This post is a continuation of the story of my first airline trip since March 2020.  Having completed a second vaccine dose six weeks prior and armed with a N95 face mask, I felt safe enough to book a flight but didn’t know if air travel would be as enjoyable as before Covid.  

I booked the flight about five days before departure but was still able to find a great economy fare of $126 for a round-trip ticket to Denver, CO on American Airlines.  The routing was Charlotte to Denver nonstop, about an eight-hour layover at Denver, and a red-eye return to Charlotte via Miami, FL.  The return routing through Miami was slightly more expensive than a direct flight but offered the advantage of a departure time that avoided having to spend the night (and hotel cost) in Denver.  Another factor in selecting this routing was the chances of being upgraded looked good. 

The mileage and cost of the trip would help requalifying for Executive Platinum in the AAdvantage frequent flyer program as well as serve as an introduction to the state of airline travel during the pandemic.  The flight to Denver was long enough to include meal service in first class.

After reacquainting myself with the pleasures of the American Airlines Admirals Club and American Express Centurion Lounge, it was finally time to get on an airplane again. The departure gate, B16, is a decent hike from the Centurion lounge.

The walk to the gate was easier than normal because airport crowding was diminished. Flights are getting full again; however, airlines are operating fewer flights than before the pandemic.

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Main Terminal passageway connecting Concourses A, B, and C. Rocking chairs are a signature CLT fixture.

American Airlines Flight 553 Charlotte, NC (CLT) to Denver, CO (DEN)

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Flight Date: March 31, 2021

Equipment: 737-800

Great Circle Distance: 1,337 mi, 2,152 km, 1,162 nm

Scheduled Flight Time: 3 hours and 47 minutes

Class of Service: Domestic First Class

I arrived at the gate right after boarding began. There didn’t seem to be much, if any, effort to enforce social distancing in the gate area or on the jetbridge.

A flight attendant handed out a small antiseptic wipe to each passenger at the airplane door. That was a new practice. It gave passengers some assurance that their personal space would be clean. Passengers don’t see many of the other new procedures like electrostatic cabin cleaning done before each flight and the deep cleaning process that is done overnight.

HEPA air filters recirculate cabin air every two to three minutes and remove more than 99.7% of  any particles the size of SARS-CoV-2.

Combined with the vaccine and my N95 hospital-grade face mask, I felt very safe.  I recommend N95 masks for special situations like air travel.  They can be obtained at times for about $1 a piece on sale.  I purchased from MSC Industrial.  

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American Airlines 737-800 on March 31, 2021

My seat was 1A a window seat on the port (left) side in the first row. The economy ticket was upgraded to first class several days before the flight. Upgrades on American Airlines domestic flights are free for Executive Platinum members when space is available.

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Bulkhead-row seats are less desirable because there is no room to extend the legs. Still, since the economy fare I paid for the whole trip was only $126 I had no complaints.

American uses Rockwell Collins MiQ seats as its current standard domestic seat in first class. These are the same seats it uses for premium economy on widebody aircraft except the premium economy seats have foot rests.

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American domestic first class seats. American no longer supplies blankets during the pandemic.

I thought it was funny, though, that American’s safety procedures card now only identifies the aircraft as a 737 not a 737-800 as they had previously. My assumption is the cards that specified 737-800 were replaced with generic 737 ones because of the 737 MAX. A portion of the public wants to avoid the MAX even though the FAA recertified it. American is now operating several dozen MAX 737s principally from its Miami hub. Passengers who didn’t pay attention when booking might become upset when they find out they are on a MAX after boarding. That’s my theory.

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I didn’t expect pre-departure beverages in first class, and I wasn’t disappointed when none were provided. But while we were taxiing, the flight attendant surprised me by handing out a goodie bag containing a small bottle of water, an antiseptic wipe and mini pretzels. Water was just what I needed after hustling over to the gate from the Centurion Lounge.

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While a beverage before departure would have been nice, skipping this service is understandable in light of the need to minimize interactions between people.

Airlines are very strict about wearing masks. The requirement to do so is displayed prominently on websites during the booking process. On this flight, gate agents, a pilot, and cabin crew all made PA announcements about the mask requirement. Airlines take that “stuff” seriously.

Anyone looking for 15 minutes of fame can easily find it. Just refuse to wear a mask on a commercial airline flight; maybe throw in some profanity, threats, insults and slurs for good measure. Videos of getting dragged off the plane by cops will go viral. 🀣

Boarding for the full flight completed on time and the captain pushed from the gate a few minutes early. Departure, however, was delayed due to rain and light fog.

Arriving aircraft were shooting ILS instrument approaches because of low clouds and limited visibility. Instrument approach procedures slow the pace of takeoffs and landings. Takeoff on Runway 36C (Three Six Center) was about 30 minutes late at 15:30 EDT.

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A soggy CLT departure.

Normally, this flight would include a meal service with a choice of hot and cold entrees. Covid safety concerns and cost have caused airlines to scale back inflight food and beverage services.

Shortly after reaching our initial cruising altitude, flight attendants in the first class cabin offered a beverage service. I asked for Woodford Reserve Bourbon, the best alcoholic beverage American offers domestically. That is high praise coming from a scotch drinker.

The attendant brought doubles without passengers asking. That was thoughtful from a customer service point of view and it reduced the number of interactions between crew and passengers.

The flight served “refreshments” in first class rather than a meal. I picked the pre-packaged cheese & crackers option.

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Assorted cheese, grapes, nuts, mini chocolate bar and Acacia crackers.

The snack was tasty and filling but not up to the standard of regular meal service in first class.

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Typical pre-pandemic American Airlines domestic first class three-course meal.

Flight attendants offered an additional beverage service in first class about an hour before landing.

There is no seatback video on American Airlines. American began removing video screens from its fleet before the pandemic. Instead, American provides free streaming service for movies and TV shows that passengers can watch on their personal devices.

I’d much prefer watching video entertainment on a seatback screen. Phone screens are too small. Watching on laptops or tablets creates a hassle when they must be put away when seatmates need to get up. The lack of seatback video would cause me to choose a different airline all other things being equal.

The weather cleared as we approached Denver. I took the opportunity to stare out the window for a bit. When flying to Denver from the east, viewing the “flat as a pancake” topography of the agricultural heartland of America that just west of Denver erupts suddenly into the 14,000 foot peaks of the Rocky Mountains is very impressive.

The approach and landing at Denver was smooth and the captain parked at Gate 46 on the A Concourse two minutes before the scheduled arrival time.

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DEN landing on Runway 35R (Three Five Right). The outline of the Rockies is visible on the horizon.

Final Thoughts

After a being grounded for a year, being back in an airport and airplane seemed familiar and strange at the same time. It was kind of like meeting a good friend I hadn’t seen in a long time and sorting out the changes in the relationship that are caused by the passage of time and changed circumstances.

Other than tolerable cutbacks in food and beverage service and the lack of blankets, the experience was the same as before the pandemic. Most importantly, despite the inability to always maintain social distance, I had little concern about Covid due to being vaccinated and the changes that airlines and lounges have made to their facilities, products and services. That secure feeling was a the exact opposite of the flight from Los Angles to Charlotte in March 2020.

What is the deciding factor that will get you travelling again? The authorities are saying that vaccines may need booster shots after six to nine months. I’m going to look for more trips including international travel (who knows where) while my immunity is still good.