What Will Flight Feel Like Now?

Thoughts on my first plane trip since “Before”

I had never been on a plane until college. My friends are always surprised to learn that. (I had also never been to a concert nor had I eaten sushi, but those are stories for another time.) As a kid, we only really ever went on vacation to Florida, and we drove. Nothing says “family fun” like 24 hours in a Pontiac packed with three kids, 12 suitcases, bag lunches, and a cooler full of Capri Sun. Those trips were special, but they were long. The first time I did the trip by plane, a quick two hours, I fell in love — with the romantically busy airport, the paper boarding pass and ticket folder in my hand, and the very idea that I could get on an aircraft in New York City and get off a world away.

In my 20s, plane travel became an escape. I traveled to Europe and to California, across the U.S., and around the world. A passport was a major milestone in my life. That little blue book meant I was finally an adult. I started my airplane adventures in the late 90s, when flights on JetBlue were $99 (ha!), seats were slightly wider, and accumulated miles actually meant something. Then, a full, hot meal and fully checked bags were integral parts of the experience, not up-charge add-ons. Those surely weren’t the glamorous flights of the 1950s — cigarettes and champagne — but looking back, they seem luxurious now.

Delta Airlines Ad, 1950s | Photo Credit

Of course, it all changed after 9/11. When planes raze the standing symbols of the capitalist West, they get — well, got — an immediate bad rap. Not only did prices go up, but so did military-grade metal detectors and massive suitcase scanners. Before 9/11, you wouldn’t dream of taking your shoes off at an airport. It was odd and unsanitary. After, it is mod social custom to almost fully undress and re-dress, as if we’re all backstage in a play called, “Please Remove Your Belt, Shoes, and Dignity.” Before that major turning point in our nation’s history, you could meet someone at the gate to welcome them. After, you are a threat from the second you drive onto airport grounds. Funny enough, 9/11 or no 9/11, you can still take any bag you want from baggage claim and walk right out.

In the last 20 years, plane travel became the way I could merge the east and west coasts. I keep a small metal plane on my desk, a reminder that this magnificent flight machine makes my work possible. I work in entertainment, so until the COVID Crisis, I was back-and-forth from Los Angeles to New York, like it was my job. It was. Every three weeks or so, I ping-ponged across the country, racking up miles — whatever that means these days — and relying on United, Uber, and a storable roller case to make it all work. Putting aside for a second that that way of life was truly exhausting — not to mention that my personal carbon footprint was gargantuan — the logistics worked well once they were fully ironed out. They became old hat. I had the best of both worlds: work and family, east and west, sunshine and city.

Until, of course, The Great Pause and the lingering pandemic. I have spent a year solo in an apartment in New York, clawing at the walls to safely resume life. It will be a new life. After what we have been through, it is impossible for it not to be. Now with two vaccine shots safely in my arm, this week, I’ll get on a plane for the first time in over a year. My last flight was March 7, 2020, as I fled Seattle, cutting a work trip short to get out of what was quickly becoming the American epicenter of this weird new virus. More than 56 weeks later, I am bracing myself for how strange it will feel to return to an airport. To sit next to strangers. To look out the window and marvel at the clouds. Will it take my breath away? Or is the high of that kind of invincibility now gone forever?

Delta Airlines Ad, 1950s | Photo Credit

Until I depart, I am mired in logistics. It’s an international flight, so preparing to leave is a frustrating jumble of appointments and labs and tests, as I try to figure out — and plan to comply with — the regulations that will actually await me on-the-ground as I travel through three countries. “You must present a negative COVID test” is surprisingly vague. A rapid or a PCR? What does “72 hours” actually mean — from the hour I check in at the airport or the hour I land at the destination? How is that possible if most tests here in New York take 3–5 days to get results? Do the regulations in the country where my flights connect matter? Which website do you listen to — the airline, the CDC, the embassy? I am vaccinated. Is this tiny card in my wallet all I need to prove that? Why doesn’t my vaccination make a difference as I exit or re-enter? What kind of mask should I wear? It’s a nine-hour flight. Do I not take the mask off to eat or drink? More reading and research has been required for this flight than I did for most classes in college.

Like 9/11, the COVID Crisis is sure to change air travel forever. I know already that this week’s flight will feel different than any one I have been on before. I am hoping it will feel better than staring at the four walls of my apartment and talking to my lamp (“Larry”). What will it feel like to lift-off after a year of stagnation? To share air with the anonymous public we have all feared and avoided? To fly through the sky over a vast ocean? To try to sleep in the uncomfortable upright seat? To touch down in a foreign land? I will keep you posted, if you care to follow along. I won’t be posting any travel pics. I want to be graceful about having the privilege to travel, as so many still struggle. I am sure it will all be a mixed bag. But maybe it will feel like the first time all over again. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll fall in love.

Julio Vincent Gambuto is a writer/director, based in New York City. He wrote that Medium essay about the pandemic that went around the world to 21M readers. Follow on Twitter for small thoughts, or here for Medium ones, or his website for large ones.

“Giulio” (It’s Italian.) Writer/Director based in NYC. Outspoken so I can help you make sense of this modern world.

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