Flying during the Covid-19 pandemic and what service to expect.
Updated: Nov 1
I have wanted to write about this subject since late last summer when I started to travel again. I didn't because I was hoping that the pandemic wouldn't last this long (now that I have written this it is sure to end ;)) and once things returned "to normal" the review would be obsolete. Unfortunately, my old site was compromised (hacked) and I have been wanting to update it anyway, so this will be a quick first review until I can hopefully retrieve all my old reviews. I will mostly focus on onboard service in First Class and despite the encouraging news lately I do not think this aspect of flying domestically within the US will change that much in the near future (keep costs down). However, there has been some encouraging announcements regarding Economy Class service (Delta and American starting beverage service).
The 6 months between the beginning of March to August 2020 was the longest stretch I have not been on an airplane for over 30 years. In August I decided this was an opportunity to see some of the National Parks the Western US has to offer. After visiting Yellowstone and Southern Utah I realized while different, flying was perfectly safe and I managed a few business trips in the last six months and a few more vacations. Since August 2020 I have flown on Delta in Economy Comfort Plus, United in both First Class (including Business to EWR) and Economy Plus, American in both First Class (including Business to JFK, KOA and MIA) and Main Cabin Extra, Alaska Airlines in First Class from Kona to SAN, and Clase Premier (Business) on Aeromexico within Mexico.
All the airlines I have flown have similar safety protocols and I felt safe flying on every flight I was on. All the airline's require masks to be worn and make several announcements about this. In general, if you have felt comfortable being out and about the last few months you should feel comfortable flying. But, if you do not feel comfortable being close to people or have serious concerns for your health I advise waiting to travel. Despite all the care the airlines put in place you are still in a closely confined metal space in many cases sitting next to a complete stranger. There are still bottle necks at the gates and while boarding and to a lesser extent deplaning. In addition, planes are flying fuller now then a few months ago and it appears as more people are comfortable traveling this will continue. So the days with only a few passengers on Domestic flights are over. Even getting upgraded to First Class has become difficult again. While the airlines do disinfect their airplanes they are not cleaned between most flights. They still turn airplanes around within the hour, hardly leaving time to disinfect every seat and tray table. On all the US carriers you are given a sanitizing wipe either upon boarding (AA has been getting a little complacent about this recently) or in a snack bag served after take off. Aeromexico squirts each passenger with sanitizing gel as they step on board. All aircraft have air filtration systems that recirculate the air every 2 to 3 minutes. The airlines claim the filtration systems removes 99% of particles in the air including microbes that cause the Coronavirus. Making an airplane's air much safer than most confined places.
As of now (April 2020) Delta is the only airline that keeps the middle seat free, but that changes in May. Meaning all US Airlines will fill all available seats. I have only flown Delta once which happened to be my first flight back in August (SAN to SLC to West Yellowstone). I received a bag with a bottle of water, two snacks (salty and sweet) and a sanitizing towelette. This was more than you used to get in Coach so I was actually pleased. They did not come by with any beverage service. Something that remained until last week. This included First Class where Delta would serve a snack box (one that was for purchase in Economy) along with either Bottled Water, Beer or Wine. No soft drinks, tea or coffee. I recently flew to Minneapolis and decided not to buy a ticket in First on Delta because I couldn't get a Coke. Something about that annoyed me. I have a colleague who is a 2 million miler with Delta and also stopped flying Delta for this reason. However, as of last week Delta has resumed Beverage service in all classes, they now serve single service cans (7.5oz) of Coke products I do not think they have upgraded their First Class meal offerings. Still serving snack boxes, but I am not certain of that.
Like before Covid-19 hit American Airlines will serve according to flight time. On shorter flights there is no service at all in Economy. In First Class, it will be beverage only or you will receive same snack bag that is given to Economy passengers on longer flights. Two hours seems to be the dividing line. On these longer flights all passengers are given a snack bag (bottle water, sanitizing wipe and one snack - either a packet of pretzels or
Biscoff Cookies). You can ask for a soft drink or juice but the flight attendants do not come buy with the trolley (they do on the LAX/SFO - JFK flights). They just walk around collecting trash (I don't think they like bringing drinks to passengers as if one asks many may follow). As I said, AA will start beverage service June 1, 2021. American's First Class has a more varied offering. For Breakfast there is a choice of a Turkey Croissant Sandwich (cold) or a Yogurt snack box. Flights outside the breakfast times serves either a Turkey Sandwich or Fruit and Cheese Plate. Like the snack boxes on Delta (and United) these are the same snacks that used to be for purchase in Economy. Full beverage service is available in First Class including Alcohol and Wine. Now, I have flown between Miami and LAX several times in Business/First Class on their B777's and once between DFW and KOA on a B777 and they still serve a hot meal on these routes https://www.patstravelreviews.com/post/american-airlines-b777-domestic-flagship-business-class-review But it appears only these and the SFO/LAX to JFK routes serve hot meals (Long-haul International still does) Because I have looked at flights from MIA to SAN or PHX/LAX to Hawaii and many other coast to coast flights and it always states "refreshment" as the meal. Refreshment means the same Snack as I previously mentioned. I thought that maybe they were more comfortable serving meals with such large seats on these widebodies, but they offer hot meals on A321's between LAX & MIA and JFK - LAX/SFO. These hot meals are served on one tray and all items come covered. They are basically the same meals as before Covid-19, other than how they are served, plus the bread is never fresh and ice cream sundaes are no longer available for dessert. They still have menu's and four selections. The galley is usually stocked with some snacks and pre-wrapped chocolate chip cookies. While it is not the same service as before at least it is a hint of their Flagship service. In addition to hot meals, an amenity kit is at your seat along with a bottle of water and nice bedding. Bang and Olufsen headphones are distributed as well. I have missed flying internationally and have enjoyed these flights so much I have driven to Los Angeles four times to fly these routes (AA stopped flying between LAX & SAN). American like Delta and United have gotten rid of many aircraft and are utilizing their B777's and B787's on many domestic flights, but only these flights have this full service.
United may have the best service since the pandemic of the airlines I have flown. Solely because they have always had beverage service. They too distribute snack bags with a bottle of water, Pretzels and Stroopwafle, but these are distributed with a beverage trolley. All drinks come unopened to limit contact so you can see it would save the airlines money not to serve drinks. So United's current Economy Snack is more substantial to their usual Economy service. First Class is similar to the others. On shorter flights the same snack bag as in Economy is served. On longer flights there is a choice between 2 snack boxes. Regardless of time of day. I recently flew from SAN to ORD at 7am and was offered a choice of a Savory Snack Box or a Tapas Snack Box. Not very appealing so early. But, if I was departing out of one of their hubs they are serving a more substantial snack. Even a hot breakfast sandwich. I have only seen photo's of this as I have seen photo's of a hot meal that United just started serving on their Hawaii flights. This was nice to see. Like AA, United does serve a hot meal between LAX/SFO and EWR (and now JFK). They too are using larger aircraft on these routes and have full Business Class service. Bottle of water and nice pillow and blanket at your seat. I have only flown this route once on a new B787-10 red-eye from SFO to EWR. I was pleasantly surprised to get a choice of hot meals especially after flying from LAX to IAD in Business Class and only receiving a Savory Box. Again, all served on one tray and all items sealed.
*** Update (July 2021) - Delta has returned to full beverage service in all classes as has the other airlines. Delta and American have slightly upgraded their First Class food offerings on most routes, but only slightly (still boxed snacks - but full meals on transcontinental flights - Further update (Aug 2021 & Sept 2021) American has upgraded their First Class meals ever so slightly (still plastic glassware - but as of Sept. real cutlery). Choice of Turkey or Cheese sandwich on tray with fruit and salad/yogurt. See photo below). However, United has reinstated hot plated meals in First Class. I flew from ORD to SAN (as did my nephew a few days later) and I was served a Belgium Waffle for breakfast (other option was egg dish) while he was served Enchilada's (I think that is what that is - other choice Chicken & Rice). Last week (Sept 2021) I flew from IAH to DEN and had a nice Chicken & Orzo with packaged Eli's Pie in the Sky Cookie (was very good) I also read where American may never bring back traditional meals in First Class but I doubt they wouldn't compete with United. I know if I was buying a Domestic First Class ticket today (which I just did today) I would buy on United before AA or DL.
I have only flown once on Alaska and that was in First Class from KOA to SAN. My wife
and I received a choice of a Turkey Sandwich or Fruit & Cheese Snack. The only highlight was a fresh baked Chocolate Chip Cookie that was served after the meal. A full beverage service was offered, but I think the canned Wine made my wife sick. I am not sure what was served in Economy, but I know you can purchase the same snack served in First in Premium Economy to and from Hawaii. Outside of that, all airlines have stopped buy on board for the time being. Alaska usually provides a dig-e player in First, but the flight attendant told me due to the Virus they are temporarily not being provided. *** Alaska has brought back hot meals to and from Hawaii as well as Transcontinental flights. Not sure about dig-e player though. I have flown on Alaska twice since this review. Both times in First. Received a hot meal from SAN to Puerto Vallarta and same snack as this Hawaii flight on a red-eye flight from SAN to JFK. They have brought back glass in First Class as well as hot meals (on Breakfast and Lunch/Dinner routes).
Because Hawaii is such a pain to get to now my wife and I have flown to Cancun twice (and will make it a 3rd time next month). It is easy to get back into the US/San Diego through the CBX Bridge at TIJ. Like the US Carriers, Aeromexico has reduced their service. They board from the rear of the aircraft on their B737's so Business Class passengers are last to board. They do have packaged blankets on your seat in Business. I am not sure what the service is in Economy, but they do signify it as a beverage flight with snack. In Clase Premier they still do offer a welcome drink of Orange Juice or Water and full beverage service during the flight. Between CUN and MEX a snack basket is brought with a choice of cookies, chips, or a nut mix. I think they only want you to take one item, because every time I go for a second treat they are trying to pull that basket back ;) MEX to TIJ is designated as a "Premier Meal" flight. However, on our flight last November we received the same snack basket offerings as CUN - MEX and last moth there was a box with a cold sandwich and packet of nuts in a box. With additional snack basket goodies coming after the meal. *** We flew from MEX to TIJ a month ago (May 2021) and received a very nice hot breakfast. Not sure if this means they will always serve hot meal on this flight or we just got lucky.
Any time I sat in Premium Economy I did not receive anything different than regular Economy. Some airlines may now serve alcohol to Economy Plus passengers (Delta does). Additionally, not one flight I have been on in First Class in the US offered pre-departure drinks nor do they hand out hot towels. My guess is service will lag the improving coronavirus conditions in the US. Especially in First Class. While I understand less contact and less time with passengers' masks off is a reason for the reduced service, I do think the cost savings will extend the life of First Class meals returning. Whereas, I think the airlines will start full beverage service and do away with snack bags relatively soon in Coach (that too may save them money) and restart Buy on Board meals as American stated (as of Dec 2021 this has happened. United has even brought back alcohol for purchase in Economy and all airlines have beverage service in Economy (Delta is still lagging with First Class Meals as has American - although they have returned to glass and say hot meals will return (I am on a SAN to ORD flight in Jan 2022 - we'll see). On the positive side with so many fewer flights, delays are very uncommon (not one flight I have been on has been delayed) and getting to and from the airports and navigating airports is a breeze now. The Lounge experience has also suffered with many airline lounges still closed and reduced food offerings. Either way, I look forward to the day (which I do not think will be until at least 2022) when I can enjoy a nice meal in First Class and sleep on an airplane without a mask. Some good news I heard today is The European Union will open travel to vaccinated Americans this Summer. Hopefully this will motivate some people to get vaccinated sooner than later and the US (and Hawaii) will do away with negative test requirements for arriving and returning vaccinated travelers.