It is officially the holiday season, and all one hears on the news is the potential for horrific travel this year.
The last time I flew on a holiday (July 4th), I had my own trip to forget. In the hopes that you fare better than I did, I share with you my story of what travel looks like in 2021.
I flew over the July 4th holiday weekend.
I wish I hadn't.
I am a very frequent flier. Ask anyone who worked with me for the last 11 years in my sales organization, and they will tell you that I was one of the top travelers in the entire company.
I consider myself to be an egalitarian person, and I fly Southwest Airlines, which many business travelers shun due to their lack of first class cabin, lounges and assigned seating in general.
However, for leisure travelers and the budget-conscious, Southwest's two free checked bags are a big deal, and the numerous domestic and international locations they serve make it a bastion for non-stop vacation flights. Normally as a business traveler, I would never check a bag, but I was away from home for a month; therefore, I was able to actually benefit from the avoidance of extra luggage fees (and trust me I brought a huge rolling suitcase I affectionately call "The Beast" packed to the maximum 50-pound limit).
I should have known that my July 4th, 2021 holiday weekend flight may not have been the best when I was notified via the Southwest Airlines app in the morning that my end-of-the-day flight (booking the last flight of the day is another huge mistake a business traveler would never make unless she or he absolutely had to) was already running 45 minutes late, meaning that I would likely not land until well after midnight. That meant that after driving five hours to the airport from my resort destination and dropping off the rental car, I would have to endure six hours at Denver International Airport before the flight's departure.
To be fair, LinkedIn News has discussed the huge expected increase in travel for this first, post-pandemic, July 4th holiday weekend, and for the most part, I think the issues with weather in Denver affected many airlines. However, I flew Southwest, so that is what I am going to review for you. Let's just say I know Southwest has had better days, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt and continue to fly them.
Check-in/Luggage Experience: It appeared that the Bag Drop line (for those who had checked in online and needed to only print their checked luggage tags) was moving relatively quickly. I had to use the Full Service line, and the agent was very helpful. The only downside would be that pretty much the entire pre-security section at Denver International Airport is under construction, and the amenities are much less than they were several years ago before this massive project began. I overheard one lady muttering as we queued to fill our water bottles that "this was the only water station available in the entire pre-security terminal," since only the post-security Terminals A, B and C offer the water bottle refill stations that are COVID-19 approved.
Security: I have traveled through Denver International Airport at least 25 times in the past few years, and the security lines were legendarily long. Having Pre-Check helped; however, sometimes the Pre-Check Line was even longer than the regular line. Then came CLEAR, which allows a traveler to skip all lines including the Pre-Check line, and all of my business traveler colleagues got CLEAR. I didn't sign up for CLEAR, but I know it saved them tons of time and definitely helped them make flights which they probably could have missed. As for the day I traveled, there was not a soul in the CLEAR line as I went through security, which is pretty much your litmus test for business travel vs. leisure travel (meaning July 3rd was likely 99%+ leisure travelers).
In the Terminal: Masks are required at all times at Denver International Airport as well as mandated by the FAA on flights, and for the most part, the rules were adhered to. Lines for the few restaurants in the Terminal were extensive at mealtimes, and unfortunately, the food offerings were uninspiring. It would be great if one of the many entrepreneurs on LinkedIn concocted a big idea for a better airport food experience.
At the Gate: Our gate was at the very end of the C terminal, Gate C49. The seating area was minimal, and the only open row of chairs available rocked back and forth like a see-saw when someone would sit next to me. Additionally, the bench offered the mirage of a built-in charging station, which regrettably did not function. In general, bodies were strewn all over the gate area, in various stages of repose, especially congregated around the rare available electrical outlets.
It is good that I was paying attention, because the flight before ours (headed to OKC out of the same gate C49) was delayed for two hours and basically was going to leave at the same time our flight was scheduled to leave. To accommodate our flight, they moved our gate to C42, which was not a far walk, but people had to pack up their things and move again, which meant giving up that coveted charging outlet.
As always, once a flight is delayed, the departure time ends up getting pushed back and back, and by the time everyone was deplaned, then the crew changed, then the Pre-Boards, then everyone else, and then the luggage, we were well on our way to a 90 minute delay.
On the Flight: I thought I would grab some sleep on the flight since I had been traveling for 16 hours already and had woken up at 6:00 a.m. to do so. I was boarding pass number A18, which for Southwest means that I am one of the first people on board the plane, especially since there were only three Business Select passengers. I secured the window seat in the very front row of the plane, which has extra leg room. One of the Business Select passengers was seated in the aisle seat right at the front, which he paid extra for, and I took the window leaving the middle seat in between empty. All was looking ideal for that middle seat until when, about halfway through boarding, literally one of the largest human males decides that he will be taking the middle seat between two other reasonably sized males in the front row.
As a result, he was basically halfway into my seat. I had to hug the wall just to not contort myself, and not touching each other physically was impossible. I tried to use the tray table, which was in the side of the seat to my left (where he was sitting in the middle seat) and the tray table was inoperable due to his body folding over it. He was able to just barely get his seatbelt on without an extension, which I think is the airlines' criteria for whether you need to purchase two seats or only one. Mind you, he was not an obese person, just very large, and he was not rude about it.
However, I was upset. Here I had just spent an entire day traveling only to finally board my homeward bound flight, and now even my seating situation on the flight was compromised. I had to endure back pain and contortion for the next two hours.
During the drink service, when I told the flight attendant politely that I was unable to use my tray table, he remarked disinterestedly: "Yeah, that happens sometimes."
So I guess that is how life goes. I started to wonder what is the proper etiquette for this type of situation. In my life, I make a conscious effort to always accept everyone and to never judge or criticize. However, given my fragile mental health, I was trying to calm myself down using every meditation technique possible so that I would not have an anxiety attack on the flight. I paid good money for my seat and am an elite flyer on Southwest, and I guess I expected more.
So I ultimately arrived home late, sore, exhausted and slightly disgusted with humanity. I was left wondering: How can people live like this? Is this what post-pandemic travel has become?
Austin Rosenthal flew Southwest flight 3114 from Denver to Austin on July 3, 2021.
Note: Portions of this article were posted on LinkedIn on 7/6/21.