Reporter’s Notebook: Pandemic air travel is weird

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Leer en español: El diario de una reportera: Viaje de aeropuerto durante la pandemia

Editor’s note: Daily Universe reporter Kenzie Holbrook traveled from Salt Lake City to Phoenix on May 29.

I usually get really excited to go to airports because it means I’m traveling somewhere exciting. Airports are typically crowded, and I love the bustling feeling — there’s something about the rush of people that just makes me happy. But this time was different.

I’m not sure whether it was just the fact that I was tired from staying up late the night before, or if it was actually that the world is so different now, but when I arrived at the airport, something just felt off.

It was about 10:30 a.m. when I arrived at the airport, and there was hardly anyone there. The last time I was at the Salt Lake City International Airport, I had to wait in a security line that felt close to a mile long. This time, I barely had to wait at all.

The Salt Lake City International Airport is mostly empty. (Kenzie Holbrook)

Once I got up to my gate, there was a surprising amount of people there. The seating at our gate was pretty much full so we had to sit at another gate’s seating. While this crowded scene felt more like the airport trips I was used to, there was one noticeable difference: nearly everyone was wearing a mask.

A boarding pass for Frontier Airlines says “Face Covering Required to Board.” (Kenzie Holbrook)

I looked down at my boarding pass and read “face covering required to board.” It hit me right then, and it hit me hard. We live in a very different world than we did just a few months ago.

I never imagined a day when I would be required to wear something covering my face to be allowed on a domestic flight. When everyone is wearing face masks, it means no one’s smile can be seen. Maybe that’s why the day was feeling so gloomy to me.

As I waited at the gate, I watched as other passengers started boarding and spotted one man in line without a mask. I paid close attention to him as he got closer to boarding, curious to see if they would still let him on without a mask.

As he got to the front of the boarding line, I was far enough away that I couldn’t hear anything but I could see the motions of what happened. He walked up, the worker at the gate said something to him, and then he turned around and stood to the side.

I boarded the plane with no problem thanks to my face mask. Again, when I got on the plane, it was weird to look around and see everyone’s mouths and noses covered. Still no smiling faces.

Everyone on the flight was wearing face masks, and the flight attendants were also wearing gloves. (Kenzie Holbrook)

Usually when I get on a plane, I’m always put in the worst seat, the one that everyone dreads — the middle. But this time was different. Not only was I not assigned to the middle, but barely anyone on my flight was.

There were a few full rows with someone in the middle seat, but most had an empty seat separating two passengers. As much as I don’t like being in the middle seat, I realized there’s something comforting about having people next to you. This time, I had no one next to me.

Some people might see all of this — no wait in the security line, not having to worry about being placed in the middle seat and not having crowds of people at the airport — as a good thing. And in some ways, I agree, those things can be nice. But what hit me that day as I was traveling is that nothing can replace human interaction and connection.

Nothing can replace the sincere smile someone gives to a stranger. Nothing can replace getting to know someone new sitting next to you. Suddenly, those things were gone and replaced with social distancing.

I could feel the difference. I missed interacting with people and seeing others smile. The worst part about this whole thing wasn’t that the day felt off, but that I realized there would be many more days at the airport like this one.

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