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By The Way

30 observations from my first vaccinated flight

Everything you hated about flying is back, baby.

Many people took a hiatus from travel last year, because — well, you know why. Road warriors stayed home. Newlyweds put off their honeymoons. But now that millions of people are vaccinated and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said immunized people can travel with less risk, people are taking trips again en masse.

I’m one of those people.

Two weeks after I got Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen shot, I decided to fly home to celebrate my dad’s birthday in Fresno. After a year of writing things like, “Wish I was there to celebrate with you!” in greeting cards, I could finally go eat birthday cake with my parents in person.

So I left for D.C.'s Reagan National Airport to take my first fully-vaccinated trip.

When I flew in November, airports looked like ghost towns and the tension between passengers was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Not anymore. Flying’s back, baby, and so is everything you used to hate about it. I’m talking crowds swarming the gate a half-hour before boarding; lines at every Starbucks in every terminal; barefoot travelers sprinting to their connecting flights, sandals in hand.

To paint a picture of what flying’s like now, here’s everything I noticed along the way.


It feels like Russian roulette trying to predict the crowd size at the airport, plus my TSA PreCheck didn’t go through when I booked my flight, so I leave the house heinously early just in case. Is it going to be packed? Empty? None of the above? Joke’s on me: There are three people in line at security.


Panic in the TSA “line” — I’m not wearing socks. Clearly I’m completely out of practice traveling, and this is proof. My stomach sinks knowing I’ll be flopping through security barefoot. But lo and behold — I have socks in my carry-on bag! I frantically put them on standing up, you know, like a professional.


My turn at the conveyor belt. The TSA agent tells me to stop taking my toiletries out of my carry-on bag. “You don’t have to take anything out.” My guy, since when? No toiletries? No electronics? Nothing? It’s a whole new world out here.


My backpack goes into the “you packed something suspicious, you dork” conveyor belt, and for the life of me I can’t guess why. That being said, I did not once look into it before I shoved more things inside for the trip. “Is there anything fragile or sharp that could injure me in your bag?” I tell him no, and I am apparently a liar. He pulls out my wine key from a front zipper and flips out the teeny tiny little blade as if to say “What’s this? Could this not injure me?” I apologize, and he confiscates my deadly weapon.


The TSA agent tells me to “have a good flight.” I reply: “You too.”


There’s a menagerie of masks around the airport. Bedazzled ones, homemade ones. One guy’s wearing a BDSM-style leather mask with buckles and zippers. People-watching is a gift.


I wander through Hudson News for old times’ sake, looking forlornly at the snacks. Do I want to shovel Combos in my mouth all flight long? Yes. But experts still warn against it (eating on planes in general, not just Combos, thank god). I buy nothing.


Airport bars are open again, which means drunk people are at the airport again. Someone’s singing at the top of their lungs. There’s a lady walking around drinking a can of Truly hard seltzer while talking on the phone; open-container laws do not appear to apply in this airport.


A man hovering around my gate drops a mint on the carpeted airport floor. He picks it up and eats it.


The gate agent announces they need volunteers to check their carry-on bags free because there’s no way everyone can fit their stuff in the overhead bins of this full, full flight. I’m not in a hurry, so I head to the counter to surrender my suitcase. The gate agent gives me a tired look and says, “Ma’am, your bag is not closed.” I look down and see that she’s right — the half-shut zipper of my hard shell is barely holding its contents inside.


I fall to my knees and close my bag in humiliation. In the process I realize I forgot to pack any underwear for this trip. Not a single pair. How?


We’re boarding my American Airlines flight to Dallas and chaos ensues. Passengers bungle their seat assignments. People go back and forth, yelling out seat numbers like they’re playing Battleship. “It’s not that difficult is it, goodness gracious,” a flight attendant says. “It’s got seat numbers, it’s got letters.” I forgot how completely embarrassing this process is. People are staring at me while I pretend not to notice.


A couple in the row in front of me argues so animatedly that their seats rumble back and forth. The woman keeps pulling her mask down for added emphasis, and the guy with the spiky hair nods with his whole body to whatever she’s saying. A flight attendant tells the woman to put her electronics away for takeoff. She complies while delivering her spiky companion a giant eye roll. They keep their masks down most of the flight.


My adrenaline surges as the plane takes off, and all of my internal organs smoosh together. My body isn’t used to this anymore. The city below us gets smaller and smaller. Flying is a miracle, I think to myself.


I make the wobbly walk to the back of the plane to use the lavatory. There’s so much eye contact with so many people. Look away, people! Nothing to see here!


The sink. In the lavatory. Is not working. I press the faucet button repeatedly to no avail. I grab a sanitizing wipe from the flight attendant’s station and walk back to my seat, unnerved.


Sleeping on planes is a skill, and it’s been a while since I flexed those muscles. I didn’t pack a single thing to help either, like compression socks or a neck pillow, and hate myself for it. I manage to doze off a few times, none of them comfortable.


There’s a guy sleeping in my row with his mask down. A woman with a baby alerts a flight attendant about it, and he wakes the man up to remedy the situation. Across the aisle, another guy is sleeping with his baseball cap tipped down over the top half of his face, mask over the bottom half. Honestly this is a brilliant move. In addition to the coronavirus considerations, no one can see you drooling.


On the topic of masks: if the pandemic has taught me anything it’s that my breath is a lot wetter than I ever realized. My mask is as steamy as a Korean spa (which I miss a lot, by the way).


We land in Dallas where I have a four-hour layover. I decide that for the first time in over a year, I’m going to eat inside a restaurant. I walk through three terminals to assess my options and land on Pappasito’s Cantina.


I regret to report that airport food is still expensive. My $17 chicken burrito is easily the worst thing I have eaten in the pandemic — and I tried to pickle my own sardines during quarantine. I wash it down with a double Reserva Margarita and do not know what my end game is. To be tired? Dehydrated? Numb the pain of this burrito? Why do I always buy a worse seat on a worse airline because it’s $50 cheaper, then spend that same amount on a terrible meal at an airport chain restaurant?


It’s back to wandering the airport, and I stop by the ladies’ room. The woman in the stall next to me starts screaming, and I see that her toilet is overflowing with the force of Niagara Falls. She’s wearing zebra-print flip flops — a terrible choice of airport footwear in my opinion, and even worse when your public toilet becomes a geyser. I grab my bag and run.


An airport trolley ferrying passengers to their gates nearly kills me. I board my flight to Fresno.


I say hello to my row-mate like it’s normal to talk to strangers again. We have small talk for a while with follow-up questions that keep the conversation going. The stranger is a businessman traveling for meetings. “We’ve been virtual for so long,” he says wearily. His mask is under his nose and I don’t even mind; I’m just happy to be here.


I’m not sure if — checks notes — sucking down a margarita, chips and salsa during my layover was a great idea hydration-wise. My mouth is as dry as a sandbox. I sneak a quick sip from the tiny water bottle they passed out when we boarded.


We’re over New Mexico, and at this point my feet are swollen and the rest of the bones in my body aren’t doing so great either. I slump down like a wet noodle in my seat, thrusting my hot bulging feet as far under the row in front of me as I can to get a little more supine.


My toes, in my wool socks and sneakers, are no longer swampy. They’re now so cold and hurt so bad they are throbbing. Have my toes ever been this cold on a plane? Did my toes get worse during the pandemic? Is there a cryotherapy chamber under the seat in front of me I somehow missed? I Google “Can you get frostbite on a plane” because I paid for in-flight WiFi.


I gasp. The daredevil in front of me puts his full cup of coffee, no lid, in the middle of the aisle. The plane lights are down. No one walking to, say, the lavatory, will see this recipe for disaster. I wait for someone to inadvertently punt the coffee, but miraculously, no one does.


We land at the devastatingly-acronymed Fresno International Airport (FAT). I walk my ice feet off the plane to baggage claim.


It’s taking an eternity to get my suitcase, but it’s not the end of the world. Instead of glowering at the carousel waiting for my luggage to appear while regretting my decision to check a bag, I’m having a wonderful time watching people reunite with loved ones (while regretting my decision to check a bag). Everyone’s hugging and joyful, and so am I.

Yes, flying is stressful. It causes headaches and body aches and the legroom in coach will never be enough. Some of the people you encounter along the journey make you wonder why you would ever leave your house in the first place. But as I finally grab my bag, I remind myself it’s a privilege to experience all of travel again — not just the post card-worthy moments but the weird, uncomfortable parts too.

Story editing by Dayana Sarkisova. Copy-editing by Paola Ruano. Designed by Christine Ashack and Dayana Sarkisova. Design editing by Rachel Orr.

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