Flying on Delta Airlines this week gave me some faith that you can actually get somewhere far in relative safety during this crisis.
When I got on a plane for the first time since the current pandemic swept the world, it was a disaster. It was almost a pleasant surprise that we didn’t come down with the virus after two terrible flights on American Airlines. The disregard for customer safety was so blatant that I got the feeling the AA executives are secretly trying to sabotage the company so they could go into bankruptcy (despite the $5.8 billion government bailout).
We vowed not to make that mistake again when we returned to our home in Mexico with our daughter in tow, even if we had to pay a premium. We would fly on Delta no matter what. They were emerging as the airline that really cared the most about their customers during this crisis and the one that clearly deserved our business. While others should also be commended as being the good guys during this struggle—Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska—Delta was the only one that could get us back to where we needed to go from Florida.
Here’s my rundown on what the much safer-feeling experience was like when flying on Delta. We started out in Tampa, then connected in Atlanta for Cancun. That meant an internal flight in Mexico for the final leg—more on that toward the end. This way we avoided hotspot Mexico City, however, where we would have transferred to a small Aeromexico partner plane anyway, not Delta’s. In normal times, Delta has a direct flight to our city from their hub in Detroit, but it’s suspended for now.
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Is Delta Airlines Safe for Travel Right Now?
After two flights on Delta Airlines yesterday, I have to say they’re doing everything we could reasonably expect them to be doing to keep passengers safe and still be a commercial business. Airlines aren’t charities, so although we would all love to be on a plane that’s only one-third full on every flight, that’s not sustainable with tickets at the price levels we are used to. Planes are expensive to buy/lease and maintain, there’s lots of labor involved for every plane that comes in and out, there are hefty fuel costs, and there are slotting fees to land and park at the airport.
Unlike the bad guys in this fight for survival though, like United, American, Spirit, and Allegiant, Delta is keeping middle seats blocked out until at least through September, probably longer. They are finding that it’s a huge competitive advantage. The company is hearing constantly that this is why travelers are choosing them over rivals, even if travelers have to pay a tad more as we did. It’s just not worth risking your life to save $40.
From the pre-flight experience to deplaning, the Delta systems and crew were able to maintain as safe an environment as possible. Whereas flying on American Airlines felt like we were on our own to salvage some safety, on Delta it felt like the company was looking out for us.
Clean Travel While Flying on Delta
Before we boarded the plane, there were clear announcements about when we would be boarding, how the procedure would go, and what was required. Spacing markers were placed and used, with the crew reminding people to stay six feet apart.
Apart from those needing special assistance, the gate crew boarded the plane a few rows at a time, back to front. This was a welcome dose of logic compared to the free-for-all in the cabin we experienced on American (and later yesterday on Volaris). The gateway to the plane had distancing markers on the wall also both times we boarded.
The planes on both flights felt clean, but upon boarding, we got a single-use disinfecting wipe in a packet that we could use to wipe down the seat, the tray table, screen, and seatbelts. Yes I said screen because both Delta planes had seatback entertainment that was gratis. There were USB plugs on both flights for recharging, regular plugs on the second one for laptops. Flight attendants came through often gathering trash and they delivered a snack packet in a Ziploc bag with two snacks and bottled water. I hate the idea of all that single-use plastic (can someone please supply airlines with paper cartons of water at least?), but it’s the safe option for the time being.
Announcements on the screen and the speakers reminded us that we needed to wear masks for the duration of the flight unless eating or drinking. The CEO message on the screen before take-off reinforced this message and highlighted what else the airline was doing to keep us safe. Instead of just more corporate b.s., this felt real and honest since we could see much of it in action with our own eyes.
The biggest reason to fly on Delta is that they’re blocking out the middle seats. It’s hard to emphasize how much of a difference this makes in your feeling of separation until you experience a full plane and then one of these. We can argue all day about what percentage of virus spread risk this eliminates, but the bottom line is it is at least somewhat safer and it feels dramatically safer for passengers. A feeling of safety is essential if the airline industry is ever going to recover.
If we feel unsafe, we won’t fly. I wouldn’t take another American flight until their policies change or everyone gets vaccinated. I’d gladly take another Delta one next month though if I needed to.
So how safe is Delta Airlines to fly right now? About as safe as you can expect in this environment. We actually saw a flight attendant tell a passenger to put his mask on properly midway through one of our flights when it was hanging under his chin. (An American flight attendant flat-out told my wife “We can’t enforce it.”) If you’re still not comfortable getting on a plane with everything that they’re doing to mitigate risk, you probably shouldn’t fly at all.
You won’t be an outlier if you make the choice to avoid flying until there’s a vaccine or treatment. It’s not a risk-free activity by any means. Because of the way the airline air filtering systems work, being in a plane for an hour is probably safer than being in a classroom for an hour if everyone is wearing a mask. It’s still riskier than staying home, however, or being in your own car or RV.
I’m not one of those saying, “Travel as soon as you can” and advising you to hop on a long-haul flight across the ocean. We took relatively short hops because of our family situation, not because we were going on a beach vacation. The places we wanted to go this year that are on the other side of an ocean are going to have to wait until 2021 most likely.
A Tale of Three Airports: Tampa, Atlanta, and Cancun
Unfortunately, the main weak spot for Delta Airlines during a pandemic is that their biggest hub is located in a red state run by a sadistic governor. When the city of Atlanta passed a mask mandate to try to fight a spike in coronavirus deaths, Georgia governor Kemp actually issued an executive order to block it and then sued the city! In other words, he’s spending state taxpayer money that could go toward treatment to fight an action backed by science that would save lives. A-hole politics over health—while his state keeps getting deadlier.
Probably as a result of Georgia’s lax attitude at the top, Atlanta was the most dangerous airport of the three that we visited.
Tampa International Airport (TPA) was already a model of how a facility can and should run. This is one of the top airports in the USA and one of the most pleasant to spend time in. Their management team looked at every operation from top to bottom when this pandemic hit and went further than most from the beginning. There was no silly debate about whether masks were effective or if they infringed on some yahoo’s personal freedoms: management treated mandatory face coverings the same as mandatory no-smoking rules, as a health requirement. So face coverings have been required for months for anyone in the terminal. The city of Tampa and the surrounding county both eventually put a public mandate in place as well.
Digital billboards and frequent announcements on the speaker system reinforce the message that face coverings are required. While there were a few cases where a person wasn’t wearing a mask properly and their nose was sticking out, including one Delta pilot who was waiting to board as a passenger, these were rare.
Every other seat was blocked out in the waiting areas. Since Tampa has far more gate seating available than any other airport I’ve been to in the states, that means there’s still more than ample room for everyone in this time of less frequent flight schedules. A few outlets and stores were closed because of lower traffic, but it is still possible to grab something to eat, drink, or read. Cleaning crews were hard at work keeping everything sparkling clean and hand sanitizer is widely available at touchpoints.
It was a different story at Atlanta Hartsfield International (ATL), where it was up to the visitors to look out for each other. I didn’t see any signs about wearing a mask in the two terminals we were in. Announcements on the speaker system implored us to wash our hands frequently and keep our distance (quite difficult on the train you must board between terminals), but there wasn’t a word about face coverings. I’d guess at least 95% of travelers were doing the right thing anyway, plus the smaller crowds than usual made it easier to find a space of our own away from crowds.
None of the seats were blocked off in the gate areas where we were though, probably because there aren’t even enough seats for half the passengers on some flights in ATL. If they blocked off seats, only 1/4 of the passengers would be able to sit down.
It felt like a ghost town in some areas of a terminal that is usually one of the busiest in the world. I guess Kiel’s closed in such a hurry that they didn’t have time to change their merchandising and remove the skeleton that looks like an employee left behind.
After flying from Atlanta to Cancun International (CUN), we were back to clear actions of caution again. They took our temperature and gathered up questionnaires we had to fill out affirming we didn’t have any symptoms. (Funny enough though, this happened after we were already through immigration.) Plexiglas barriers were up and distancing markers were placed everywhere.
When we entered Terminal 2 for our domestic flight, we had to walk over disinfectant mats at the entrance to the check-in area. All employees had masks on and most had clear face shields on top. Hand sanitizer dispensers were mounted on columns around the gate area and cleaning crews in white jumpsuits were roaming around spraying disinfectants like they were crop dusters. A frequent announcement on the speaker system reminded passengers in two languages that masks are mandatory in the terminal.
Saving the Worst for Last: Flying on Volaris During a Virus Outbreak
While the Cancun International Airport was doing almost everything right, there’s no Mexican airline that is, unfortunately. They seem to be looking at their flight route options as binary: sell all the seats or don’t fly the route at all. None of the Mexican airlines are blocking out middle seats and none seem to even be reducing capacity.
We had to fly on a Mexican airline for the last leg from Cancun to Leon/Guanajuato. We chose Volaris because the times worked out, it was direct, and the three seats in the very front were available.
There’s no business class on Volaris, just ones with more legroom for an upgrade price. So I bought three of the most expensive tickets, with all baggage included, to get us into the first row. If we didn’t have carry-on luggage we could have waited and been the last ones on, but we needed to find bin space. We were able to be the first ones off, however, plus we had nobody sitting in front of us on the flight.
Volaris is rather lax overall in dealing with this virus, however. Their employees are all wearing masks plus face shields, which is comforting. On the other hand, they’re saying it’s mandatory for everyone to wear a mask for boarding and in flight, but they’re not enforcing it. As with the Atlanta airport though, most people are getting the message about how necessary this is and are voluntarily complying. I watched every single passenger board; only one adult boarded without a mask on and just six had it under their nose. (Note to those who haven’t gotten the message: wearing a mask that doesn’t cover your nose is like wearing a condom with a giant hole in it. Or a bra that only holds up one boob.)
Unfortunately, this flight was completely full, with every seat sold. It wasn’t even close when we bought the tickets a couple weeks ago, but since then a lot of Mexicans apparently decided this was a fine time to go on vacation to Cancun. Volaris is a budget airline known for low base fares, so they have to sell a lot of their seats to make money. We bought the three best tickets available and they were $83 each all-in with lots of baggage. Some passengers paid less than $50.
At those prices, leaving all the middle seats open probably doesn’t add up. There could be an opportunity there for higher-priced Aeromexico. But since all their flights go through a big city hub, there’s a trade-off. Plus they’re in bankruptcy protection right now and the Mexican government is being extra stingy in their pandemic response. Neither the companies nor the people are getting much help from AMLO’s regime during this crisis.
Last Airport and Baggage Claim
When we got to our final destination, someone took our temperature and squirted our hands with sanitizer upon deplaning.
While baggage claim in Cancun was orderly and in a huge spaced-out area, the luggage pick-up area in Leon-Guanajuato International (BJX) was built for a time when the region wasn’t nearly so popular. Mexicans aren’t naturally inclined to social distance anyway, so when bags go onto a carousel that’s not very long, the scene ends up like this:
I waited until I could see our bags going around and then went to the end of the carousel to get them, in a spot where I could keep my distance.
It seems impossible to pack light when you’re coming back to a foreign country you live in and are bringing things from home. This time it was even worse for us because our daughter is coming to live with us again for a while. So we upgraded the taxi to get a van home from the airport. I was huffing and puffing getting suitcases up the steps to our house on a pedestrian-only street since we went from sea level to 6,500 feet in altitude in one day. The magic of plane travel. But we made it. That alone is cause for celebration.
We will celebrate for real in two weeks. After four airports and three flights, we’re voluntarily quarantining ourselves and ordering delivery for what we need. If we come through this with no contagion signs, our next trip will be to a place an hour and a half away…by rental car.
Bottom line: flying on Delta during coronavirus felt about as safe as anyone can reasonably expect. The airports are generally doing a good job, though as with red-state Dallas, Atlanta is lagging behind in its efforts to keep visitors safe. Last, if you must fly within Mexico, look for a flight time that’s not very popular and be willing to spend a little more for more spacing.