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Our Abnormal Journey Flying During a Pandemic

Sue and I were picking up dinner the other night from one of our regular restaurants when she mentioned to the woman who brought out our food that we had just flown back to Denver two days earlier.

Now, we already were practicing social distancing, but the restaurant worker instinctively took another two steps back from us. Six feet quickly grew to nine feet. I’m not even sure she realized she did it, but it was almost comical. Clearly, the idea that we had been on an airplane raised a big red alert flag in her psyche.

That, in a nutshell, describes the adventure of our first flight experience since the pandemic began changing everyone’s view of human interactions. It was, in a word, strange.

Nothing was normal about this trip, not even the planning.

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We were in Florida when states across the nation began measures that shutdown most non-essential businesses. As April drew toward its close, however, we began discussing if, when, and how to return to Denver.

The logistics not only involved me and Sue, but also Sophie, our 13-year-old Labrador. Because Sophie is a big dog and not a service animal, flying her home on a commercial flight wasn’t an option. I suggested that we drive home with the dog. I have made that trip before. It’s a little more than 2,000 miles and, depending on how often you stop, takes two or three days. I even came up with a plan for staying with friends or family rather than in hotels.

Sue vetoed the idea. There were just too many unknowns about where we would eat, sleep, and use the bathroom during a cross-country trip.

We decided to fly home and use an experienced service to transport our dog back to Colorado. Flying,  however, still felt like a risk. It involved being around people we didn’t know at a time when people we don’t know might unknowingly have a contagious virus. On the other hand, many states were loosening or about to loosen restrictions and it was beginning to appear the curve had been somewhat flattened. Airlines were taking all sorts of new precautions and, well, we were ready to get back to Colorado. So we booked a flight on United.

The airport and the airplane were eerie places. Everyone wore masks, of course, but it was a really strange environment for many other reasons. At the airport, people sat quietly and waited for the call to board. There was a look of suspicion in everyone’s eyes and, frankly, I was a bit afraid to clear my throat for fear that people would assume I was coughing and, therefore, contagious.

Since United didn’t sell the middle seats and perhaps because fewer people are flying, our plane was roughly 50 percent full. The flight attendants served only canned drinks and packaged foods, and they made very few rounds other than to collect the trash and do mandatory safety checks. Very few people got up during the flight, and almost nobody talked. Most people just breathed into their masks while they slept, worked, or stared at the seatback in front of them. It was the quietest flight of my life.

It also was uneventful. No one coughed on us or sneezed on us and, as far as we know, we remain virus-free. Sophie was waiting on us in Denver, tail wagging, and we were glad to be home.

In our neighborhood, things weren’t particularly normal. But it was eerie in a good way. In the afternoons, I had never seen so many families outside taking walks or riding bikes and enjoying time together. It reminded me of life growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1960s. Mom cooked, we ate together as a family, and then we went outside if the weather was good.

That’s one aspect of the pandemic – an upsurge in quality time with loved ones – that I hope sticks around for decades to come. I also like quiet flights . . . but without the masks and the suspicious looks if I happen to clear my throat.

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