Traveling in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic is a luxury for most. Once commonplace, many travelers are staying home amidst a global pandemic. Travel, for some individuals, is a once in a lifetime experience.
As COVID-19 continues to spread across the United States, airlines are filling fewer seats, and hotels are cheaper than ever. The crowded Main Streets and attractions in major cities have gone quiet. Online reservations have replaced long lines at popular attractions. Though the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been overwhelmingly negative for the travel industry, on paper, it has never been a better time to explore the U.S.
Using this to my advantage, I took a trip from Kansas City to Nashville. I flew Southwest Airlines nonstop from Kansas City International Airport (MCI) to Nashville International Airport (BNA). I only recently took my first flight in December of 2019. Despite less than a year having passed, my first flight is pretty hazy. However, my second flight was quite different and very memorable.
Flying During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Arriving at Kansas City International Airport on August 11th, it was clear that air travel is still nowhere near pre-COVID levels. The parking lot I parked at there was less than half full, with part of the parking lot taped off. The shuttle bus to and from the terminal was still operating on a modified schedule. While waiting for the shuttle bus, large signs reminded people to wear masks.
The current set up of the existing airport is confusing. Two terminals remain open: Terminals B and C. They feature a circular layout. However, neither terminal is connected to the other. This means that, if you fly into Kansas City on Southwest and need to catch a connecting flight on American, you will have to exit security and clear security in the other terminal.
Inside the terminal, it was dark. The terminals feature exposed concrete. The terminals are also quite narrow. The gate areas are just feet from the entrance. Clearly, the airport terminals are a relic from the pre-9/11 days.
The airport was very quiet. I arrived just 45 minutes before my flight, which was scheduled to depart around 8 AM that morning. Checking my bag in took less than 2 minutes. The TSA screening area was dead. I was the only passenger in line. With so few passengers traveling, I passed through security in five minutes.
The TSA agents were also remarkably friendly and helpful. One agent told me that he was bored because of how slow it was at the airport. He continued saying that he was “happy to still have a job.”
At 7:45, boarding began. The flight boarded using the new Southwest Airlines boarding process. Passengers boarded in groups of 10. I was boarding position A-45, so I boarded the plane in the fourth group. The gate agent said that the flight would have just 68
passengers on our flight. That meant that there would be plenty of space to spread out.
My Second Flight Ever, Kansas City to Nashville
Southwest is one of the few airlines that blocks the middle seat due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless you are traveling with family, you are not allowed to select a middle seat. Additionally, passengers are required to wear a mask on-board with no exceptions. I sat towards the back and was pleased when I discovered that I would have the entire row to myself. My friend sat behind me and also managed to enjoy an entire row to himself. Shortly after 8 AM, the plane left the gate, and we made our way to the runway.
This is the first flight that I will remember since getting healthier to where my mind was no longer impacted by illness. Given that this was just my second flight, the experience was a bit nerve-racking. I did not know what to do or to expect. As we prepared for takeoff, I just held on and took deep breaths. As I was sitting there preparing myself, the engines roared up. I was pushed back into the seat, and the aircraft began racing down the runway. Surprisingly, the aircraft’s speed did not seem as intense as it does when you are on the ground.
Take off was one of the strangest feelings I have ever experienced. You could compare the sensation to a roller coaster. It was bizarre. As we climbed into the sky, the flaps were retracted into the wings, and that strange roller coaster-like feeling returned for a few seconds. I did not know whether to put my head down or look out the window.
Once the aircraft reached its cruising altitude, the engines got quieter. It was at this point that I started to enjoy the flight. For the majority of the flight, I sat glued to the window. Looking out the window was fascinating. The clouds below looked like those photos of Antarctica. The aircraft made a few turns, and also encountered some mild turbulence. However, neither experience bothered me all that much.
To my surprise, a snack service was offered on this flight. Flight attendants came through the aisles with canned water and a snack pack, which consisted of pretzels, Cheez-Its, and trail mix. This came as a surprise as I had previously head that Southwest Airlines no longer offered snacks on shorter flights. Ultimately, that was a pleasant surprise to me. After the snack service, we began our descent into
The descent was fine until the aircraft entered into a steeper approach. The aircraft gained speed. It was at this time that the roller coaster feeling returned. However, unlike during takeoff, I was not expecting the feeling to return. I freaked out and held on tight. After a few minutes and with a rough thunk on the ground, the flight was over. The tense and stressful experience was over.
Upon arriving at Nashville International Airport, I was surprised at how busy it was. The airport is undergoing a massive transformation. With construction throughout the airport, there were some closures. Some seating areas, restaurants, and shops were closed. However, for the most part, the airport was operating as usual.
I made my way to baggage claim to collect my bags. To my surprise, the only two bags remaining at the carousel were mine and my friends. It was kind of amazing how fast the ground crew was able to move the bags off of the aircraft and over to baggage claim.
The Lasting Impact of The Flight
My first night in Nashville was impacted by the stressful experience on-board the aircraft. I made it clear to my friend that I did not enjoy the flight to Nashville. The feelings and sounds of the flight were unnerving. I had already made up my mind that I would want to drive back home. However, friends and family that I had texted about the experience encouraged me to give the flying experience another chance.
One friend I had texted about the experience responded, saying that “There’s nothing much else I can say to you besides that’s how flying feels. The feelings you had everyone experiences. They’re common, and they’re not going away. So just go on another flight, take deep breaths, listen to music, and relax. There’s nothing to worry about. None of us
would be putting you in a dangerous situation”.
With the reassurance I had received from my friend in mind, I decided that I would fly back home.
Facing My Fear of Flying
On the flight back, the aircraft was nearly full, with the exception of the blocked middle seats. Once again, my friend and I got lucky by being the only two passengers to receive entire rows to ourselves.
This time at takeoff, unlike in Kansas City, I recorded takeoff just in case I decided this would be my last flight. The engines roared up, and I was pushed back into my seat as the aircraft made its way down the runway. Unsurprisingly, the roller coaster feeling returned. To make things worse, there were storms in the area. Takeoff was quite turbulent. However, I was able to get through the experience. To get through the rough weather, I watched other passengers to see how they were responding to the weather. The other passengers on-board were calm, which allowed me to relax a bit.
Once the aircraft reached cruising altitude, I got a sudden rush of excitement. My worries and fears disappeared. I was happy. The tense feeling started to melt away. I knew everything would be fine.
I decided to listen to some music, take a few pictures out the window, and enjoy the experience. I actually found the view of the Midwest landscape below me to be quite heavenly. The blue sky, puffy white clouds, green farmland, and the river made for a truly perfect view.
Besides the lovely views, the landing seemed more intense than my flight to Nashville. I started to enjoy the descent as it was reminiscent of a carnival ride. Soon, the aircraft was back on the ground.
Once on the ground, we were greeted by a bunch of parked aircraft––all from outside the United States. The most noteworthy airliner in the group of parked aircraft was an unmarked Boeing 747, which may soon fade into history.
As I made my way through the terminal, I experienced a rather emotional moment. Flying has always held me back from visiting new places. As I had finally dealt with this fear, I contacted those who had helped me through my fear. I was proud that I had conquered this fear.
Fear of air travel is a common phobia. However, the reasons for this phobia are not uniform. Everyone has their own reasons for fearing air travel. Reflecting on my own fear of air travel, I realized that it had developed from growing up after the 9/11 attacks. Watching the documentaries on TV every year since the attacks aided my fear. Moreso, the news stories of missing flights, plane crashes, and the Miracle on the Hudson only added to my fear. At times, my fear of air travel was crippling. At the height of my air travel phobia, just the thought of flying or having to get on a plane made my heart race.
The Bottom Line
Having faced my fear of air travel, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, made me feel like I had accomplished something amazing. It made me realize that anyone can get through their fear of flying. Looking back on this round trip experience, it was overwhelmingly positive. It will remain a good memory that marked the end of my fear of air travel. These two flights also unlocked the rest of the United States, the continent, and the world. I cannot wait to explore the world, whether it be thanks to the wings of a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320.