This time last year, flying seemed like a risky proposition. When I flew in July of 2020, I essentially looked like a beekeeper: two medical-grade face masks, a face shield, and a value-sized tub of sanitizing wipes and gel. It was a lot, and sitting next to strangers in the thick of a pandemic was an unnerving experience.
But that’s all starting to change. Now that a significant portion of the population has been vaccinated, a number that’s growing each and every day, people are taking to the skies again. But air travel looks and feels different than it did pre-pandemic. There are still a ton of unvaccinated travelers who remain at risk, and even for the fully vaccinated who are now well protected, sitting in close quarters next to strangers can still feel uncomfortable.
And even if you’re fully vaccinated and feeling safe, that doesn’t mean the traveler or flight attendant next to you feels the same. Many flight attendants were grounded during the pandemic and, like us, are just now entering the skies again. Others have been working through it all. They’ve been through a lot, including dealing with unruly and even violent travelers who don’t want to follow the new safety rules.
So how can you be a courteous air passenger in these circumstances? We talked to three flight attendants and one infectious disease specialist for their advice on how to be a respectful air traveler right now.
Keep your mask on
The easiest thing you can do is continue to wear your mask properly, even if you’ve been vaccinated. “People love to have it under their nose,” says Andrew Collins, a flight attendant based in New York. You’re allowed to take the mask off when eating or drinking, Collins says, but you should really be pulling it back up in between bites and sips, not keeping it down for 45 minutes while you work through your meal. Don’t forget: The TSA’s federal mask mandate is in place through September 13.
It can be tough to make out what people are saying when they’ve got a mask on, so it’s tempting to pull it down while speaking to help others hear you. But, again, flight attendants wish you wouldn’t. Cabin crew can get pretty close to the faces of passengers, and really expose themselves to people’s large respiratory droplets, says Dean Winslow, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care.
In these situations, keep your mask up. Instead of eye contact, aim for ear contact, says Keely Scott, a flight attendant based in Portland. Put your ear closer to someone to hear them better. “Now it’s more important to hear rather than read their lips,” Scott says.
Throw your dirty wipes in the trash or sick bag
If you use disinfecting wipes to sanitize your seat or tray table, toss them in the sick bag or wait for the flight attendants to come around with a trash bag. This goes for dirty tissues, too. Collins says some passengers hand their dirty wipes and tissues directly to the flight attendants. “Please put it into that trash bag instead of trying to give me your gross towelette,” he says.
According to Winslow, the coronavirus doesn’t primarily spread through contaminated surfaces—but nonetheless, no one wants to touch other people’s germy tissues and wipes. Pandemic or no pandemic, try to keep your germs to yourself.
Wait to eat until the flight attendants have passed your row
Service remains limited on many flights, but most trips now include at least a water and a snack. But before you tear open your bag of pretzels, take note of who’s around you. “Please wait to sip or snack until flight attendants have passed your row, just to limit the time that the mask is off,” says Scott. Though most flight attendants are vaccinated by now, they’re still exposed to hundreds of people each day, some of whom may be carriers of COVID-19. This little effort can go a long way and help limit their exposure and help them feel more comfortable. “Flight attendants really are on the front line,” says Winslow.
Be patient and mindful when deplaning
Deplaning tends to be a chaotic experience, as many passengers are eager to get to their destination and jump up as soon as the seatbelt light clicks off.
During the pandemic, flight attendants are asking passengers to stay seated until it’s your row’s turn in order to maintain physical distancing. “We’re trying to keep social distance still,” says a flight attendant based in New York who wished to remain anonymous. Wait at your seat until the first couple of rows ahead of you have deplaned. “Usually 50 percent of the people listen and 50 percent are ready to fight everybody to get off,” she says.
Listen to the announcements—really
Pre-COVID, no one really listened to the announcements, says Collins, and if he had one tip for people traveling again it would be to actually pay attention to them now. The flying experience, after all, has changed. “Everything has been modified, all of our services,” says Collins. If it’s your first time flying in a long time, or your first time flying during COVID, the announcements will spell out the entire service process for you.
The most important thing is to be courteous. People are finally traveling for pleasure and leisure again, but others are flying for work, weddings, or even funerals. For many, this is their first time flying in more than a year, and they might be nervous about doing so.
You don’t know if your fellow passengers or flight attendants are vaccinated or what their comfort levels are. We’re all still trying to navigate life in a pandemic. “It’s all about mutual respect right now,” says Collins.
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