Ryan Bradford: Fear and loathing in nonessential air travel

A stock photo of a man travelling with face masks for COVID-19
( Orbon Alija/Getty Images)

During a global pandemic, you’d think the airport would be a hub of precaution and safety. You’d think that people would do the bare minimum of wearing a mask correctly out of respect and consideration for their fellow travelers.

You’d be wrong.

Watching people before my flight to Salt Lake City, I begin to lose confidence in the survival of the human race. A man walking down the terminal wears a bandana around his neck, and only pulls it up when he sees me staring, but then removes it once he’s passed. A family stands around, chatting while their masks hug the bottoms of their faces like chin straps, their mouths completely exposed. There are so many people who don’t seem to know that the mask should also cover the nose, which, at this point, strikes me as obscene as a flasher.

C’mon people, I think. I thought we were all in this together. A car commercial told me so!

A woman in line at the Starbucks kiosk wears absolutely no mask. I watch from a distance while my brain scrambles for coffee/Covid puns: cough-ee, pandemic spice latte, Spike (in infection cases) Place, just put on your mask-iatto.

The airport feels like a testing ground between moving from one extreme to the other, like some intermediary buffer between the safety of home and the terror of air travel. We’re definitely not passing.

It’s also not like we’re outright failing — most people are, indeed, wearing masks — but I’d give this Delta terminal a solid C-. Definitely not the grade that inspires confidence in being in a hermetically sealed tube with strangers and their germs

What am I even doing here? It’s a question that probably enters my brain at a higher rate than most socially-adept people (e.g. at social events, at the gym, in life, the few times I find myself in the Gaslamp), but this time it takes on more of a literal significance.

Why am I about to step on a plane amidst a pandemic?

The answer is that I haven’t seen my family in nearly a year, which has exacerbated my Covid-related depression. But does that justify a vacation? Many haven’t seen their families for much longer than that. And some people will never see certain family members again.

I think of ways to justify the trip. It seems acceptable (well, more so) for people to travel if their job requires it. Hey, this could be for my job, I think. I’m a writer, after all. Life is both my office and my muse! This justification feels good for a moment, just enough time to sneak a bite of my breakfast sandwich up under my mask, which will now smell like processed sausage and eggs for the duration of the flight. Ah, the life of a prestigious, dignified writer.

Those good feelings quickly fade. I’m pretty sure visiting family falls nowhere near “essential” travel, but what really is essential? I remember at the start of the pandemic, leaving the house for anything except grocery shopping seemed nonessential. I even stopped posting screenshots from my running apps because friends in my feed were chastising anyone who exercised outside.

But the standards for “essential” are loosening. Grocery shopping is relatively normal-ish these days if you don’t mind wearing a mask. Some friends are even going back to their offices. I’m still not eating out in restaurants, but I’ve driven by lots of places serving food alfresco-style and the patrons’ faces display an emotion that I vaguely remember as “joy.”

I can point to these adaptations to justify my nonessential trip, but really, it all comes down to selfishness, individualism and an obsession with self-care that prevents us from curbing the virus.

But at least I know how to wear a mask.

We board the plane starting with the back row. I don’t know why it takes a viral catastrophe for the airlines to practice this little bit of common sense. A flight attendant hands out individually wrapped alcohol wipes to everyone entering the plane. They keep the middle seats empty, which is good if you don’t think about the guy six inches behind you. Viruses certainly can’t travel between rows, right? I unwrap my alcohol swab and wipe my hands until they’re cracked and dry.

The plane takes off. There’s no drink service, but flight attendants hand out plastic bags of prepackaged snacks and bottled water. Still, I refuse. Even extending my arm to accept the snack kit feels like I’m unnecessarily exposing myself to the virus. Best to just put on my noise cancelling headphones and fall asleep to my sausage breath.

I wake upon landing. When we pull up to the gate, people remain seated until the row in front of them has deboarded. It’s the first time in my life that this has happened. This is not the usual pandemonium I remember from life before Covid, which was a mad-dash of impatient people raring to get off the plane.

While I’m thinking that the human race may just have a chance after all — that we’re all capable of adapting for the better — I see a man asleep with his mask over his eyes and know that we have a long way to go.