In Transit: Uneasy skies for some airline passengers, pilots in COVID-19 era

  • Crowds in the COVID-19 era are sparse in Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport, but travelers and pilots are raising concerns about a lack of face coverings and long lines at security checkpoints.

      Crowds in the COVID-19 era are sparse in Terminal 1 at O'Hare International Airport, but travelers and pilots are raising concerns about a lack of face coverings and long lines at security checkpoints. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Arlington Heights pilot Dennis Tajer, communications chairman for the Allied Pilots Association, says the FAA's lack of action on face masks is "absurd."

    Arlington Heights pilot Dennis Tajer, communications chairman for the Allied Pilots Association, says the FAA's lack of action on face masks is "absurd."

  • Kathy Tiernan

    Kathy Tiernan

  • Andrew Lippert

    Andrew Lippert

 
 
Updated 5/25/2020 3:33 PM

From ghost airports to gridlocked checkpoints, flying in the era of COVID-19 is problematic, particularly when it comes to who's sharing germs at 35,000 feet.

Suburban travelers reported mixed experiences, from unease at crowded cabin conditions to surprise at a long security checkpoint line despite U.S. Transportation Security Administration reports of a 88% drop in passengers Saturday.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And while airlines are requiring masks onboard to reduce spread of the respiratory disease, one local pilot representing a major union says it's time the Federal Aviation Administration laid down the law.

First, Arlington Heights resident Kathy Tiernan's short jaunt to Austin, Texas, in early March to see her best friend stretched into weeks after the state locked down.

She escaped May 8 and upgraded to an empty row, but "shortly before flight time, a woman came to sit at the window of 'my' row," Tieran recalled.

"No big deal, I simply moved to the aisle seat. Three minutes later, a very nice young woman and her baby came and said she was actually supposed to be in the aisle seat of the row. So much for social distancing." Tiernan vacated to an empty row.

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"What was the most shocking aspect of the almost full flight was the fact that about 80% of the passengers were NOT wearing face masks," she said.

That's why the Allied Pilots Association, representing American Airlines pilots, and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants are pushing the FAA to mandate face masks on board planes.

Major carriers including United, American, Delta, Southwest and JetBlue require face masks in cabins but the FAA only recommends it.

"I can't be in a grocery store without a mask," said Arlington Heights pilot Dennis Tajer, communications chairman for the Allied Pilots Association. "It's absurd, to have one of the regulators refuse to take action."

Along with sophisticated air filters and deep-cleaning jets, masks save lives by adding an extra layer of protection against COVID-19, the unions contend. Mask mandates also build passengers' confidence at a time when the industry desperately needs customers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Federal backing would amplify an airline crew's authority and trigger an incident report and consequences, if warranted, Tajer said. An incident report could be essential for contact tracing if someone on the plane turns out to be COVID-positive, he said.

FAA Administrator Steven Dickson wrote to the APA, "while the FAA remains steadfast in its focus on safety of flight, we are not a public health agency. We must look to other U.S. government agencies for guidance on public and occupational health."

Wearing masks tells fellow travelers, "I've got your back," Tajer said. "We're being given a platform of jello and told to stand firmly on it."

Meanwhile, EMT Andrew Lippert of Bartlett was surprised May 7 by conditions at O'Hare International Airport when he flew to Phoenix to interview for his "dream job" at an Arizona fire department.

"I was expecting O'Hare to be like a ghost town, but it was, in fact, more busy than I anticipated. They only had one security checkpoint open, where I was met with a very long line of travelers," Lippert said.

"The majority of people had masks on in the airport and also on the plane, but not all. I noticed most middle seats were kept empty with the goal of keeping social distancing. The few rows that were filled with three people I assume were family members who bought the tickets together. Other than that and not serving any food/drinks during the flight, it was pretty normal."

Got an opinion about masks on planes or a traveling anecdote to share? Drop an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

You should know

Forget about taking the westbound Kennedy Expressway ramp from the inbound Eisenhower Expressway for a while. IDOT is closing the ramp as of Monday until Oct. 1 or so as part of its Jane Byrne Interchange rebuild. But as compensation, drivers can experience the "Texas U-turn" detour, according to IDOT. Eastbound Eisenhower drivers should hop onto the outbound Dan Ryan Expressway and take the Texas U-turn at the Taylor Street interchange.

$10 Metra pass

Metra is turning to Alexander Hamilton to attract riders with a $10 all-day pass starting June 1. Riders are encouraged to use the Ventra app to buy the pass, which pass offers unlimited rides on all Metra trains all day until 3 a.m. the next morning. For information, go to metrarail.

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