Airplane: COVID 19 Edition

I remember my first airplane ride. I was seven years old and my family was on it’s way to Peshawar, Pakistan. The year was 1965. The first leg of the trip was from Washington, DC to Charleston, SC. From there we took a combination of military and civilian flights lasting three days, including a stay overnight in Tripoli, Libya. My reason for mentioning this is to note that all of the flights–even the ones on the military jets were comfortable. When we returned to the US three years later, we rode coach on a PanAm flight and had steak and eggs for breakfast.

It has been a long time since airplane travel was luxurious. Hell, it’s been a long time since it’s been comfortable. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even less so. Indeed, it’s isn’t even convenient.

It was midday January 22, 2020. The Burlington, VT airport was as empty as airports used to be at two in the morning when one transferred during a redeye going from Newark to Oakland. I hadn’t even set foot in an airport since February 2020, but a parent’s medical crisis had forced my hand. I have never driven in my life and the train service to Vermont had been cut off last May. I overcame my apprehension and bought a ticket. I noticed while scanning flights on the internet that the direct flight between Burlington and Washington DC’s National Airport no longer existed. It had always been my choice before the pandemic. Quick and without stops, I often ran into Bernie Sanders on the ride, his legs sprawled in front of him in Coach. Patrick Leahy always rode first class. I would not be spending any time in the belly of the beast this visit. Not even on the metro.

As I expected, everyone in the terminal was wearing a mask and kept their distance. Foxnews was not on the television. I had a feeling it would be when I got to my transfer point in North Carolina. Sure enough, Foxnews was on a few televisions in the Charlotte airport. Passengers were masked up, but almost every fast food joint had lines of people ready to grit on down. Only saw one old white guy without a mask and people were avoiding him like the plague. It is pretty damn close to plague after all.

The plane from Charlotte to Baltimore was full. We sat on the runway for twenty minutes. Some things never change. Air travel is full of delays and now there’s no food or beverage service. The flight attendants are left without a pacifier for the unruly passenger. Does their union leadership hide behind the company’s falling profits and the threat of layoffs to keep the members from raising hell?

I work at a public library in Vermont. Our covid related changes tend towards the restrictive. Of course, there is no profit motive involved. The airlines, however are certainly guided by profits more than safety, employees and passengers be damned. This is despite the billions the industry received in the original CARES legislation passed in 2020. Just like in 2008, the airline executives are not going to suffer financially. By the way, Baltimore-Washington Airport was almost empty when I arrived at 6 PM. Needless to say, this was unusual for that time. The only time I have ever seen it as empty previously was at three in the morning when the flight I was on was diverted first from Philadelphia and then from Dulles because of weather.

I am scheduled for a covid test in a few days. It’s required in Vermont if I want to get back to work in a week. I hope it comes back negative even though it is likely I was exposed to the virus some time in my travels. It’s a risk that public health crises under capitalism creates; one more reminder that we are profit’s collateral damage.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: