Flying during a pandemic

An Evergreen columnist reports his first time on a plane since COVID-19 started



Plane crashes may not be the biggest fear with air travel at this point in time.

JACOB HERSH, Evergreen columnist

I’m walking into the Anchorage airport, and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is playing over the PA system. It’s a surreal soundtrack for a surreal time. Coronavirus has forced airports and airlines around the world to cut back on flights, institute more rigid screening measures and figure out social distancing in spaces that are less than ideal. In short, it’s thrown the whole industry into a tailspin.

I had to travel down to Pullman from Anchorage, Alaska (my hometown) to move my gear out of my dorm. This required a four-hour flight and a connection in Seattle, or as I had envisioned it, coronavirus central. I’m not a fan of flying on the best of days, but adding in the threat of a worldwide pandemic doubled my paranoia.

I hadn’t been on a plane since March, after flying home for what turned out to be an extended spring break, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it happened, the Anchorage airport was essentially deserted. A few travelers, all of them masked, walked to and from their gates, maintaining exaggerated distances between each other, and shooting me nervous glares as I sat down and waited for my flight.

What would ordinarily be a fight to board first turned into a surreal game of reverse tag, as we boarded row by row, with each traveler sitting at least one seat of distance away from anyone else. Alaska Airlines has instituted a socially distanced seating policy, forcing them to fly at half or two-thirds capacity, which has in turn forced them to cut down on the number of flights they operate, to maintain their overhead and still somehow make a profit.

The plane takes off, and for once, I’m not watching out the window. I’m listening for people coughing in the rows around me, and I have no doubt everyone else is straining their ears for the same telltale sound. Luckily, it seems everyone on the plane is in fair health, so we relax, for the time being.

Beverage and food services on flights have been canceled, which makes sense, but I still miss the Netherland biscotti they pass out on Alaska flights. You can buy them at most grocery stores, but it really isn’t the same. This, I realize as I sit and sip a complimentary Dasani that a flight attendant passed me with a gloved hand, is the ultimate incarnation of middle-class narcissism. This virus has a death toll in the thousands — but I want my free biscotti.

The plane lands at SeaTac.

Businesses and restaurants all through the airport are shuttered and closed. Starbucks, the undefeatable, remains open, a testament to the power of mediocre coffee and Howard Schulz’s weird centrist politics. I get a cold brew and drink it, watching the planes take off and land through the enormous picture window.

The flight to Pullman is much the same as the flight to Seattle, except they’ve combined it with a Walla Walla flight, so we land in the middle of Washington wine country to let people off and on. I’ve had approximately 38 miniature bottles of water, and the airplane bathroom is closed due to turbulence. So, the 40 minutes it takes to get to Pullman are like miniature purgatories as I contemplate urinating in an empty iced tea bottle I found on the floor beneath my seat. (I don’t.)

Getting off in Pullman, the sense of emptiness is almost palpable. Usually, there are Ubers, taxis and various other automobiles pulling up and leaving in front of Pullman’s small airport. But today, it’s me and one other guy, sitting on a bench, waiting for rides as the wind howls across the empty wheat fields surrounding the airport.

The only newspaper in The Daily Evergreen’s signature green metal box is a yellowed copy from March 13th, a Friday for those of you who are superstitious. The headline’s large block letters read “State of Emergency,” and then an illustration of viral transmission below it. It feels, I consider, like set dressing for a post-apocalypse movie. The protagonist picks his way through abandoned New York or L.A, and scattered newspapers with headlines like “Nuclear War Declared” or “Virus Claims 10 Million Lives” blow in the breeze.

I pack up my dorm and leave Pullman within two days, and make the whole trip again, in reverse. It’s much the same; people stay away from each other, ominous announcements ring over the airport PA and I have a whole row to myself on the flight. On the way back to Alaska, I see a woman dressed in full hazardous materials gear, with a full-body disposable plastic suit. Next to her, a couple was wearing full N95 dust masks and lab goggles, like they were about to titrate some sulfuric acid. This is overkill, I think to myself… or maybe it isn’t.

That’s the problem with this disease: the sense of fear and uncertainty it brings with it. People are scared, naturally, so they compensate for that fear by ramping up their preparedness to extremes. Or, they do the opposite, and make a grand show of their bravado, screaming their lack of fear into the faces of police and government officials.

Nothing is the same as it was before, that’s for sure. At some point, things will return to how they were, but most aspects of life will be changed forever, however imperceptibly. People adapt, though. It’s what we’re great at. No matter how strange or surreal things become, there’s always going to be some way to ground yourself and maintain some sense of normality, even in the middle of a global pandemic.

One thing remains constant: no matter the year, time of day, state of global affairs, or even location, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is one of the absolute worst songs to come out of the 1980s, and any place of business should be ashamed to play it.