Eerie scenes of emptiness from usually full places
It feels like everyone in the world has been ordered to stay home and shelter in place for the good of all but for some that is not possible. The airlines, both domestic and international are being hammered by the pandemic but they are still operating, though at far less capacity than previously.
The Washington Post reported a 30% decrease in physical planes in the air at the start of April. On Tuesday March 31st, the TSA reported screening only 146,000 people nationwide which was a 94% decrease from usual numbers.
Reading the numbers on paper and seeing the results with your own eyes are two completely different experiences.
There are roughly 500 airports in the United States that service commercial flights for the general public. If you divide the 146,000 passengers that were flying during the pandemic over those airports evenly you get 292 passengers a day going through commercial airports and it shows. Over the roughly sixteen hour flying window 6AM-10PM that averages out to 18 people per hour, per airport in the United States right now. That is what is being observed, even at some of the largest and busiest airports.
While there was an expectation that they would be sparsely populated, I did not expect to frequently be the only person occupying an entire terminal. Gates sat quiet with no attendants. Restaurants and duty free shops sat shuttered. The number of flights for the day occupied a couple of screens, while the rest sat black. Most of the flights on the board were cancelled.
There was a quietness that filled the space that is usually reserved for noise. There were hardly any planes taking off. There were no announcements looking for a wayward passenger by name. No last calls for boarding. No hustle and bustle at the security line. It was utterly desolate.
The flights were boarded without the usual pomp and circumstance. There was no fanfare, just a masked employee waving everyone on at once. One flight had airline employees on it and no one else.
Eerie Yet Comforting
The whole seen was strange. It really pushed the fact home that we are living in odd times. These are sights that are going to show up in a textbook in future decades looking back at a time when the world ground to a literal halt.
Despite the weirdness of the situation it was comforting in a way. There was no one around. The few people who were there were wearing gloves and masks and wiping down their things. Other than the TSA checkpoint, there was no need to come within sixty feet of another person, much less six feet. The airports were less crowded than the local grocery store and it wasn’t even close. This was social distancing in a way that did not feel anxious.
No one was panic buying dry goods. There were no awkward bumping of elbows in line at the store. There were no people skittishly moving around each other at an appropriate distance. There was hardly anyone at all. It was a public space without the public and it felt safe.
Flying is definitely not recommended due to the health and safety guidelines in place. However, for some it is unavoidable. The people still working at the airlines have to go to work every day and are getting little coverage in the media. There are still pilots in the air flying around mostly empty planes and stewardesses hunkering down in airports where all of the food vendors are closed. If you look up you’ll still see planes flying overhead but they probably only have a handful of souls aboard.
Airline travel is a critical part of the modern economy and it might not look the same after this crisis but for now they are soldiering on. There will be a day when the airports slowly refill and the planes take to the skies once more in greater numbers. But for now, the airports reflect the rest of society: quiet, devoid of their usual energy and eerie.