Experiencing My First Flight in a Pandemic World (Trip Report)

Hawaiian, Trip Reports

On January 29 of this year, I landed at LAX after a flight from New York. I had no idea at the time that it would be my last flight for 267 days, but, well, we all know why. I have been and continue to be hesitant about flying. It’s not because I worry about getting sick on an airplane, but it’s everyone dragging their germs around the world that makes me more nervous. Still, I think testing is the way forward, and when I was given the opportunity to fly out to Hawai’i to see the state’s new COVID testing program, I opted in.

[Disclosure: Hawaiian provided free transportation and COVID testing for me and my wife]

I won’t talk much about the testing program here. For that, you’ll want to see this post. But the flights themselves were notable as well for being a whole different kind of experience… while not actually being all that different.

At the time, Hawaiian had just one daily scheduled flight from LA, a mid-morning flight out to Honolulu with an afternoon return. We were booked on that roundtrip and given window/aisle seats together on the side. Seating on the A330 is 2-4-2. Hawaiian customers most often travel in pairs or families, so the airline doesn’t block any window/aisle seats. It does, however, restrict those seats in the middle two and will continue to do so until December 15, at least. So while the flight looked fairly full from an inventory standpoint, it had plenty of empties in both directions.

My parents were taking care of the kids while we were gone, so my dad drove us to the airport. There was no traffic at all despite it being rush hour, and the horseshoe at LAX was eerily quiet, as expected.

We went over to Terminal 5 and put on our masks before heading into the terminal. I had checked us in on the app, so we just walked up to Precheck and sailed through with no line. On the other side, we just had to wait.

From afar, the terminal wasn’t crowded, but once we got to our gate, it was a different story. We just found a quiet place a bit further away where we could maintain 6 feet of distance between us and others.

Everyone was wearing masks at first glance, but then a Spirit flight arrived and I saw a bunch of people getting off either with no masks or with masks not covering their noses. It was uncomfortable to watch.

Boarding for our flight and a JetBlue flight began at the same time, so it was busy and nearly impossible to hear what rows were boarding. Hawaiian has been boarding not using the zones on the boarding pass but instead from back to front a couple rows at a time. We had to all get closer to hear when it was our turn. Once it was, they stopped everyone to take a temperature reading — mine was 97 but my wife was 92, so, uh, she’s apparently not alive — and then we got onboard.

October 22, 2020
Hawaiian 3 Lv Los Angeles 10a Arr Honolulu 1250p
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 57, Runway 25R, Depart 6m Late
Honolulu (HNL): Gate C9, Runway 26L, Arrive 10m Late
N399HA, Airbus A330-243, 2001 Pualani colors, ~70% Full
Seat 35J, Coach
Flight Time 5h30m

We were welcomed with a masked “aloha” and a wipe to take to our seats.

We both wiped down our tray tables and armrests and then settled in. Not much appeared different at first. Sure, the Hana Hou magazine was sealed in plastic showing it wasn’t dirty, but everything else looked the same.

We tried a few different masks, including KN95s, but those were incredibly uncomfortable for such a long period. We stuck with surgical masks as being our best bet to mix comfort, safety, and non-fogging of glasses.

We taxied out with no delay and took off into the morning murk.

It was just a shallow marine layer, and we were soon above it in the brilliant sunshine. The crew announced that they would be doing just one service on this flight to avoid contact with travelers as much as possible. They first came through with my favorite form ever made… the Hawaiian agriculture form that you fill out when you fly to the islands.

Then, they gave everyone their rations. On this flight, it was a hot pocket with cheese and tomato — I thought it was meh, but my wife liked it — a bag of pau hana snack mix, and a bottle of water. There were no other drinks offered, nor was there a second service with the usual bag of potato chips and rum punch. That was sad.

With no wifi to distract me, I settled in and planned on finding some good entertainment to keep me busy for the 5.5 hours. I had forgotten, however, that studios have basically stopped putting out new releases, so the cupboard was bare, so to speak. That’s when I saw that they had the Michael Jordan/Bulls documentary “The Last Dance” on there. This was perfect. I plowed through the first 5 episodes.

Despite the air being smooth as glass, the pilots didn’t turn the seatbelt sign off until an hour in. They were quick to put it back on several times despite there being nothing more than a few light bumps.

With about an hour left in the flight, I flipped on my favorite Hawaiian Airlines radio station:

I listened to that all the way in to Honolulu. We were getting ready to cross over Oah’u as usual when we hung a left turn. I figured there was traffic or weather and we were in a holding pattern, but no. The Kona winds had kicked up and so we ended up doing a rare (for me, at least) landing to the west. That meant we had an incredible view of Le’ahi (Diamond Head) and Waikiki on our way in. For those who are interested, here’s a 3 minute video:

After landing, we taxied in and then the adventure began. Again, you can read the post about the testing regime here if you’d like more detail. We grabbed our Hertz rental car for a pittance of $16 a day which — thanks to a missing “E” — I named Ted….

In the car, I removed my face mask. It hadn’t bothered me much on the flight, but once I removed it in the car, I realized my ears were really sore.

We then made a beeline for the lei stands to get my wife a proper welcome. (I’m partial to Gladys.) And for the record, you should all go to the lei stands after you arrive and support those artisans. There’s no better way to start a visit to Hawai’i.

After doing some interviews with Hawaiian execs, we had a short couple of days to enjoy all that Hawai’i has to offer. Strangely but unsurprisingly, it was like a ghost town. I booked the Hyatt Place Waikiki for about $143 a night (or the equivalent in Chase points). The resort fee is waived right now, and the location was good, but I didn’t love the hotel. If you want to see more about my time on the island, go here.

Sunday it was time to go home. I usually like the morning flight best, but it wasn’t operating, so we took the afternoon one. I found out that the new rental car facility is open for returns even though pick-ups are still at the old place. The new facility is further from the Hawaiian ticketing area, but we didn’t need to go there since we’d checked in on the app. So we dumped the car and crossed the sad and empty airport road.

The ticketing areas on the Diamond Head side of the terminal appear to be mostly closed off, or at least the escalators heading up were. So we kept walking toward Ewa and then came up through security. We had Precheck, and they pulled my wife’s bag for further inspection. Apparently they were highly suspicious of her Wet Naps and makeup wipes, saying that those will flag every time. I don’t know why this is an issue in Honolulu, but it sure was weird.

We slowly walked past the closed shops and made it toward our gate. When we got to the Ewa concourse, I realized that we were already on the other side of the agriculture inspection which seemed odd. So I went up to the guy working there and asked if we should come around to go through it. He said no, if we were already past him, it didn’t matter. We never went through an ag check, and I have no idea why.

The gate area had plenty of seating, and I took a brief walk to find depressing shots like this one.

There was plenty of hand sanitizer all over, and there were reminders to wear your masks. Oddly enough, those reminders seem to suggest that shoes are completely optional.

Boarding was very slow, again only being done in rows of three to five at any given time. We were in row 39, so we only had to wait until the third group.

October 25, 2020
Hawaiian 2 Lv Honolulu 210p Arr Los Angeles 1030p
Honolulu (HNL): Gate C3, Runway 22L, Depart On Time
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 57, Runway 24R, Arrive 4m Early
N386HA, Airbus A330-243, Maile Lei colors, ~60% Full
Seat 39J, Coach
Flight Time 4h56m

Upon boarding, we were again greeted with a wet nap. This aircraft had the new paint job on the outside, but it looked older on the inside compared to the flight out. It had the previous version of the inflight entertainment system, but it looked to have the same content.

I was warm on the ground, and the face mask felt stifling. The sweat combined with my moisture from my breath was just not pleasant. It improved once we got in the air and the cabin cooled down more.

It was another rare runway experience for me, this time taking off on the shorter 22L. That meant a quicker taxi followed by takeoff to the southwest. In the photo below, you can see four aircraft parked on a taxiway, awaiting the day they’re needed again.

The flight attendant was extremely chipper, and had plenty to tell us on climbout. He noted that we’d be climbing through some weather so the seatbelt sign would stay on. I don’t know what weather it was, but I saw nothing but clear skies and spectacular views of Moloka’i with Lana’i in the background.

We had the same service on this flight as on the way out, but this time it was a barbecue chicken hot pocket to accompany our water bottle and pau hana snack mix. I have to admit that I liked this hot pocket a lot more than I care to admit. I mean, it was really good.

I finished the book I’d be reading during the trip, and then I turned on The Last Dance to watch the last 5 episodes.

With mood lighting on and the sun setting about halfway into the flight, many settled into sleep. I, however, was riveted. We came in to the north and flew just south of Santa Maria. This older entertainment system turns off on descent, so I found myself missing the final 30 minutes of the entire series. Not cool. I did watch it the next morning.

Though there was rain in LA earlier in the day, it was a mostly clear night as we came in abeam the airport.

After throwing a lasso around downtown, we looped around and landed on the north runways. Even with the longer taxi to the south side, we got to the gate a couple minutes before schedule.

The terminal was again mostly empty except for some people waiting in their warm coats for a downright miserable redeye to Denver on Frontier. We were planning to stay away from my parents after returning since we didn’t want to take any chance if we had picked something up along the way, so we had to find our own ride home. I had thought taxis had moved back into the main terminal area at LAX, but I was wrong. We thought about walking to the remote lot, but we were tired and the buses didn’t look overcrowded. So we held our breath and got on.

Lyft was 35 percent more expensive than Uber for our ride home, so we hopped in an Uber, pulled the windows down, and got home in no time. My parents left the door to our bedroom open, so we went in and stayed there until they left in the morning.

It’s always great to get to visit Hawai’i, but I can’t deny that this was one weird trip. Still, I’m glad I went and I hope it’s a preview of how we can start opening up travel again even before the vaccines are widely available.

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15 comments on “Experiencing My First Flight in a Pandemic World (Trip Report)

  1. My understanding is that at HNL if you go through security anywhere other than the Inter-Island terminal that Agriculture inspection is performed by the TSA as part of the security inspection.

    So the only time people would need to go through Ag check is if you come from Inter-Island terminal. Obviously very different from airports on the other islands.

    1. CM – Ah, this is fascinating. See, I’ve only come in from the old interisland terminal before, and when you go there, you have to pass through the ag check if you depart from anything but the interisland gates. So I guess the checkpoints there don’t do the ag check but the ones in the overseas terminal do?

      1. T2 checkpoints have integrated ag inspection. But that also means that they’ll confiscate your fruit at security if you’re flying to ITO and clear TSA in T2 vs T1 where they’ll let you pass. One of the downsides of WN’s terminal location for neighbor island travel.

  2. With TSA screenings on either side of 1 million/day for the past several days, there will be more and more fuller flights. Limited dining/retail options inside terminals is the hardest part of travel esp. on airlines that are not serving coffee or caffeinated beverages.
    Yeah, what is with the Cruze? Did Hertz’ bankruptcy give them an option to reject a few letters on their car names to reduce costs?

    glad you got out to travel and hope there are more soon. Hooray for the parents.

  3. I flew once during this to visit family. I decided after doing that I’m just going to wait to travel by air again until this is all over, masks, vaccine checks, all of it. Unfortunately I know it’s going to be a while. On the bright side, it sounds like you had a good time in a not busy Hawaii.

    1. I flew in August and September to visit family and it sucked. I wore a KN95 mask for all the flights and it was very uncomfortable at the end. I will fly again only once I have been vaccinated. Even if I have to wear a mask, I would be a lot more comfortable wearing a cloth mask since I won’t be nervous about getting COVID anymore.

    2. I’ve flown roundtrips for leisure (all domestic US) since COVID started. Other than the requirement for masks (which I understand and support, but even good cloth masks are still uncomfortable), and a few newsstands and food joints being closed (though there are always others that have been open 100 yards away), I honestly really like the experience, and find it much better than the pre-COVID experience.

      No lines for security (even on the Sunday after Thanksgiving), plenty of space in most of the airport terminals I’ve been in for everyone to social distance, plenty of overhead bin space in the back of the plane, empty seats next to me, and so on… Were it not for the impact on the economy and on jobs, I could get used to the COVID-19-era flying experience.

  4. “but then a Spirit flight arrived…”

    I’ve always been a bit of a Spirit and Allegiant apologist, but after several flights on Alaska with reasonably-masked people, one flight on Allegiant was enough to scare me off the, um, airlines of the people, until all this is over.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. While I readily admit I’m kind of a snob, the difference in PAX behavior between United and Allegiants/Spirits of the world could not be more pronounced. Maybe it’s leisure vs business traveler but given that fares not that different between the airlines, I just don’t get it.

  5. I always enjoy your trip reports. The footage of the landing at Honolulu was pretty awesome. It’s rare to see videos of the landings towards the west.

  6. I’m not giving any of my money to states or organizations (airlines) that are requiring 72-hour negative test. Lets say I take a $150 test on Saturday and then on Sunday, I go to church, brunch at Applebees, the car show in the afternoon and visit some family and friends. Then on Monday, I get my negative test result and proceed to the airport via bus/train and spend a couple hours “socially distancing” from everyone at the airport and finally boarding a parked plane with lots of strangers that are not 6 feet apart. The 72-hour negative Covid test requirement is just farcical security theatre. Maybe other states should start requiring reciprocal visa requirements for people travelling from Hawaii.

  7. Wait a tic… you’ve been to hesitant to fly this entire time since covid started, but yet want to charge 10 bucks to send a daily email of airline news articles that we can read for free? I’ve noticed you don’t fly that much anyways which makes me wonder, why do I continue to read news from someone that’s not even an active participant in said subject.

  8. Cranky, ya mentioned the seatbelt signs again and I felt my blood pressure rise. Why on earth are US airlines like that with those stupid signs? Dont they realize that after we figure out that they don’t care about actually keeping the signs on when they need to be, we stop caring about them too?

  9. I think it’s worth emphasizing that masks don’t do ANYTHING when you’ve removed them to eat a hot pocket, especially at the exact time everyone on the flight has removed theirs to eat their hot pockets. If you’re going to engage in indoor dining/drinking (do not recommend but hypoglycemia I get it I guess?), try to do it thirty minutes after the service when everyone has re-masked. If you wouldn’t eat indoors in LA (oh wait it’s banned, right?), you shouldn’t do it on a plane. Worse — everyone on a plane unmasks simultaneously while at least at a restaurant it could be staggered.

    Stay safe out there. Thanks for being a model to others.

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