Here’s a long detailed post about how my travel day went. (For background, see my post from the other day.)
(The first three photos attached to this post show me after shaving in preparation for wearing an N95 mask; the fourth one shows me wearing the mask; the fifth shows me on the plane, with mask and face shield.)
Before travel day: Plane seats
I’ll start with a background note: I bought plane tickets in Delta’s “Comfort Plus” seating section, which is the first five rows or so of the main cabin. I figured that would mean I would board near-last and debark near-first, so I would be on the plane for less time than if I got my usual near-the-back seats.
I was surprised to learn that that decision had a bonus positive effect: when I checked in the day before my flight, I was still one of only three people in that section of the plane on the first leg of my flight (SJC to SLC). The rest of the main cabin was full (except for the blocked-off seats), but the C+ section was nearly empty; I think there were only three or four of us in that 20ish-seat section. So it was clear that nobody would be sitting within 6 feet of me. That was a bit of a relief. The second leg (SLC to ORD) was on a bigger plane, and all the un-blocked-off seats were going to be occupied; but even so, it was clear that no more than five, and maybe fewer, people would be within 6 feet of me on that flight. (I was in a window seat, and the center seat in each three-seat group was blocked off. So I would have one person in front of me, one behind, and one two seats to my left; and, diagonally slightly further away, one each in front of and behind the person two seats to my left.)
OK, onward to the travel day.
San José airport
Monday morning, I put on my travel gear, including putting a little bit of liquid soap on the inside of my face shield to reduce fogging, and Kam drove me to SJC.
Delta’s website said to arrive 2 hours before flight for domestic flights. I had been planning to arrive only an hour before the flight, to minimize my time at the airport, but Delta’s site made me worried that things would take an extra-long time. So Kam dropped me off at SJC about an hour and 45 minutes before my flight.
Turned out there were no passengers in line to check baggage. In fact, there were almost no passengers anywhere in the bag-check part of the airport. (This was around 9 am on a Monday morning; apparently that’s a good time to fly out of SJC these days if you don’t want to deal with a lot of other people.)
My face shield was fogging up a little and I didn’t want to try to deal with it just then, so I slid it up onto the top of my head. (It’s a plastic shield that zips into a hood. I bought it on Etsy. Shaping the flat shield into a curve turned out to be more of a hassle than I had expected, and it fogged up more easily than I had expected, but overall I liked it a lot. And it reached me in a couple of days after being shipped from Bulgaria, where most things I’ve bought from overseas this past year have taken weeks to arrive.)
I checked my suitcase, then took my duffle bag and backpack upstairs to the security area, where it turned out there was essentially no security line—only one passenger ahead of me.
There was a sign at the start of the security line saying that masks were required, and that if you didn’t have a mask, they would give you one.
The security check person looked at my driver’s license and had me pull down my mask to show that I was the person on the license. I was a little flustered—I hadn’t expected that I would have to remove my mask—but I did it, and they waved me through, and I pulled my mask back up again. (I re-secured it more firmly later, after I got through security.) Oddly, they didn’t ask for my boarding pass.
I was so flustered by general stress, and it’s been so long since I flew (a year!), that I completely forgot to take off my backpack when I put my stuff on security conveyor belt. The security guard gently reminded me.
After I went through the security scanner, the guards on the other side told me that the plastic of my face shield (still raised on the top/back of my head) had interfered with the scan. I reached up to remove the face shield, figuring I would have to go back through the scanner, but instead they said they would just do a manual check. They briefly patted my upper back and sent me on my way.
My departure gate was pretty close to security. Almost the entire gate seating area was empty—only about three other seats were occupied. I sat down to wait, and arranged my face shield properly in front of my face. It mostly didn’t fog up.
A young white guy arrived, and sat in the seat directly in front of me, facing me from maybe 7 feet away. There were literally dozens of other empty seats he could’ve taken that wouldn’t have been that close to me. I got up and moved to one of those other seats.
(He was masked, though, as was everyone else I saw at SJC.)
The Delta gate agent announced that masks were required, and that they would provide a mask for anyone who didn’t have one. …More precisely, I think both the security-line sign and the Delta gate agent said that “masks or face coverings” were required, which I suppose leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
When it came time to board, I think there were only about 30 passengers total. (For a maybe 80-seat plane; roughly 20 rows, 4 seats per row.) (But one of the aisle seats was blocked off in each row, so I’m guessing the plane could only seat about 60 passengers.)
All of the passengers who boarded before me were masked. One older white man (seated in one of the back rows—they boarded back to front, so he was among the first to board) was wearing some kind of neck-gaiter/neckwarmer thing that he had pulled up over his mouth and barely over his nose :(, but everyone else had what looked like reasonable masks, mostly medical-style. I saw at least one double mask, and a couple of face shields.
People in the gate area were mostly being good about distancing, except for the boarding line, where I guess habit took over and the passengers weren’t distancing at all. I maintained distance behind the people in front of me, but I suspect the people behind me didn’t. (The hood severely limited what I could see; I would have had to turn almost completely around to see the people behind me.) The gate agent made no attempt to get people in line to distance.
By the time I got on the plane, the air system was already running full blast. I had been a little worried about that, because articles I had seen said that planes used to sometimes not turn on the air system until they started up the engine to start moving.
As expected, there was nobody within 6 feet of me; the C+ section was nearly empty. Worth noting, though, that the C+ section wasn’t physically blocked off from the rest of the main cabin; the seating diagram had made it look like it was.
Boarding went quickly, and I think we departed early.
Salt Lake City airport
The flight to SLC went fine. I burped a lot (dunno what was up with that) but otherwise mostly dozed. I tried to arrange my scarf so that it would mask off the open bottom area of my face shield, but not sure how successful I was at that.
On arrival in SLC, the plane let us out on the tarmac, and we had to get on a shuttle bus to get to the terminal. They kept it to about 20 passengers per bus, and I had a few feet of space around me on the bus, and it was only a few minutes, and everyone stayed masked; but still, I wasn’t expecting that, and it made me tense(r). And there was no obvious ventilation.
Inside the terminal, SLC had what looked like nearly pre-pandemic numbers of passengers. I may have overestimated the numbers in comparison to the near-emptiness of SJC, but there were definitely more people than I was expecting.
And I had to go from terminal B, where we’d arrived, to terminal A, for the second leg of my flight. I had vague memories that SLC was a small airport, about the size of SJC, but it turned out to be a significant distance to get from one terminal to the next.
And this was where things got particularly stressful, because I started getting out of breath really quickly. I would walk maybe 20 yards, and then have to stop and put down my duffle bag and take off my backpack and lean against the wall and pant for breath. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before, and it was kind of distressing, especially under the circumstances.
I imagine that it was some combination of several factors, such as: the N95 mask (which I’d been wearing for four or five hours by then); not having exercised a lot lately; carrying two heavy carryons; altitude; whatever was going on with the burping; stress; etc. I wasn’t consciously panicking; I just took things slowly, and stopped when I needed to, and stood still on the moving walkways instead of walking on them, and I eventually got where I was going. But I’m really not used to having that hard a time breathing. (I did not, however, remove my mask at any point (other than the aforementioned moment at security in SJC).)
Adding slightly to the stress there was that halfway from terminal B to terminal A, I tore one of my latex gloves while putting down or picking up my bag. Intellectually, I knew that having a small patch of exposed skin was not the end of the world, but it did increase my general tenseness.
When I arrived at the gate, I saw that many of the seats in the gate area were full, and at least some of the passengers had their masks down around their necks. :( So I sat down on the floor next to the moving walkway, fifteen or twenty feet away from the nearest other passengers. (And I changed gloves; thanks to the friend who had suggested bringing an extra pair in carryon bags.)
I thought about asking the gate agent to tell the waiting passengers to put their masks on, because I knew there was a new federal mask mandate. But I wasn’t sure whether that order covered airports as well as airplanes, so I looked it up online. Turns out that it does cover airports, but it hadn’t gone into effect yet. It was announced on Friday evening, and wouldn’t go into effect until Monday night at midnight Eastern time. So those maskless passengers still had another nine hours or so to enjoy their masklessness without it being against federal regulations to do so.
Anyway, I wasn’t there long before boarding started, at which point the non-maskers put their masks on.
The boarding process again went smoothly, though it took a bit longer just ’cause this was a bigger plane than the previous one. When I reached my seat, the airflow was again already running; nice to see.
(…I think maybe they shut off the airflow for a couple minutes just after boarding? I forget. If so, it wasn’t for long.)
The flight again went smoothly. I stayed in my seat and again mostly dozed and burped.
We landed at ORD twenty minutes early. Spent a while waiting to deplane.
Chicago airport and Lyft
I eventually got off the plane and walked to baggage claim. I didn’t have quite as much trouble catching my breath as I had at SLC, but still a fair bit more difficulty than usual.
Picked up my checked suitcase (as I was leaving the baggage claim area, another passenger complimented me on the hood-and-shield), slowly made my way to the ride-app pickup area. The past few times I’ve visited, I’ve picked up bags at a baggage claim station that was quite a ways away from the pickup area, but this time I was luckily just downstairs from it.
(I had considered renting a car, to avoid having to deal with being in a car with an unknown-to-me driver. But that would’ve involved getting on a car-rental shuttle with a bunch of other passengers. And I would then have had to figure out how/when/where to return the rented car in Oak Park, and how to get from the return place back to where I was staying. And so on. So I decided that Lyft would be simpler and—given the rental-car-shuttle thing—possibly safer.)
The Lyft app warned me that there were few drivers available and that I might not be able to get a ride, and then there were some shenanigans with Location Services on my phone not giving my location to the Lyft app accurately, but in the end a driver accepted my ride request pretty quickly. After I got in the car, I said something like “I know it’s cold outside, but would it be okay if I opened the window?” The driver said something like, “Sure, go ahead! You can open all of the windows if you want!” I laughed and said I didn’t think that would be necessary, and I opened my window and spent most of the drive breathing outside air. (I still had mask and face shield on.) It later occurred to me that the driver might have wanted more windows open; and I did read recently that the best airflow for being in a car with a stranger during the pandemic is to open the front passenger and rear driver-side windows, so that there’s a sort of river of air between the driver and the passenger. But I just went with the one window down.
(And I gave the driver a big tip.)
Arrival at Airbnb and conclusion
We made it to the Airbnb without incident. It was set up for me to be able to enter with no contact with anyone, so I went in and removed and threw away my mask and gloves. And I removed the face shield and hood and jacket and scarf etc. and left them in a pile by the front door; figured I wouldn’t touch them for a few days. I know that virus lingering on material is not thought to be the main method of transmission, but I figured under the circumstances it couldn’t hurt to give any lingering virus a few days to die off.
Then I decided I might as well take off the rest of my travel clothes, so I dumped those in another pile and put on the bathrobe that I had cleverly brought along.
Also had some food and water; I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in about 9 hours. And used the bathroom, which I also hadn’t done en route.
Overall, I think it went as smoothly as it could have, and I think that short of taking a private plane, this was probably about as low-risk a travel day as I could have managed. It was definitely not non-risk. But I suspect that the highest-risk parts of the trip by far were the SLC parts—the semi-crowded bus to the terminal, the semi-crowded terminal itself, the relative lack of masks, and my spending a lot of time taking repeated long deep breaths, all make me think that if it does turn out I got infected, that’ll probably be where it happened.
But I’m hoping that I didn’t.