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Plane travel is smoother now, but ‘it’s definitely not the friendly skies’

So much leg room, but nowhere to go

A man wore a gas mask as he traveled on a flight from Miami to Atlanta last week.
A man wore a gas mask as he traveled on a flight from Miami to Atlanta last week.CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

No traffic in the tunnel, long queues for security, or jockeying for boarding at the gates. You’ll probably have a row to yourself; some passengers even get the whole plane to themselves.

With air travel down 95 percent or more amid the coronavirus pandemic, all the hassle of flying has been vacuumed away instantaneously. It almost sounds luxurious for those few still taking to the skies — for once, an experience befitting the whimsies of air travel.

But even floating above the world for a few hours, there are the constant reminders of the havoc down below. The flights, after all, are so empty and clean for a reason.

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“It was very quiet, very somber. I think everybody was very afraid and concerned,” said Greg John, a Boston public affairs consultant who flew north from a second home in Florida in April on a plane with fewer than 20 people. “The first thing the flight attendants did was offer you Lysol wipes if you didn’t have one.”

A traveler passed through a walkway at Boston Logan International Airport in Boston.
A traveler passed through a walkway at Boston Logan International Airport in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Airlines first began requiring crews to wear masks, and now major US carriers are mandating that passengers wear them, too. Many flyers already were wearing them voluntarily, and some passengers have been spotted wearing full-on hazmat-style suits. In-flight service on many airlines is now limited to bottles of water and a small packaged snack. At the airport, most of the coffee shops and stores are closed, and good luck finding a bar for that preflight martini.

“Airports are clean. The number of people is minuscule. But the food options are horrible,” said Bill Spinney, a Tennessee resident who is staying with his parents on the South Shore during the crisis and had to fly to Tampa Bay in late April to help an elderly family friend move. All he could find at Logan was one open Dunkin’, and a Burger King at the airport where he caught his connecting flight to Tampa.

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And with virtually all leisure travel at a halt, those who are still boarding planes would almost certainly rather not be, as often it is tragedy that is forcing them to take to the skies.

Melissa Marr of Plaistow, N.H., had no intention of flying to North Carolina last month, where her 10-year-old daughter was staying with her ex-husband for part of the pandemic. Instead, she planned to drive down the coast and meet halfway to pick up her daughter. But those plans changed when her ex’s girlfriend unexpectedly died of a blood clotting issue, and he no longer was in any position to drive several hundred miles. So she quickly booked a flight south, and when she arrived, she walked off the plane and met her daughter inside the terminal. The pair promptly boarded the same plane for the trip back to Boston.

“It was really our only option at the time,” Marr said. “They were doing the [funeral] arrangements and such. It didn’t exactly work out the way we planned."

Logan was eerily quiet and no more than 20 people were on her JetBlue flight; at least one was dressed in a hazmat suit. But the flight itself was not nerve-racking, she said, because there were so few people on it, and the plane was obviously well cleaned.

“I figured it was probably cleaner than the grocery store at this point,” she said.

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Industry analysts say hardly anybody is traveling for pleasure at this point. Some may be heading toward elderly family members to help them cope during the pandemic. Others may be essential workers, medical professionals rushing to a virus hot spot, or individuals with urgent personal or medical issues, said Henry Harteveldt of the Atmosphere Research Group, a firm that monitors the travel industry.

“The people who are flying right now are the people who need to fly. There are no joy riders taking trips,” he said. “It’s definitely not the friendly skies.”

Jennifer Mehigan, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan, added that some portion of those flying out of Boston are simply those who work for the airlines themselves. “We are a commuter hub for airline workers, so many crew members [are] heading home or to work if they are based out of another city,” she said.

During the week of April 20-26, 10,463 people flew out of Logan, down 97.5 percent from the same week one year ago. Airlines are canceling huge portions of flights, though they are required to maintain certain service levels between cities if they received federal funds from the CARES Act rescue bill passed by Congress.

In an earlier stage of the pandemic, plane tickets were incredibly cheap — $15 or $20 for a flight to Florida from Boston, for example. Those have mostly gone away, as airlines acknowledged the low prices may have inspired travel that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. But even with those deals on the table, air travel still dropped precipitously, indicating few people could be induced into a trip for now.

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But there may be some unnecessary travel happening here and there, argued Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights, a consumer advocacy organization. While airlines offer full refunds on flights that have been canceled, they are typically providing only vouchers for flights that remain on schedule. Since they’re not getting their money back, Hudson said, those passengers may feel like they might as well still take the trip.

“They could get a voucher, which was limited but in many cases they were not something people would want or use," he said. "So some people would say, ‘We might as well go ... we don’t want to lose something.’”

Indeed, the we’re-sorry voucher remains an air travel irritation. Spinney, the Tennessee resident who flew to Florida, paid a little extra to board his Southwest Airlines flight early, hoping to avoid contact with other passengers. But with only a dozen or so people flying, everybody was called to board all at once, and Spinney didn’t get a cash refund.

“They eliminated their awful boarding process," he said. “They gave me my $25 in a voucher.”

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name Plaistow, N.H. It has been corrected.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.