Air travel has always been a part of my life. But due to COVID I have not traveled since the beginning of January — until last week.
Just like so much else around us has now been distilled down and classified as essential or non-essential, at this point for me air travel boils down to the essential.
After living through New York City’s devastating hit by the pandemic, and complying very carefully with all COVID regulations, I won’t lie.
I approached the idea of air travel with a good dose of concern, but also with a tinge of curiosity.
Already, when booking the ticket online, there was a clear sense that something significant had changed.
The dread of middle seats is over. In an effort to maintain social distancing while airborne, middle seats are now officially blocked and unavailable.
Upon arrival at La Guardia early morning — normally teeming with passengers, requiring one to jostle for a place in the snaking security line — I found it eerily empty. For a second there I had a flashback to a different eerily empty time and place, when I was walking down the deserted Yoel Solomon St. in Jerusalem during the depth of the Second Intifada. It had become a ghost town.
Just to give you a sense of how unnaturally swift everything at LaGuardia was, I was getting into a cab at 97th and Broadway on the Upper West Sideat 6:50 a.m. By 7:30 a.m. I was already at my gate (I had no check-in luggage, but still).
The atmosphere at the airport was slower, friendlier, calmer, softer. It felt like I had entered a different decade of air travel. I wonder, is this softer world the hoped for good that may come out of coronavirus?
After a socially distanced boarding, as we each stepped on the plane we were given a sanitizing wipe. Probably to wipe down our seat and seat belt area.
Everyone was wearing the mandatory face mask. Quite a few people were sporting goggles, apparently to protect from droplets entering their body through their eyes.
Just seeing this visual reality is enough to heighten an already present sense of risk in sealing oneself in a locked airplane, at the mercy of exposure to other people’s germs.
So much of our routine that we have never given a second thought to is now fraught with danger. I’ve adjusted to running errands and supermarket shopping in the time of coronavirus. Now it was time to conquer air travel.
As in the airport, the atmosphere on the airplane was different. Again, quieter, softer, kinder. There was an intangible sense of camaraderie among passengers, as well as between passengers and flight attendants.
No longer are wheeled carts going up and down the aisle. Instead, we were each handed little prepacked baggies filled with snacks, a water bottle, hand sanitizing packets, and even a welcome aboard card from Delta. It felt more personal, almost like a little swag bag reminiscent of attendance at a party or an event.
Indeed, it felt somewhat eventful, as I can’t even remember the last time I had an entire row of seats to myself.
I wonder how many of my fellow travelers were also traveling for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic. There certainly was a feeling of caution and seriousness mixed with the usual sense of anticipation and joy of flying, knowing you are going places.
In most of our modern lives, air travel had become a banal activity. Now it felt imbued with extra care and thought.
At one point there was something indiscernible that I couldn’t put my finger on that also felt different. Then I noticed it. The generational change. Everyone around me was around my age or younger. It was strange how no older people seemed to be present. Their absence was acute, and it felt like a redefinition of our current coronavirus society.
Leaning into the window of the airplane, seeing the wing cut through the cloudy sky, a relaxing and uplifting experience that never gets old carried that much more meaning now.
Before I realized it, I was recounting to myself previous trips and memorable landings. One summer, I landed during an unfortunate bout of Colorado battling wildfires. It was sunset when the airplane was descending. Somehow the convergence of twilight with the intensified orange glows of fire made for a blazing sunset like I’ve never seen before or since. Cutting through the skies and landing amidst it felt like pure magic.
Without realizing it, I had now internalized a sense of Flying Had Become Precious. Not knowing when my next trip might be, without consciously making the choice I was savoring the experience, holding onto that floating zen feeling of witnessing an airplane wing cutting through the clouds.
With all the uncertainty caused by the pandemic these days, there is still something so gloriously grounding about landing in Denver, Colorado.
It’s those mountains.
Just as you land, or exit the airport to the fresh dry Denver air, or your car curves onto the road, the unfolding spread of the Front Range is still there in all its reassuring beauty.
It’s nice to know some things haven’t changed.
That those strong Rocky Mountains will always be there.
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