Last week I took my first flight in about 18 months. In October of 2019 my husband and I flew home from a three-week vacation in Spain and Portugal. Because that trip ended with all kinds of difficulties, from a stolen passport the day before our scheduled departure to missing luggage and a ticketing snafu, at the time I wasn’t all that eager to be going on any extended trips for a while. Turns out the global pandemic ensured that would be the case for pretty much everyone for a very long time. And though last week’s trip was just a short, one-hour hop on a regional carrier from my home in Southern Oregon north to Portland, I was nevertheless pretty excited to be back in the air again.
I flew with some confidence on several counts. First, I’d received my second dose of the Moderna vaccine a week before my flight, and new case numbers for the virus had dropped considerably in Oregon while vaccinations were rapidly ramping up. Second, evidence and the CDC suggest that, with enhanced air filtration and plenty of safety regulations and cleaning regimens, air travel is pretty safe. When booking a flight and again during online check-in, Alaska Airlines makes it abundantly clear that federal masking requirements must be followed; no one can get to the airport and claim they didn’t know what would be required of them in that regard. I checked in online and printed my checked bag tag at home so I didn’t need to spend more time than necessary standing in line at the airport and pushing buttons. Lastly, fewer flights have been flying out of my home airport, so there are fewer bodies at any one time there, and my early afternoon flight also occurred when traffic would be lighter both there and at my destination, Portland International Airport.
So my travel experience was less one of fear or trepidation and more one of curiosity and excitement. I also felt some annoyance: Fewer passengers means less staff at baggage drop-off counters (one person was dealing with checking passengers in and accepting pre-tagged bags for Alaska) and at the TSA security screening. In fact, the screenings occur in a fairly tight window leading up to boarding times, so the line of waiting passengers was longer than I’ve generally seen during “normal” times. Though my PreCheck status meant I didn’t have to fuss with removing my laptop and liquids from my bags, I ended up standing in the same line for a single screening queue. I noted that even large roller bags had to be placed in oversized bins so that screeners didn’t have to actually handle any bags to put them through the machines, and I didn’t observe any pat-downs being done.
There were markedly fewer passengers in the gate area, too, and everyone spaced themselves out. (I noticed as I passed down the concourse when I got to PDX that seats had been marked off to remind folks not to sit too close; apparently those in charge in Medford decided people could figure that out for themselves, as there were no taped-off seats.) We each scanned our own boarding passes (an agent stood by and made sure they scanned but did not take them from passengers’ hands as in days of yore).
On the plane, passengers were spaced out with generally one person on each side of the aisle in two-person rows. It wasn’t clear to me whether Alaska is keeping capacities low (there were approximately 40 passengers on a plane that could accommodate 80) or whether there are still so many fewer folks flying — there are certainly only about half of the daily flights offered as there were pre-pandemic — but it was nice not to be crammed right next to a stranger.
There was still beverage service offered on the flight (water, coffee, soda and juices), but overall it seemed the flight attendants did not spend as much time in the aisle checking luggage, electronic equipment and seatbelts as they used to do. Once in the air, I enjoyed the view from my window seat, taking in the vistas of the snowcapped peaks of the Cascade Range, from our own Mt. McLoughlin
in the south and the rim of Crater Lake through the Central Oregon peaks of Mt. Bachelor and the Three Sisters and on north to Mt. Jefferson
and graceful Mt. Hood, just east of Portland.
I enjoyed looking out over landscapes I’d grown blasé about seeing from above, the lakes and rivers, farmland and forests. As we dropped down and circled over the West Hills of Portland as we approached PDX, I smiled down at the familiar loop of the Willamette River spanned with many bridges,
the recognizable skyscrapers and the grand expanse of Forest Park. This short but significant trip made me realize I will not take air travel for granted again.
— Patty Vanikiotis, associate editor/copy editor
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