The Friendly Skies
Of Phantom Flyers
THURSDAY, APRIL 2, 2020 -- Pink and white cherry blossoms were in bloom, the sun was shining and Thursday, March 12, was a glorious day in Washington. Nine days later, I was home in Hawaii. In between the two? Nothing. Deserted streets, shuttered restaurants, closed museums and monuments--and empty aircraft and airports.

America, the ghost town. The friendly skies of phantom flyers.

I was in the midst of a five-week run at the District of Columbia's Shakespeare Theater Company. The World Health Organization officially declared the Coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, the same day D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recommended cancelling all gatherings of 1,000 or more. Given that our venue, the Michael R. Klein Theatre, seats 451, we went on with the show. It was an understandably sparse crowd.

The next morning, due to a rash of ticket cancellations, the theater informed us the show would close a week earlier than planned. But the mayor tightened her recommendation on gatherings and it meant the show would not go on. Unbeknownst to us, the March 11 performance was closing night. Ironically, my mother was flying from Hawaii while all this was happening. It was a long way to fly to miss a show.

Now, of course, the idea of a gathering of any size is frightening. The notion of performing for a crowd seems inappropriate and dangerous. I couldn't have imagined we'd get to this point. But here we are.

My mother and I had a week in Washington with no show to do and a district full of closed museums and deserted monuments. We did go to a restaurant on her first night in town. The place was so empty that we gave the waitress a 50 percent tip. All the restaurants were ordered closed the next day. So we hunkered down for a few days and played Gin Rummy.

While Hawaii is where I was born and raised, New York is my home these days. But with the Big Apple an epicenter of the pandemic, it made no sense to go there. We decided to head back to paradise, home to Honolulu. It won't surprise you to learn that United Airlines was basically giving away seats. I booked a one-way flight for just $273 with no advance purchase and no roundtrip. Needless to say, however, the discounted travel has come at a very high social cost.

On the way to Dulles Airport on Saturday, March 21, Diane the Uber driver was shocked and grateful she had a ride. Highways were eerily empty. Dulles was a ghost town. More employees than travelers wandered the concourses. If the TSA numbers are reliable, most American airports were ghost towns: Fewer than 550,000 people flew on March 21, about 75 percent below last year's count. Traffic has fallen another 75 percent since then.

Much to my surprise, one Dulles restaurant, Bistro Atelier on Concourse D, was open. The 135-seat restaurant had about 30 empty tables. "Sit anywhere you like!" said the waitress, who waved at us with protective gloves. At the bar, each customer was sitting six feet apart as recommended. It was trippy.

On our first segment, United Flight 2008 to San Francisco, the Boeing 737-800 was comparatively crowded. I'd put the load factor at about 70 percent. About a third of the travelers and flight crew wore masks.

There was a moment when my mother coughed. Other passengers spun their heads around and glared. She was fine--some water had gone down the wrong pipe--and I initially found the moment funny and illuminating of the absurdity of our situation. Then I realized it wasn't absurd. Anyone who coughs is now a suspected Coronavirus carrier and spreader. Things really have gotten that bad.

Much like Dulles, San Francisco International was ghostly quiet and nearly empty as we rushed to make our connection to Honolulu. United Flight 1509, a Boeing 777-200, was also nearly empty. There were perhaps 50 people flying in the coach cabin of the twin-aisle jet. United didn't even bother with group boarding. After elites and premium class flyers were handled, the rest of us simply boarded at leisure.

I felt two contradictory vibes. One was the oddity of having so much overhead storage available. The other was the awareness that flyers were tense. A cough, after all, could come at any time.

One flight attendant had a sense of humor about the shockingly light load on United 1509 (above). The rear third of the cabin was roped off and he told passengers to sit anywhere they'd like. "The world is our oyster!" he exclaimed. At first I thought it would be gauche to spread out and use an entire row as a bed and poor man's business class, but I quickly found it too comfortable to resist.

When we landed in Honolulu, I was fully prepared for checkpoints and health questions. I braced myself for mandatory testing. I realize in hindsight that was a silly notion give our nation's nearly criminal shortage of test kits. I thought we might at least get a self-quarantine procedures warning.

Yet there was nothing but a mostly empty airport. I recall a bottle of hand sanitizer tethered to the wall near baggage claim, but that was it. Ironically, the next day, Hawaii Governor David Ige ordered a 14-day self-quarantine for arrivals to the state. And yesterday he imposed a similar self-quarantine restriction even on inter-island flyers.

Since we arrived in Honolulu, my mother and I have self-quarantined even though we returned before the Governor's order. I'm grateful to be back in paradise, trapped though I may be.

But I miss the stage. I miss the chance to entertain people. Most of all, I miss the ability to do what I love to do. And I wonder how long it'll be before I can get on an airplane again. -- Julia Ogilvie

Julia Ogilvie is a New York-based actor, comedian and writer. A graduate of Juilliard, she has performed at La MaMa and the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, the Macau Arts Festival, the Dorset Theater Festival in Vermont and the Chautauqua Theater Company.