What to expect when you start flying again

After a year when air travel dropped to historic lows during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, people who have felt trapped in their homes are ready to take vacations again.

The Transportation Security Administration screened 1.1 million air passengers for each of the first four days of May.  One year ago those same checkpoints screened fewer than 170,000 each day.  As more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, the travel momentum is expected to pick up.

"People are thinking about planning a trip again," said Kyle Potter, Editor-in-chief of thriftytraveler.com.

But after they book a plane ticket and get to the airport, they are likely in for a few surprises.

"For someone who hasn’t stepped foot on a plane since 2019 or early 2020, they’re going to find some pretty stark differences in what that travel experience is like," said Potter.

Thrifty Traveler has produced a video to show people what to expect.  In some ways, Potter says people may feel just a bit uncomfortable if they haven’t flown in more than a year.  Airlines are back to seating passengers shoulder to shoulder in aircraft cabins, and depending upon the time of day, the airport restaurants may not be open.  Nearly every aspect of one’s journey will experience some change, big or small.

One of the biggest changes may occur if you’re trying to check one or more suitcases.  Passengers at many airports across the country have experienced long waits to check luggage, and Potter said it’s because there are fewer business travelers on each flight.

"Those people are still at home," said Potter.  "And the people that are flying today are going to see friends and family, or going on a vacation. And that means they're checking, maybe not just one bag but two bags.  So the baggage drop at airline stands and where you check in and then drop off your check bag that is probably the single biggest chokepoint in any airport in the country right now."

Delta Airlines has tried speeding up the process by installing self-tagging kiosks where passengers can print their own luggage sticker and then drop them off with an agent at the ticketing counter.

"So, if you can pack in a carry-on bag, it is going to save you some time in line, and you know, some discomfort of being in a line full of strangers," said Potter.

Another change passengers will notice is when boarding the plane.  Delta, the biggest airline flying out Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, has forgone zone boarding during the pandemic and is now starting to first board passengers seated at the back of the aircraft.  It avoids passengers having to pass people who are already seated in other sections of the plane.  As of May first, Delta is also once again filling the middle seat with passengers.

Another change is masking.  The TSA just extended its rule that every passenger must wear a face mask, not just in the airport, but on the aircraft for the entire flight.  The rule extension runs through September 13th.   Fines for not wearing a mask start at $250 and can run as high as $1,500.

Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration has cracked down on unruly passengers with a no-tolerance rule for anyone disobeying flight attendants and FAA and TSA rules.

"Airline flight attendants are not taking exceptions, you know, giving passengers space to act up. There is a zero tolerance policy right now in the skies that if you don't follow a flight attendant's instructions, you can get hit with a heavy, heavy fine, and possibly even a ban from that airline," said Potter.

Finally, there’s getting a rental car after you fly to your destination.

"There is a rental car apocalypse in the country right now," explained Potter.

Rental car companies sold off as much as a third of their fleets when air travel collapsed a year ago.  That means there are fewer cars to rent and prices have skyrocketed.  In some cases it costs more to rent a car for several days than the price of the airline ticket.

"You know, we definitely hear from people who call off a trip because they booked a flight, then they go to book their car and see a price that makes their eyes pop and think, you know, this is not worth it," said Potter.  But he also says for many more people the need to get away trumps the total price of the vacation.

It’s all part of the new flying experience that is slowly getting back to most of the ways we used to travel before the pandemic.

"To me, A lot of the flying experience feels kind of close to normal, and that's kind of odd to say especially you know just a couple of months ago that was not the case," said Potter.