Flight Risk: Business Travel in The COVID-19 Era

Flight Risk

My father used to tell me that I overestimated my intellect at times.

This trip would reinforce that theory in spades.

It has been 25 years since I have been in one place for an extended period of time. 25 Years. Now, I will be the first to tell you, I am not a business traveler. I am a lifestyle traveler. The concept of work-life balance was lost on me long ago. As a result, I designed a life that actually required more time in the air than George Clooney in that movie with Anna Kendrick. I think I’m this close to having a pilot congratulate me for my dedication to his airline. So, you can imagine how the shelter-in-place orders for Northern California have challenged my sanity. Any chance to escape was welcome. Then it happened. A nonprofit that we sponsor had an urgent HR matter that required a face-to-face meeting. The irony of a masked, face-to-face meeting was amusing but didn’t stop me from exploring business travel in the post-COVID era.

SFOmg. Where is everyone?

About every two weeks for the last 25 years, I would ascend the escalator that connects the SFO parking lot to the baggage claim area. Welcoming me was the chirping squeaks of footsteps, the exuberant greetings of loved ones and the click-click, click-click, click-click mantra of roll-away luggage on the hard tile. But now that buzz that had energized me for years was painfully absent. Check-in and security? Same thing. It was as if I crashed the funeral of a famous politician who was found dead in Vegas under mysterious circumstances. No one really knows how to act. Especially me. Should I acknowledge anyone? Keep my head down? It. Was. Awkward.

But Security was a breeze.

And as it turned out, that funeral had no caterers, as every food venue was closed. But I thought, ok, at least the ride would be somewhat normal. See, my ingenious low-risk plan included a scheme to book first class, board last, disembark first and come into contact with as few people as possible, brilliant, right? Not hardly. Coach passengers? Spaced out, empty seats between each. First-class passengers? Packed in like sardines. Apparently, social distancing has no place in the friendly skies. Every cough, another involuntary judgment. Every sneeze, excruciating. To complete the bizarreness of all this, my traditional snack pack arrived packed in its own hazmat suit. How cute.

In case you were wondering, culture wars are alive and well at SFO and PHX.

At SFO, I observed an estimated 90% adherence to mask-wearing protocols and social distancing behaviors. People were cautious, courteous, and pragmatic. Then I arrived at PHX. It was a southwestern take on personal rebellion. The signs in each airport championed the same rules. But by my estimation, adherence had dropped to 50%. Social distancing? Maybe 25%. And that’s being kind. As I passed a bar, because you see, restaurants here were open, it seemed that a fraternity social had broken out. Monday. 1 pm. Where the hell was I? Up to this point, it was an odd enough experience, but nothing prepared me for the isolation I found on the airport shuttle bus. The rental car pickup. Then, the parking garage. Horror movie, anyone? And the kicker? My SUV was not ready, and I had to take a convertible. In Arizona. It was 104ºF.

At SFO, I observed a close to an estimated 90% adherence to mask wearing protocols and social distancing behaviors.
Then I arrived at PHX. It was a southwestern take on personal rebellion.
Nothing prepared me for the isolation I found on the airport shuttle bus.
Rental car pickup facility.

As I pulled into the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, everything seemed normal, at least for these times. The valets were wearing masks. Hand sanitizer was offered everywhere. Social distancing was mapped out for guests.

But just beyond the sliding glass doors … it was June 2019.

My eyes could not comprehend what they were seeing from just inside the air-conditioned lobby. Kids running around in packs. Romantic couples enjoying cocktails on the couches. People seated around the bar, elbow-to-COVID-ridden-elbow pounding “frosé all day” and huge margaritas. Not a mask in sight. As I finally exhaled upon exiting the lobby, I thought of that old comic phrase, “Elvis has left the building.” Only this time, it was common sense. 

I quickly made it to my room, but any relaxation it offered quickly dissipated with the opening of a curtain. Floating Beer Pong! Packed Hot Tubs and Tag Team Floaties – all manned by Gen Xers and Gen Yers. The pool was directly below my room and I was thunderstruck by the sheer audacity of their optimism. Global Pandemic be damned, they were going to have a damn good time. My dreams of sneaking in a quiet lap quashed, I went searching for the minibar. 

The next day, as I turned my alarm off, a headline jumped off the page: Arizona’s COVID-19 spread is ‘alarming’ and action is needed, experts warn.

USA Today had just accelerated my sobriety. Apparently, my little “calculated risk” was now facing hard science, and I had to face the fact that numbers don’t have emotions and they don’t lie. It was probably time to head back to the “well-behaved conservative people of San Francisco” (has anybody ever written that sentence?).  It was time for me to make a break for it …

At the same time, one of our employees, Casey, was traveling to Boston. Turns out, her experience was as eerily disturbing as mine. For her, interestingly, spacing in the coach classes was only due to passengers actively moving to open spaces. The airline put little-to-no effort into spacing individuals out, allowing three people to a row in many cases. 

With Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer at the ready, she boarded the plane, disinfecting every inch of her seat. Tray table. Check. Lap belt. Check. Arm rests. Check. That teeny, tiny space on the wall between the armrest and the window. Check. And the two seats next to her. Check. Check.

She quickly noticed that many people still don’t seem to know how to correctly wear a mask properly. One female flight attendant didn’t have her mask covering her nose for the entire trip and other passengers stood up mid-flight without their mask on — at all. I can only imagine her sense of trepidation was twice as much as mine. A transcontinental flight in these times? No thanks.

Apparently everybody in Phoenix got the message.

Leaving from PHX, now everyone had a mask on. The bar was quiet and people were spaced out in the restaurants. But the best news was that unlike the “friendly skies” American Airlines decided to isolate me in seat A1. Last person on and first person off. Yes! It finally worked! I went from takeoff to exiting the SFO parking lot in 2 hours. As I sped away, back to my self-quarantine and COVID test, a very grey question occurred to me. 

Can you trust people to make smart decisions about public health?

In a country defined by our commitment to personal liberty and individual rights, we are reluctant to implement draconian measures. But I was very surprised by the lack of enforcement I witnessed in airports, hotels, restaurants, and stores. You don’t want to force citizens to self-police. Or trust that they will do so. Therefore, it begs the question, would I do it again? Would I take a 4-hour flight? A trip to Europe? The answer is resounding, not yet. Too many unknowns, too many variables. There were just too many times I had no control over my exposure and the behaviors of others and it introduced risk to an equation I had no ability to manage. I know that eventually we will all be exposed to the virus and possibly spread it to someone else. I just have this fervent desire to have that moment devoid of red Solo cups and ping pong balls. 

But hey, at least airport security was a breeze.


Sal Fuentes

Sal is all about the high-level message, the perfect soundbite, the smoothing of the complex and finding dog friendly venues to hang with Stabler.