Flying Across the Country On an Empty Airplane (Guest Trip Report)

Alaska Airlines, Guest Posts, Trip Reports

Those of you who have subscribed to the Cranky Coronavirus Daily Update are familiar with Andrew’s moment of levity. (If not, you should really subscribe.) Andrew works for us at Cranky Concierge, and he recently had to fly from Seattle to Atlanta for personal reasons. Since I’m not flying and neither is anyone I know, I asked him to write up his experience here. I think you’ll agree it’s a fascinating look at a whole different world than what we’re used to.

Oh, one last note. We didn’t even think about writing this up until after he flew, so unfortunately I didn’t bug him to take a bunch of photos. I’ve included the few he took here.

A combination of personal and family issues put me in the no-win situation of needing to fly across the country in the midst of the Coronavirus shutdown.  Seattle and the State of Washington had been under a stay-at-home order for nearly three weeks at this point, but unfortunately I had no choice but to brave the conditions and get on a plane.

My need to fly came suddenly, and I had no idea how long I would need to be in Atlanta.  Because of the uncertainty, I made the decision to book a one-way ticket leaving on Sunday, April 5.  When looking at my options on Friday, April 3 — two days prior to departure — there were four nonstop options in the market: one daily flight on Alaska and three daily nonstops on Delta.

The Delta options were pricing at $492 one-way, a reduced full coach fare with the Alaska flight pricing very similarly.  Delta would allow me to use Skymiles for 28,000 Skymiles in coach or 55,000 in first.  The best option, however, was using British Airways Avios on Alaska. For the small sum of 13,000 Avios (transferred from Amex) and $5.60 I had my one way ticket from Seattle to Atlanta departing at 7:45 Sunday morning.

I hopped in an Uber at about 6:15 am on Sunday morning and made my way to SEATAC.  Traffic was light thanks to the combination of it being 6:15 am on a Sunday and the middle of a Pandemic with a stay-at-home order.  The normally 30-40 minute journey to the airport took about 15 minutes and I arrived to a desolate curbside with only a handful of cars unloading my fellow passengers.

The airport seemed staffed to ordinary levels… each check-in counter was staffed and both Delta and Alaska had their Microsoft and Amazon-only employee check-in locations operating.  It all seemed normal with one exception. There were no passengers.  Some signs of normalcy existed, such as a family of five — two parents and three teenage girls — arguing over who was going to lug their bags to the check-in counter. Further down the check-in hall, a young couple was trying to corral their two small children.  Even that couldn’t erase the eerie quiet that settled in all through the terminal. All those smiling, cheery employees were ready, but they had nothing to do and no one to help.

I made the decision to forgo checking a bag — the length of my trip was (and still is) indefinite. I had a third bag but opted to flaunt federal regulations and see if Alaska would let me board the nearly-empty plane with two carry-ons AND a personal item.  Walking towards the TSA checkpoint, I headed to the Precheck line, skipping the CLEAR option.  Despite being a CLEAR member, being the only person at the entire checkpoint made it seem like it would actually make things take longer.

As I handed my driver license to the TSA agent, he pointed to the empty checkpoint and said “Really feeling the value of your Precheck membership today, aren’t ya?”  I laughed and headed to the x-ray machine where three more TSA agents eagerly awaited my arrival.  “You’re the first person we’ve had come through in 20 minutes,” one of them told me.  Granted, this was at 6:20 a.m. on a Sunday, and the airport still had three other checkpoints open, but I found the comment so telling about the current state of activity at the airport.

I offered the TSA agents to do a secondary inspection of my bags after they came through the x-ray just to “give them something to do and keep their skills sharp,” but they politely declined with a chuckle.  Passing through the checkpoint, I turned left and passed the only Alaska Lounge open in the entire system.  Moving past the lounge and the main (non-Precheck) security checkpoint which was slightly busier, I was again astonished by the number of shuttered restaurants and stores in the airport.  The main food hall at SEA, which is bustling at nearly every hour of the day, was as quiet as the rest of the airport.  Most retail stores were closed with signage on the front stating their closure was due to the stay-at-home order issued and that they were non-essential. 

Some sit-down restaurants were open, offering “takeout” only, but most were closed.  Starbucks was open, all the Hudson News locations were open, and McDonalds, a 24-hour operation at SEA, was open as well. It was the only place that was remotely busy; there was actually a line to wait in to order.

Continuing to B2, my departure gate to Atlanta, I passed empty gate after empty gate.  Most of the first gates encountered on the B concourse belong to Delta and each one was a ghost town with no passengers or plane parked.  I made my way past the shuttered Centurion Lounge with a hand-written sign stating it would reopen “sometime in the future,” and finally made my way to the end of the B terminal to gates B1-B6. These are usually split between Southwest and Alaska.  Southwest’s three gates were empty, but Alaska was using two gates on this Sunday morning: our 7:45am departure to Atlanta and a 7:40am departure to Ontario.

When I arrived at the gate, there were two gate agents working each flight, and maybe a dozen total people between the two gatehouses, all socially-distanced.  Our crew arrived shortly after 7am and boarded the aircraft at which time the agent welcomed us and gave the usual spiel about what order people board in. Then he said that wouldn’t be happening today. He joked that with just 11 of us making our way to Atlanta this morning, we’d board shortly, and he asked that we simply board in an orderly and socially-distanced fashion.

Boarding was called at 7:15am, and the gate agent did mention if anyone did want/need to pre-board, they could do so at that time.  After no one took him up on the offer, he welcomed all 11 of us on board, asking everyone to have their boarding pass in hand and ready to scan. Everyone would be scanned using a handheld scanner, allowing the BP to be scanned from several feet away.

I was one of the last of the 11 to board, and I did so with my two carry-ons and personal item. I was feeling like a true rebel, only to be emboldened when I was allowed onto the jet bridge without so much as a second look.  I entered the jet bridge and turned the corner to see — amazingly — that there was a line back to board the aircraft.  I thought this would be the one time, just once, we wouldn’t have to queue in the jetway, but it wasn’t meant to be.  The flight attendants, it turned out, were asking everyone to wait to board until the preceding passenger was seated.

Unsuprisingly, the line moved quickly and I made my way to 11D.  Then 11E. Then 11F.  Really, I could have gone just about anywhere.  Of the eleven of us on board, there were three in first class – two revenue passengers and a deadheading pilot.  Back in the slums of coach, there were eight of us: a flight attendant who was out of uniform, a young mother with two young kids, and four scattered singles, myself included.  The flight attendant was the only person to sit in Premium Class –_ Alaska’s name for premium economy — although I’m guessing the crew wouldn’t have made a fuss if someone else had.

Increasing the uniqueness of this journey, the flight crew turned several pre-flight rituals on their heads.  For one, they offered all of us, even in economy, a pre-departure beverage.  Secondly, they did the pre-flight safety briefing without the PA system.  One flight attendant handled First Class while another went through the briefing for us in the back.  They then confirmed over the PA that there was no-need to do the exit row briefing as no one was seated in an exit row.

The captain came on the PA quickly to let us know of our flying time that morning of four hours and fifteen minutes and that it would be relatively smooth the entire way.  He then told the flight attendants we were ready to go and to prepare the cabin for takeoff.  We pushed back 20 minutes early at 7:25 – just 10 minutes after boarding began – and were airborne about five minutes later.

Shortly after we leveled off and the seat belt sign came off, the flight attendants came through with pre-packaged snack bags containing a bottle of Dasani, Biscoff and a pack of brownie brittle.  The flight attendants also let us know that no other food had been loaded, but to let them know at any point if we wanted anything else to drink.

I spent the majority of the flight alternating between reading a book on my kindle and looking out the window.  It was a beautiful day to fly, with clear blue sky leading us across the entire country.  Even from 30,000 feet, it was possible to see what a strange time we were living in.  On a gorgeous Spring Sunday, we flew over churches with empty parking lots, baseball fields and golf courses that were deserted, and empty freeways and highways.

The flight attendants were seated together in the back of the plane mostly chatting and playing on their phones but were very active as well, coming through the cabin every 20 minutes to see if we needed or wanted anything.  They set up trash bags at both the front and back of the cabin, and politely asked that we dispose of our own trash to help reduce the amount of items they needed to handle.

The flight went as fast as a cross-country flight can, and at 2:35pm ET, or about an hour before we were supposed to arrive, the captain came on the PA to let us know we had been cleared to land in Atlanta.

The plane began its descent giving us an even closer view of a shutdown Atlanta, with parking lots and roads as empty as could be.  We landed smoothly at 2:50pm, speeding past dozens of Delta planes parked on the runway as we made our way to gate D3.  After we had parked and the seat belt sign had been turned off, I opened the overhead bin to find my bags were not where I had put them four hours prior.  It turns out, the line we’ve all heard hundreds of times “items can shift during flight” is especially true when your bags are the only ones in the overhead.  They had shifted about four rows forward during flight all the way to the front of the bin.

Deplaning took just about as much time as boarding did — about 30 seconds — and I entered my second dystopian airport of the day.  I was shook as I made my way into Concourse D at the busiest airport in the world and did not see another passenger for as far as the eye could see. 

Walking past empty gate after empty gate and seeing each restaurant closed, the Delta Sky Club with a closed sign felt like an out-of-body experience.  I grew up in Atlanta and have flown through this airport hundreds if not thousands of times.  Seeing it so serene was an experience that I never could have imagined.  Eventually I passed a Spirit flight crew, all in masks, heading towards their gate for a flight to Cleveland leaving an hour later. It wasn’t until I reached the midpoint of the D concourse that I finally found open retail options and other passengers, but it all felt so quiet and sad. 

A final depressing moment came as I boarded the plane train to take me to the main terminal.  It arrived at D, having come from the International Concourses E & F, and was completely empty.  I had a car all to myself, and the adjoining car had just three people in it as we went to a quiet baggage claim. I met my ride to head into the city.

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24 comments on “Flying Across the Country On an Empty Airplane (Guest Trip Report)

  1. I have to say, this global pandemic and its associated “stay at home” orders are wreaking havoc on the economy, let alone the airline industry. Please don’t misunderstand this comment – I completely understand why they are necessary – but the future of commercial air travel may be quite grim if a vaccine or some effective treatment isn’t found relatively quickly.

    Even a “reopening” that requires constant tests, wearing “COVID-free” wristband identifiers, rolling outbreaks and their associated closures, et cetera for two or more years would continue to devastate the economy could mean – for the U.S. airline industry, possibly – a return to some form of regulation. Maybe not quite the return of the Civil Aeronautics Board, but close. Our continued bailout of the industry as taxpayers will be viewed as an “investment” that requires some type of say-so in capacity, service levels, and so on. Four nonstops between SEA and ATL with a total of maybe 50 people on them – heck, even 150 in a year, let’s say – just isn’t tenable.

    I hope I am wrong and things return to some semblance of normalcy by autumn. Otherwise, the airlines may likely once again be hiring lawyers who speacialize in route cases before the U.S. DOT.

    1. The airline industry will not be nationalized. There is an enormous amount of capacity that was added under private sector capitalism and can be pulled the same way. Airlines that can’t get costs out to reflect new economic realities will be forced into a trip through bankruptcy but, make no mistake, some airlines will be able to adapt their business plans using the grant money and their abililty to access capital markets.

      It is also worth noting, relative to this article, that AS like B6 is hubbed in the corner of the country. They will incur more losses with low load factors flying to the opposite coasts than legacy/global airlines that have hubs spread across the country. The fact that DL is still operating 3 flights/day (or did at the time the author checked flights) shows the greater strength of ATL as a hub to collect and distribute passengers; the same will be true for Chicago and Dallas area hubs compared to coastal hubs like PHL or SFO.
      AS’ red robin/circle/tag flights will help reduce costs but they also add flight time; at some point, basic criteria for choosing flights including flight time, price and service levels will return.

      regarding masks, I doubt most Americans will wear them unless they are required. It is just not a part of American culture.

  2. I’m just trying to imagine the concourses at ATL, the most crowded and awful place in the world, empty!

      1. …Or LGA, or MCI, or a number of other airports with so little seating by the gates that the main hallways are blocked by waiting pax.

        ATL could be better, but it is FAR from the worst.

  3. To quote the great Robert Stack in Airplane! as he comes down the stairs… “unbelievable, just unbelievable.” There are no better words I could find that would more accurately describe todays entry.

    1. Hi Johnny –

      A few of the passengers wore masks but most did not. Additionally, none of the AS staff at the gate or the flight crew were wearing masks.

  4. Thank you for sharing. Who could have imagined we would ever read what you have described?

    Just wondering, did anyone tell you, either at time of check-in or in the aircraft, where you could or could not sit?

    And, I apologize for my usual rant about pricing. Why would DL be asking $492 to take this flight on this route? How about a single fare, like maybe $150, every seat in the economy cabin, and 2 free checked bags? I know, too difficult, too costly to re-program the res system and get rid of all those last month’s bucket and bucket of fares, and to think how that would destroy the airline’s ability to yield mange all of its flights now with 5 and 10 percent load factors!

    Sorry, I still appreciate your post.

    1. Hi JayB-

      They didn’t. I’m assuming as a coach passenger I couldn’t go into first class. Other than that, I think as long as we socially-distanced, nothing would have been an issue. I did sit in my assigned row, but none of the cabin crew seemed particularly interested in where anyone sat on the plane.

  5. I flew AS SFO-BOS on Sunday. I echo your comment about how eerie an experience it is flying at the moment. From what I saw there were more employees than passengers at both airports. There were 23 people on my flight. Close to 1/2 of those passengers flew up front, including 2 deadheading pilots. The sum total of service was 2 8oz bottles of water and one Kind bar. The flight attendants did pass through collecting trash several times. None of the crew wore a mask, either in the cabin, or the flight deck. The 2 gate agents at SFO did wear masks however. The passengers in coach, (all of whom had masks on the entire flight), were all easily able to maintain social distancing. The 3 flight attendants in coach all sat on the same side of the plane, in the last 3 rows of coach, clearly not social distancing.

  6. Andrew:

    Quick question…. I know it was an early morning flight, but was the flight still serving alcohol (beer, wine, liquor) or just a beverage (soft drinks, water) service?

    1. Hey Keith – I believe no alcohol. They only offered a pre-packaged snack bag with a bottle of water in it during the “service.” I went to the back at one point to get a coke and they just handed me a can. The FA’s were clearly trying to limit their interaction with us as much as possible (while still providing as much service as they could under the circumstances).

  7. Your report almost makes me want to fly just for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. :)

    Me thinks we have about 2 more weeks of this and then the airplanes will slooowly start getting more crowded. By June, there will be travellers. By July, completely empty airports will be history (not that they’ll be crowded, of course, just not empty).

    What will drive the return is science. There are a lot of elites currently emotionally invested in the Apocalypse, but the data doesn’t support it. At all. The real mortality rate from the virus is only 2 or 3x flu — and probably significantly lower than that for those under 50. The average age of death from COVID-19 is 78. So I really recommend that seniors, especially those with serious pre-existing medical conditions (which make them particularly vulnerable to this virus), stay home this summer.

    I do think the USA may follow Canada and require all pax to wear masks. This makes some intuitive sense — half the “victims” of COVID-19 are asymptomatic and could therefore spread the disease — we don’t have ANY science that tells us much about the infection rate on airplanes. I suspect it’s very low — because of the hospital-levels of circulated air — but there isn’t hard science to support this belief. At least not yet.

  8. Well I hope we can get back to “regular” travel at some point. I think passengers and crew wearing masks and having their temperatures checked is gonna be the new normal, plus putting hand sanitizing and hand washing stations in many places. I personally don’t mind small adaptations because I want to protect vulnerable seniors and cancer patients. You never know who needs that protection – a good friend, a young mother with three small boys, looks fine on the outside but she has been treated for breast cancer the past two years and has a compromised immune system. So we as a society have to adapt our behaviors. And I think us travelers should show leadership by being the good example. The photos of the floors at ATL are poignant. Think of the cleaning crew at the airport making those floors sparkle and give them a big THANK YOU.

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