My last flight was on March 9, 2020. I had just finished giving a talk at the University of Oklahoma, and boarded a 90-minute flight on a regional jet back to Houston. At the time, the Coronavirus was still something that I didn’t think I had to worry about. Earlier that morning, the passenger next to me wiped down her seat with Clorox wipes. I thought she was over-reacting. No one at the airport was masked. Everything was normal. I landed back in Houston, and thought life would go on, as normal. Little did I know, that the OKC leg would be my last flight for 493 days.
Yes, I went nearly 500 days without even stepping foot in an airport. In years past, I flew about 100,000 miles annually. Yet I quit, cold turkey. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I enjoyed spending time at home with my family. I never went stir crazy. And Zoom wasn’t nearly as bad as people predicted. (And if variants continue to spike, we may not yet be done with Zoom.)
In April, I wrote about my concerns with re-entering civil society. Since then, I’ve slowly emerged. First, I went to an outdoor restaurant with a mask on. Second, I visited an outdoor restaurant sans mask. Third, I tried an indoor restaurant with a mask. Fourth, I rode Ubers with, and without a mask. (Some drivers volunteer they are vaccinated, and ask your preferences.) Finally, I went to a restaurant without a mask. It was a bit strange at first, but I dealt with it.
Today, I finally ventured back to the airport. Houston to Newark was a leg I had taken dozens of times. The trip was both familiar and novel at the same time. The terminal looked the same, though I noticed several stores and kiosks were closed. There was a COVID testing center where a watch store was previously located. That was new. And the CLEAR agent asked me if I needed a mask. That didn’t happen before. But things were still comfortable. People were uniformly wearing masks. Social distancing is impossible in a crowded terminal, but that was to be expected.
When I booked this trip a few months ago, I deliberately selected a bulkhead business class seat on a widebody jet, which provides maximal distance. Originally, the plane was Polaris configuration on a 767. The 2-1-2 layout would keep me quite far from other passengers. Alas, United changed the hardware to an ancient 757, so I switched the flight to a Dreamliner. This Dreamliner still has the legacy configuration without physical partitions between seats. But there was sufficient space.
United has restored the normal boarding process by zone. I was handed an alcohol swab when I boarded. There were no pre-departure drinks. But they did restore warm meal service. For breakfast there was a choice between waffles and eggs. I chose the former, which were tasty. Now water is served in small Dasani bottles. Recently, United abandoned the deplaning by row. We are back to the free-for-all.
After spending nearly 18 months without leaving Houston city limits, I re-entered New York. Well, New Jersey to be precise. But I eventually made it back home.