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.