DCA-TPA/DFW-DCA AUG-SEP 2020:

powering through Pandemia, bookended by upgrades

    Air travel has always provided me a sort of safe space. Even with WiFi, no one expects you to remain fully tethered while you’re up there. With a view, enough room that my knees don’t hit the seat in front of me, and a bar cart, I’m absolutely content. 

 

    Pre-covid, I’d last been in the air in January, heading to Florida for Mom’s birthday. In the red-hot American pandemic summer, I finally returned to the skies, this time to help Mom relocate from the small condo she moved into not long after my stepfather’s death, about 20 years ago, to an assisted-living apartment in Texas nearer family.

IN THE RED-HOT AMERICAN

PANDEMIC SUMMER,

I FINALLY RETURNED TO THE SKIES

    My exact itinerary, at first, was flying American from Washington National to Tampa; driving from Port Richey, Fla., to Crestview, Fla., via Perry for lunch; then on to Sulphur, La., via Slidell, La.; then into Texas; followed by a Dallas-D.C. flight home. On my departure Saturday, however, hearing Ali Velshi reporting live from Sulphur in the wake of Hurricane Laura, I amended our route to avoid coastal Louisiana and instead head northwest through Mississippi, via Hattiesburg, to overnight in Natchez. We usually use Hampton Inn on the road, but the Natchez Hampton Inn was full. Hotel Vue, an Ascend/Choice property, seemed OK and had space, so I booked it and headed to the airport. 

 

    My last visit to DCA had been to fill an early July Travelers Aid shift in Terminal A. It was crowded enough that I was angry to see too many people without masks. Signage letting people know it was a Virginia mandate seemed sparse. On my Aug. 29 return, the landscape seemed improved. Masks were ubiquitous. Over in Terminal B/C, a k a National Hall, however, things seemed far less populated than my July experience. Granted, Saturday evenings were a great, less crowded, time to fly even back in The Normal. During a pandemic, it seemed ridiculously empty. This, of course, was fine by me. With a recent covid test under my belt, my mission was to remain negative, get Mom across about a thousand miles of Pandemic Alley, and fly back home without either of us getting infected. In the words of Homer J. Simpson, “LET’S DO THIS THING!” 

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Pulling up to DCA Terminal B/C on a summer Saturday evening

    My flight was out of the Central Pier, sort of Terminal B. After checking my bag, that’s where I headed. This was good, I thought, as the B Admiral’s Club was still operating, while Terminal’s C’s club was not. In my covid brain – which is what the husband and I have dubbed all sorts of cloudy thinking, by ourselves and others, that seems a result of trying to manage one’s day-to-day needs along with a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic – I confused my terminals. It was B that was closed. Though it only took about a minute to get through security, I wasn’t about to go through C security and back through B, nor check to see if the shuttle between the two terminals is still running, just to get some time in the Admiral’s Club. They’re great for avoiding crowds, but that was a nonissue that Saturday evening. Instead, I made my way to the end of the pier, near my gate, and enjoyed a Stella Artois at the U Street Pub’s DCA iteration. 

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Signs o' the times, for those few on site to see them

    One beer killed a perfect amount of time before boarding the Embraer 175. This is actually an ideal sort of pandemic plane. American Airlines notes that this regional plane has not only the high-end HEPA air filters of the bigger jets, but no middle seats. The main cabin seating is 2x2, while first is 1x2. And with so little demand, upgrades – even with my lowliest tier of AAdvantage “elite” status – were easy in both directions. About to meet up with Ma, this seemed even more important heading down, as this meant I had one of the prized solo seats. I even had two air vents above me pouring a frosty force-field of gushing air around me for the duration.

TWO AIR VENTS ABOVE ME

POURING A FROSTY FORCE-FIELD

OF GUSHING AIR

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Thanks to covid, Saturday nights have never been quieter

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My solitary throne, along with its anti-viral vents 

    Service, for me, began and ended with the flight attendant handing me a tiny packet of sanitizer when I boarded. After take-off, she came by to ask if I’d care for anything. Nope. The novelty of consuming anything for consumption’s sake, killing time in the sky with a cocktail and pretzels, seemed just a reason to remove my mask. There are quite enough mask scofflaws that I could dutifully present myself as a responsible citizen, happy to keep my mask over mouth and nose.   

    While airline catering is rarely show-stopping, the diversion was always pleasant. This change made it clear that I was here to get from Point A to B. I could read my book and sit tight for about two hours. Pandemic protocols trump pleasant diversions. 

 

    By landing time, my shoulders were pretty tense from the aforementioned protective cone of frigid air flowing around me. The price of safety! 

 

    TPA Airside F, around 7p.m. on a Saturday evening, was even quieter than DCA. Everything was closed. Seemed like at the far end of this airside, which handles the international flights, it’s as though it’s been shuttered for the duration, rather than just closed for the evening. There was so little traffic that I had one of the two “people mover” cars to myself. The main terminal was eerily empty. Aside from my mother and brother, I saw about a half dozen people. For pandemic’s sake, I suppose this was a very good thing. 

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It would be difficult to get more socially distanced than TPA on a pandemic Saturday night

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Rails for one on the TPA Airside F 'people mover'

That evening was our last in Mom’s Pasco condo. In the morning, Dora and I packed ourselves up into her Honda CRV, while Patrick remained behind to coordinate with the movers. 

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Thirty-seven years prior, Dora and I arrived in Florida in her Datsun. Now, it was time to head out in her Honda. ps Get your own Kimberly Walker for Florida 12th shirt! 

    Perry, Fla., was the obvious stop for lunch halfway to Crestview. I planned for the Backdoor Bistro, which seemed perfectly targeted to an octogenarian appetite for cups of soup and half sandwiches. Plus, outdoor seating. But, Perry being Perry, and Day 1 on the road being a Sunday, the bistro was closed. At least I knew this going in, so I’d already swapped it for 3 Nelsons. This burger spot had some Trip Advisor notoriety and Mom would be OK with a burger. Stepping into this little joint, masked, I was a bit unnerved by the table of four with no masks. And the young woman behind the counter with no mask. We got just as close as need be to place an order, then stood back. Annoyed, we ate in the car. Great burger! Dangerous ambiance. 

AN OCTOGENARIAN APPETITE

FOR CUPS OF SOUP

AND HALF SANDWICHES

    We carried on for another few hours through random cloudbursts, arriving at the Crestview Hampton Inn as the sun began setting. I was grateful to return to the rules of corporate America, requiring masks, installing plastic partitions, and offering hand sanitizer at every turn. At our rooms, I was pleased to find the doors affixed with un unbroken sticker advising the room had been cleaned to exacting Lysol standards. Thank you! We grabbed dinner, to eat isolated in Mom’s room, from a McAlister’s Deli, through a window, handed to us by a young woman with a mask dangling from one ear. So brave! (insert eye-roll emoji) 

 

    Hampton Inns are well known for their included breakfast buffets. I was curious to see how they were managing the new now. The breakfast room was relatively large, offering us plenty of room to distance ourselves from the three others already seated. At a doorway, partitioned off by a long table, an attendant gave us an oral rundown of the menu. “I have a cheese omelet, bacon, sausage, a cinnamon muffin, a banana nut muffin,…,” etc. There was plenty, and she presented it to us almost immediately, along with a little zipped baggie each containing utensils, a napkin, and salt and pepper. Well done.

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A disinfected room is a welcoming room! 

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Tucked away in Mom's room for take-out dinner, but making a more public showing for the re-tooled Hampton Inn breakfast

    By the time we were heading into Mississippi, all of Mom’s morning anxiety due to being unaware of having crossed a time zone, had dissipated. We settled in and listened to Julie Andrews present her second memoir, Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years.

 

    Lunch found us in Hattiesburg, at the trip’s clear highlight, T-Bones Records & Café. This Southern star restored my faith. Whether clientele or staff, everyone was masked. The exception was the shaded outdoor patio, for a perfect al fresco minus-masks lunch. I had the muffuletta. And the friendly young man behind the counter complimented by Ruth Bader Ginsburg T-shirt. My impressions of Hattiesburg just kept getting better. Granted, my only impression was T-Bones. A couple of blocks from the University of Southern Mississippi campus, it was nice to see ‘collegiate cool’ is sort of universal, even in the heart of deep-red Mississippi. On to Natchez!  

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That Mississippi Monday, we were treated to plenty of wide-open spaces

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The outstanding T-Bone's Records & Café was definitely a highlight of powering through Pandemia

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    The mood at the Hotel Vue was not quite the same as the Hampton Inn. This Choice/Ascend property was quite a bit less stringent in mask adherence. Most of the staff seemed to have them, but hanging from one ear, as seemed to be the clear fashion choice of Pandemia. A mask-donning guest was a rarity. Before arriving, I was excited that the property listed an onsite bar and restaurant. No foraging! With lax mask compliance, however, seemed still to be best to hide ourselves away. No problem! We went into the very quaint old center of Natchez, where Planet Thailand served our no-contact takeout needs. In the morning, we returned to the same few blocks for some Natchez Coffee Co. to go. And go we did, the few remaining hours to Mom’s new home in Texas. 

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My Hotel Vue room had a humid dampness that seems unavoidable in summertime on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Great spot for a parking-lot sunset, though! 

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The leafy, welcoming sidewalk entrance to Planet Thailand in Natchez

    Texas with the family offered enough time for a driving tour of Tyler and some outstanding Texas barbeque. After a full day in Texas, Thursday meant it was time to fly back from D.C. from DFW. 

 

    While I missed the club at DCA, I spent about an hour at the DFW Terminal C Admiral’s Club ahead of my 7p.m.-ish flight. After checking in with the World Elite MasterCard – club access was an outstanding card benefit, pre-covid – I walked into the club and was greeted by an attendant who asked me what kind of seating I wanted. Uhm… window? He sat me down next to a faux-frosted, view-less window, in a group of four seats. On the arms of two seats across, he laid a square, laminated placard: “MAINTAIN SPACE.”  

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At the DFW Terminal C Admirals Club, plenty of room to 'maintain space,'

plenty of boxes to stuff your face! 

    I was near the bar, so I got up to fetch another Stella. The plastic cups in use that day were tiny, so the bartender gave me a gratis Stella chaser in another tiny cup. Shortly after, I asked another attendant if there might be some pretzels or similar on hand. She ducked away and rushed right back with a little Admirals Club-branded snackbox of a granola bar, crackers, etc. The club was pleasantly quiet until a group of four was seated nearby, immediately removed masks, boasted how easy it was to just maintain a constant state of consumption as an excuse not to wear a mask in public, and bemoaned Speaker Pelosi for God knows what. 

...BOASTED HOW EASY IT WAS

TO JUST MAINTAIN

A CONSTANT STATE OF CONSUMPTION

AS AN EXCUSE 

NOT TO WEAR A MASK

    Down at the gate, the crowds were hit or miss. A plane would land, and suddenly a wave of people washed through the concourse. Minutes afterward, a tumbleweed would’ve been appropriate.

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Now you see 'em! 

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Now you don't 

    I would say boarding was contactless, though my phone touched the gate agent’s QR reader. What disease may be lurking, so very eager to execute a screen-to-screen contamination?? Then again, that sort of extrapolation can fry a brain. Particularly one with as little computing power as my own. 

 

    Seated, again in first, thanks to a relatively empty plane, this 737 gave me a little more personal space, but also a seatmate. This was about the time I realized I was biting down on the inside of my mouth. It was a familiar feeling. It’s what happens when my sinuses are irritated and pressing against nerves in my upper teeth. (Note: Dear dentists and dental technicians, if this is not physically possible, please take it up with my own delightful dentist. He explained this to me years ago. If he was lying, I would not know.) Seemed my sinuses were finally acting up after four days of natural and artificial temperature extremes. Of course, in my mind this was a covid infection. 

 

    For the three hours to DCA, I tried to sleep. And keep my mask absolutely on. The guy next to me seemed to think it was worth taking it off for a few slabs of cheese and some grapes. I believe there was also a turkey sandwich on offer. But why? Perhaps an emergency sustenance kit might make sense in case you find yourself working a flight with some unexpected war-refugee passengers. Otherwise, I just don’t understand why anyone would bother with catering on a three-hour flight. 

    Unusual for me, I didn't sample the provided issue of American Way. I might have, had I spotted the little tag on the cover that advised it's now being printed in some new covid-aware way. In AA's own words: "Located in the seatback pocket, American Way magazine is now printed with a new paper treatment process called Biomaster®, which is an antimicrobial technology that helps prevent the growth of unwanted microbes."

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Maintaining a little space when boarding, enjoying my Proper Cloth mask – reserved for my most cautious outings – and relishing the legroom

    I’m reminded of passenger ships that were refigured into troop transports during World War II. Or the windowless cavern of a Boeing C-17 flying service members and others around the world. These pandemic flights were pure utility. There’s no kicking back for a cocktail, snack crackers, and respite from the weary world for a couple hours. Up here, in this pandemic, a plane is just a weary as the rest of the world. I was a bag of meat needing move from one part of the country to another quickly. Scoring an upgrade didn’t give my that little thrill I’ve known over the years. Rather, it was merely more personal space in which to hide from a virus behind a chilly curtain of vented air. 

 

    Granted, the air over Washington was particularly calamitous that Thursday evening, offering a glorious sunset. For that reason alone, I was even grateful we needed to circle awhile, waiting for that bad weather to clear.

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Please enjoy a couple shots of the gorgeous DCA-return sunset

    But my escape is gone. Until breathing in a crowd is less fraught, I don’t imagine I’ll be back in the sky. The flights felt far safer than navigating the crowds on the ground, but they weren’t enjoyable. Getting a feel for the crowd was an imagined range of apocalyptic panic to douche-baggish nonchalance. I’m sure I was right there in the middle somewhere, and it’s not a place I liked being. It was a bit like going for a surgery that carried few risks, and every chance for a speedy, pain-free recovery. If I have to do it, no so bad! If not absolutely necessary, however, no thank you. 

 

    I am literally raising a glass between sentences, toasting to glorious flights past, and a future world of glorious flights to come. Cheers to you, commercial aviation. I hope we can someday pick things up as they were, putting this awkward period behind us.