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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
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Opinion I took a plane trip this week. It was surprisingly pleasant.

A traveler wears a mask and protective goggles as he walks through Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago on June 16. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
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ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — When I arrived at JFK Airport in New York earlier this week, the terminal was all but empty — passengers nonexistent, the vast majority of stores closed. I knew to expect it, but it was still eerie. It was a weekday afternoon in June, and when I looked up at the departure board, I saw a total of eight flights listed. My flight, to LAX, was the third-to-last of the day.

Nonetheless, there was a bit of a mob at one of the few food-and-snack shops open. There was only one cashier, and all of the customers were ignoring the recommended social distancing helpfully highlighted on the floor. They grouped together, a pre-covid queue for a post-covid world. The same probably would have been true at the security check-in, but there were so few people at the airport that the TSA PreCheck line was shut down. It could be said we were all expedited.

Almost no one is getting on an airplane right now if they can help it. According to the Transportation Security Administration, a little more than 607,000 people took a flight the day I left for Los Angeles, a decrease of more than 75 percent from this time last year. A majority of people say they will not fly until at least two months after all covid-19-related restrictions end. Fear is almost certainly a major contributor, but the lack of firm federal guidance on best practices to stay safe while flying probably isn’t helping. As a result, every airline has a different policy on everything from proper social distancing to how to handle recalcitrant passengers who won’t wear masks.

The airlines have received one bailout, and on Thursday, a group of six unions — representing workers including pilots, flight attendants and mechanics — asked Congress to give airlines more aid, in return for them committing to keep their members employed through March. This follows a request earlier this week by pilots at American Airlines for the U.S. government to buy the middle seats on all airplanes till the covid-19 epidemic passes. This would, they say, ensure proper social distancing on the planes, and hopefully entice more vacationers — not to mention offering up needed funds. (JetBlue, the airline I flew, will not sell middle seats to people not traveling together until the end of July.)

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As we all know, traveling by plane has been a miserable experience for almost everyone but elite-level fliers for years. The average trip is filled with delays, cramped quarters and annoyed fellow passengers. So there is no small irony in the fact that my covid-19-era flight to Los Angeles may stand as the best experience on an airplane I will ever have. Contact-free boarding was a breeze, and there were no arguments over bin space: The flight was, at most 40 percent full. Many of the passengers — including me — had an entire row to themselves.

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What else? The plane was sparkling. Due to the pandemic, most airlines now have a policy of deep cleaning the jets between flights, not just the usual tidying up. There was no delay in leaving JFK, and when we landed at LAX, we were at a gate all but instantaneously. I was reunited with my suitcase within minutes. To no surprise, everyone on the flight — all of whom had boarded masked, without a fuss — was in a good mood, though I did overhear one fellow flier complaining about the lack of booze for sale.

That’s not to say my air travel experience was completely issue-free; it most certainly was not. Food and beverage service was limited to a prepackaged snack bag — hence the line at the remnants of the JFK food court, and my fellow passenger unhappy about the lack of alcohol on the flight. More significantly, mask-wearing got a bit slack as flight time wore on. A number of people lowered them, and no one — to the best of my knowledge, at least — said much of anything. When I reached out to JetBlue to ask what their policy was on enforcing mask-wearing, they responded, “We’re seeing good compliance but there are cases where crew members need to step in.” (At the time, I nervously reminded myself that it’s probably safe to fly.)

And you won’t be surprised to hear that despite pleas by the cabin crew for passengers to maintain social distancing as we exited the plane, people did no such thing. The moment the plane arrived at the gate, people leapt up from their seats and into the aisles like the days of old. It was horrifying but also, in a strange way, reassuring.

Covid-19 hasn’t changed everything. One day, the skies will be crowded again. Business and leisure travel declined dramatically after 9/11, a change many thought would be permanent. It was not, though it took several years to rebound. This time will almost certainly be the same.

Unfortunately, what I found most delightful — and, hopefully, safe — about flying in the age of covid-19 is bound to decrease as flying gets more popular again. As if to prove that sentence correct, as I put the finishing touches on this piece, American Airlines announced they would begin permitting flights “booked to capacity” beginning July 1. Enjoy the happy skies while they last — if you dare.

Read more:

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