BY ROY BERGER --
With more than two million actual flight miles on my resume, not many airport experiences are eye-opening anymore.
On Sunday, when I flew for the first time since the pandemic grounded us, everything was the same. Yet everything was very different.
Pulling up to the six-floor parking garage at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on Sunday was my intro to the abyss. Only Levels one and three were open. Panic set in: I always park on Level four. Every business traveler is set in their ways and, for me, that starts with always parking in familiar surroundings on Level Four. Unless COVID-19 strikes and Level Four is closed.
There was very little airport activity inside McCarran, a huge departure from the typical rush to get out of town with what few dollars remain on a "typical" Vegas Sunday morning. On this day a sight never seen before: taxis waiting for fares. Curbside check-in was abandoned with no skycaps and no travelers. Baggage claim, normally bustling with early East coast arrivals, was as still as a casino floor during the Coronavirus lockdown.
This was my first flight in more than three months. I had others scheduled, but all were scrapped. As this was my first airport in the time of COVID-19, I was armed with four dozen alcohol prep pads, four masks and a tube of hand sanitizer. The rule laid down by my wife: Pay attention and wipe everything in sight as I go.
Leaving retirement paradise in Las Vegas
, I was headed for a few days in Birmingham, Alabama. I lived there for 20 years and still sit on the board of my former company, Medjet
. The trip was for a quarterly board meeting and the agenda was weighty considering the pandemic. Southwest Airlines still runs a Las Vegas-Birmingham nonstop, so off I went to do my corporate duty.
The LAS TSA line, normally mobbed with people smashed together like a casino floor in the good old days, had one other person in line. There was no separate PreCheck line, but I received a voucher to avoid extensive screening. I felt big time.
The concourse was populated at maybe 5 percent of what a Sunday morning should be. Three out of every four people wore masks. Most shops and restaurants were closed. So were all the slot machines. Socially distanced seating was plentiful at the departure gates.
Forty-three of 143 seats on my Southwest aircraft were occupied. Plenty of good seats for everyone. There was no in-flight service and a couple of passengers were not wearing masks, but otherwise the flight portion of the outbound journey almost seemed like old times.
When I reached Birmingham, my Avis rental was priced at $36 a day, down from the typical BHM rate of about $65. There was no Avis Select service
. Instead, I trudged to the rental counter. I was the only one there. The rental agent wore a mask and gloves. I headed to spot Number 34 and, as my wife had commanded, wiped down my Ford Fusion thoroughly.
The Hilton was $106 a night. Normally, it is north of $170. I was told 22 of the 204 rooms were occupied. The desk clerk had no mask or gloves. There was no protective plexiglass shield between me and the attendant. Oh well.
I did as my wife instructed before I left home. Once inside the room, I washed my hands, wiped down the door handles, the sink faucets, the shower door and the countertops. Most importantly, my wife said, wipe down the TV remote. And, oh yeah, my cell phone, too.
Things in Alabama were a bit more relaxed than in Nevada. Old-fashioned handshakes were still in play. Restaurants were open with proper distancing. Much to my surprise, my old gym reopened on the day I arrived. No capacity limit but social distancing by sign and reminders on the workout floor. You could sweat all you want, but the locker room and showers were closed. Yet the pool was open. Huh?
The board meeting went fine and, 48 hours later, it was time to reverse the process. Approaching BMH, I was immediately struck by what must have been 50 Delta planes, stacked almost on top of each other, furloughed and out of service. BHM looked eerily like the aircraft boneyard
near Tucson, Arizona.
There was nobody returning vehicles but me. Avis didn't even bother to staff the return lot. Leave the keys, please, and we'll get back to you.
I was the only one at the TSA checkpoints. Well, me and four TSA agents. Save for two newsstands and a bagel counter, every other amenity at modern and friendly Birmingham International was shuttered.
The flight to Las Vegas was on-time once again. It's amazing how quickly you can turn an aircraft when it flies at about a third of capacity. The boarding groups were ten each, just like the outbound flight. Southwest, of course, usually boards in groups of 30. But that was in the before times.
There were 45 of us onboard. Five were traveling without face masks. A woman watching a movie. A gent sleeping with his face smashed against the window. And, surprisingly, all three flight attendants who, without cabin service, were leisurely seated the whole flight. That they were not wearing masks, even though they weren't serving, actually bothered me.
I arrived home safely. I'm glad I went. I felt I did my small part to help the economy get back on its feet. No regrets. I'd do it again. Not just yet for a weekend pleasure getaway, of course, but I'll certainly fly again for business circumstances.
Now, if I can only remember where I parked my car.
ABOUT ROY BERGER
Roy Berger writes the twice-monthly Sunday Morning Coffee
blog, which covers life, love, politics and sports. He has written for JoeSentMe.com about travel insurance
, attending baseball fantasy camps
, his decision to live in Las Vegas
and, most recently, about Las Vegas without visitors