Last week, I flew roundtrip from Los Angeles to Oakland to see my grandson and his parents. It was my first time in the air in more than a year. Here’s a report card on how everyone did.
Southwest Airlines: Grade B-
Southwest was nearly the same as it was pre-pandemic. Fast on-time flights, courteous service by flight attendants with a sense of humor, and reasonable prices. Except for wearing masks on the flights, it was like the Delta variant of COVID-19 didn’t exist.
Because my wife and I are both fully vaxxed, but are “Infected Flier Hesitant,” we took an aisle and window seat in the front of the plane and put this sign on the middle seat between us.
On the flight from LAX to OAK, a man saw the sign, smiled, and pulled out his phone to take a photo of it to send to his wife. “That’s a great idea,” he said and sat down between us. He was a retired high school science teacher and told us that he would bring a similar sign onto his next flight. On the flight back to LAX, maybe because the plane was only about two-thirds-full, no one sat down between us. In both cases, we were happy; we had dodged the bullet of having someone who was unvaxxed sitting between us.
The B- grade reflects what happened in the terminal before the flights. Southwest still requires that the fliers’ line up, crowded next to each other, rather than call smaller groups onto the plane to board each flight. This would also help them store their bags in the overhead compartments with fewer risks to those already seated.
Also, since this flight was entirely in California, state law already calls for all critical workers to be fully vaxed by September. Southwest could probably fill all its seats, if it requires all passengers to be fully vaxxed before they can buy a ticket.
Seniors could quickly fill the flights. In Contra Costa County, home to OAK, 88% of the seniors are already fully vaxed; and most – according to anecdotal reports – are very wary of getting too close to unvaxxed travelers. In Los Angeles County, the home of LAX, 74% of their seniors are fully vaxxed and are equally cautious about sharing their space with anyone who is unvaxxed. This data aren’t scientific, but any travel advisors in these cities will probably testify that it’s true.
The number of covid hospitalizations in California has gone up by a mind-boggling 20% in the past two weeks. Southwest could slow the hospitalizations by preventing anyone who is unvaxxed and over 12 from flying on any aircraft that boards or disembarks passengers in California. Because of the “reach” of Southwest, this could increase vaxx rates throughout the nation without likely harming their bottom line.
Passengers: Grade B+
Both in the terminals and on the plane, most passengers obeyed safety regs and were thoughtful of others. There were only two significant exceptions to this.
Almost all parents with preschoolers did nothing to ensure their kids wore their masks (required by the FAA of everyone two years or older). Their kids mostly remained unmasked, both in their strollers and running around close to their parents. Since all of them were unvaxxed, this created a hazard both for them and the unvaxxed adults they encountered.
Also, because even vaxxed adults and teens can spread the Delta variant and get mildly ill themselves, the unvaxxed preschoolers were a hazard for everyone. The parents’ attitude was to look at those around them and shrug as if saying, “What do you expect me to do?” The answer, of course, is “Don’t bring your kids on flights, if they will not keep on their masks!”
To a lesser degree, the only others that were flouting the rules were people in the terminal or on the planes who would buy a drink or a bottle of water, display it prominently next to them, and proceed to remain unmasked. It was like they were saying, “See, I bought a drink. That permits me to remain unmasked for as long as I like.” Thankfully, these people were few, and they immediately put their masks on when anyone asked them.
The group that was invariably well-behaved in terms of masking was the teenagers and “tweens.” The kids were more polite and thoughtful of others than I had seen in earlier years. While there was plenty of laughter and some songs emanating from them in the terminals, they kept their masks on and did nothing to offend or endanger others. In OAK, we had arrived two hours before our flight home, and had lots of opportunities to notice what was going on.
OAK: Grade D
I’ve been traveling to and from the Oakland Airport 4-5 times a year for more than a decade, and it’s one of my favorite urban airports. It’s small enough to get seldom overwhelmed by crowds and large enough to have a good number of flights to LAX, which is within 10-minutes of our home.
Usually, there is a noticeable police presence of courteous two-person patrols that move throughout the airport, keeping order and providing passengers with assistance. If you’re waiting in OAK for a flight, these patrols appear every 5-10 minutes no matter where in the terminal you’re sitting.
On this two-hour visit to OAK, when we were waiting for our flight home, the police patrols were conspicuously missing. They were not there to remind parents that their young children had to keep on the masks and stay close to the parents, or remind people sitting with drinks that they had to keep on their masks when they weren’t sipping.
When some passengers in the Southwest area tried to complain to ramps agents about the unsafe behaviors, the ramp agents wouldn’t do anything beyond play the litany of recordings reminding people to keep track of their bags and had to wear masks if they were over 2 years old.
Usually, the patrols would take care of reminding passengers individually to avoid unsafe behavior and be available to ticket those if that was necessary. By avoiding foot patrols, it looked like they too had been told, along with the Southwest personnel, that this was not their job to intervene unless loud arguments or fistfights occurred.
With the Delta variant now predominant in every part of the United States, either the FAA or the state authorities should seriously consider closing all airports to unvaxxed fliers. Those flying unvaxxed probably account for more long-distance spreads of infections than any other persons.
Now that more than 70% of the residents of the United States have received at least one shot, there is no reason – other than fear of legal actions – to permit unvaxxed passengers or crew to fly. Again, anecdotal evidence suggests that vaxxed-only fights would outsell the others in many locations.
LAX: Grade B
In the short time I spent at LAX on my two flights, it operated like a well-oiled machine. I didn’t see anything that caused me alarm other than that it was open to unvaxxed flyers. Another beef, that was voiced by some other fliers, that the parking rate for autos was $40/day, despite the warnings by airport authorities that Uber, Lyft, and taxis were in short supply. This smacked of price gouging. Until the supply of paid rides returns to normal, the authorities should sharply reduce the parking rates since airport parking is far better at avoiding congestion than having people come to the airport to drop off and pick up travelers.
Overall: Grade C Under Present Conditions
Grade A If All Fliers, Crew, and Airport Personnel Are Vaxxed
As a travel advisor specializing in small ship luxury cruises, the only part of the cruising experience that I now warn vaxxed clients about is the flying experience. With nearly all the small ship lines not permitting anyone on board without vaxxes and pre-testing, the cruises themselves are probably as safe as they were in 2019.
If the ships don’t visit areas where the vaccination rates are much higher than where the clients’ live, cruising is now nearly as safe as staying home, were it not for the flights. While it may not be politically correct to say this, I can’t wait for authorities to make all flights “vaxxed only.” It’s not enough to do this for international flights only; domestic flights within the US are a much greater danger of spreading infections to some of our most vulnerable populations.
Dr. Steve Frankel and his wife have cruised on most of the Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Azamara, Oceania, Regent, and Windstar ships. He writes a weekly column, Point-to-Point, for Travel Research Online (TRO) that’s read by more than 80,000 travel advisors and industry leaders. Steve is the founder of Cruises & Cameras Travel Services, LLC. He has been recognized as a “2021 Top Travel Specialist” by Conde Nast Traveler magazine and a “Travel Expert Select “by the Signature Travel Network. His specialties are luxury small-ship cruises and COVID-19 safety measures, and has a doctorate in Educational Research with minors in Marketing and Quantitative Business Analysis. He’s also earned a Certificate in Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he managed qualitative and quantitative research in the private & public sectors. He’s a member of the Los Angeles Press Club, and has written 13 books and hundreds of articles. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.