Stay tuned for another story on what it’s like to quarantine in a different country — and how you might be treated if you’re suspected as symptomatic of the coronavirus.
Featured photo by Brian Kim / The Points Guy
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