Is flying really a miserable experience?

Pandemic air travel isn't as bad as they say. Here's my first-hand report

You've probably heard a lot about the agony of air travel in the last few weeks. You've seen the viral videos of passengers beating up flight attendants and each other, and even incidents of flight attendants exchanging blows with pilots.

The mainstream media has jumped into the fray, suggesting that air travel has never been more miserable and trying to prove its point by tracking phone hold times or aircraft tail numbers. Hey, whatever works for them.

So you might be forgiven for thinking that air travel is like an episode of World Wrestling Entertainment's Smackdown in real life. You know, you board the flight and what's that sound? A bell? Oh, look out for that lawn chair! 

But no. I've been on five domestic flights, one 11-hour international flight, and one domestic European flight in the last week, and I'm here to tell you — no.

Hey, how was your last flight?

Before I get into the details, I'd love to hear about your last flight. Where did you fly? Was it as bad as you expected? Or better than you expected?

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High anxiety at 36,000 feet

The anxiety among air travelers is palpable. For some reason, travelers think planes are superspreader events waiting to happen (there's no evidence of that) or that their fellow passengers are anti-vax, anti-mask activists waiting to pounce on them (probably not true). They've heard about service cutbacks and believe incorrectly that they will receive only water and stale bread in economy class, but only if they obey every instruction of the flight crew, which rules the main cabin with an iron fist.

Domestic flights: crowded, masked and polite

Earlier this month, I flew from San Diego to Mobile, Ala., via Atlanta on Delta Air Lines and then returned to Los Angeles via Dallas/Fort Worth on American Airlines. I was in Mobile to work on a story about Breeze Airways for USA Today.

Of course, there are no testing requirements for domestic passengers — not even a quickie antigen test — so I had no way of knowing if my fellow passengers were sick or not. But everyone, and I mean everyone, masked up. 

The American Airlines flight attendant even offered instructions for eating: "Put your masks back on between sips," she ordered. That, people did not do. The beverage service was a license to remove the mask for however long it took to drink the whole can, which could be as much as 10 minutes. 

There wasn't an available seat on any of the flights, and because I had booked my tickets almost at the last minute, I ended up in a middle seat in the last two rows. This was as uncomfortable as ever. American Airlines really had the least amount of legroom. The flight from Dallas to Los Angeles was truly unbearable, with the passengers on both sides (a couple who for some reason didn't want to sit next to each other) each claimed the armrest. I felt like an anecdote in one of my own columns.

Maybe I should be playing the points and miles game. Just kidding.

My biggest surprise was in Atlanta, which was as crowded as I've ever seen it. They say air travel is back to only 80 percent of pre-COVID capacity. If that's true, I would hate to see 100 percent. Crowds of passengers moved through the Atlanta airport terminals, all masked but not maintaining any semblance of social distancing. 

Oh, I can't wait for the holidays. 

Other than that, there were no raised voices, no heated debates about masks, no skirmishes. Everyone kept to themselves, and the flights were on time and uneventful. 

International flights: half full — but full of surprises

By contrast, flying internationally was like a vacation. The check-in lines at San Francisco International Airport were mercifully short. I overheard one passenger arguing with a representative that she just had to sit next to her kids but required extra space because it was such a long flight. The TAP Air Portugal employee told her it wouldn't be a problem because there were "many" empty seats on the aircraft.

There were. I had an entire row to myself, so I got to spread out across five seats on the Airbus A330neo and tried to sleep. I got maybe three hours of rest before turbulence jarred me out of my slumber. I spent the next seven hours waiting for the smell of coffee from the galley that signified we were almost there.

There's a reason some overseas flights are not operating at capacity. International travel is still kind of iffy in the age of COVID. You need a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of your departure for Portugal, which is easier said than done. I took several free PCR tests before leaving Long Beach, Calif., and none were ready before I left. I had to scramble to take a fast-turnaround 12-hour test, which cost $175. I had the results within about five hours.

Once they lift the testing and mask requirements, there will probably be a deluge of international travelers. A no-mask, no-test air travel environment might happen as early as next summer, depending on how COVID goes. But you never know. I'm not in the predictions game for pandemic viruses; it's way above my paygrade.

Our trip from Lisbon to Ponta Delgada in the Azores, our final destination, reminded me of my last European flight. A couple of empty seats, and the flight attendants hand you an antibacterial wipe when you board, but apart from the mask requirements, it's more or less the same. The Airbus A319 is a noisy little plane but it got us to our destination, and for that I'm grateful. I recommend noise-canceling earbuds for flights like these. They really help.

No, flying is not terrible. It's just different.

The air travel experience of late 2021 can't be summarized in words like "miserable" or "terrible," although it certainly makes a clickbaity headline. It's complicated. Domestic air travel is chaotic and hyper-busy, with occasional, you know, incidents. International air travel is much quieter and, in some places, back to almost a routine. But the good news is, everything is returning to normal faster than anyone expected. This won't be a topic of debate in a few months, and maybe sooner.

My tips for flying better during the holidays

I have a few insider tips for surviving your next flight.

Domestic flights: Avoid the holidays, take deep breaths. If you have to fly between now and January, there's no way to avoid the chaos. Download your airline's app to track your flight or work with a qualified travel advisor to make sure nothing goes wrong. Seriously consider buying travel insurance. And practice meditation or some form of relaxation technique. It's gonna get a little crazy out there!

International flights: Anything could happen. Everything is still in a state of flux. For example, when we landed in Ponta Delgada in the Azores on Friday, they herded us into a line to check our vaccine passports (green passes). We didn't have one, and they wouldn't accept our CDC vaccination cards, which was a surprise. They did, however, accept our negative PCR tests. 

So get tested — and hope for the best.

Tell me about your last air travel experience, please. When did you fly? Where did you travel to? What did you expect and how did it line up with what actually happened? The comments are open!

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