Passengers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport maintained social distancing but many went without face coverings. (Joe Rutland/El Paso Matters)

I just returned from taking an airplane trip to another state in America and made it back to El Paso safely. 

Go ahead and make your snarky comments about how unsafe I was for flying on an airplane (thank you), for endangering others by doing so (um, I wore my mask), and for not acknowledging social distancing best practices (hey, that’s not on me … blame American Airlines).

Taking flight during a pandemic sounds ridiculous and dangerous. All the warnings and loud sirens from everyone say, “Don’t take a plane unless it’s absolutely necessary.” I heard them and made my own decision.

I flew out of El Paso International Airport on American Airlines, then connected at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for a second flight – also on American Airlines – to my final destination. 

Let me give you a little “inside baseball” look at how my trip went down.

Social distance and safety compliance

Cleaning crews were out in force around El Paso International Airport, making sure seating areas, windows, trash bins, and other places were spotless. All people wore masks and gloves, following protocols to the best of their ability. I looked around and felt very safe out there.

Most passengers roaming through the airport were wearing masks. One family of six — parents and four children — had no masks on at all. It appeared that they were there to pick up someone  and not take a flight. Still, they were the exception and not the rule.

Passengers in El Paso waiting to board the flight from El Paso to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport were very respectful of social distance. American Airlines put down markers on the carpet, clearly showing where to stand. Everyone was wearing a mask or face covering. 

Upon sitting down for my first flight, passengers were sitting in pretty much every row available. First-class seating appeared to be closed off. No social distancing on this flight.

While making a flight connection at DFW, cleaning crews also were on the ball. Men and women working to keep handrails, window sills, floors and every other place spotless were busy. 

I reached my flight gate at DFW and people were all around. There was zero social distancing. American Airlines’ ticket desk representatives were telling people, while calling them to the gate, “Please observe social distancing protocols as you make your way to the front gate. We want to make sure everyone remains safe.”

Human instinct, though, took over and people followed one another like spawn going upstream. There was about 6 inches of space between individuals boarding this second flight. Once on board, it was obvious to me that American Airlines wasn’t making an effort to social distance people.

Everyone sat in row after row. It happened that there was a seat between myself and another passenger because the person sitting on our row moved to sit with friends two rows up. 

It’s so weird to read and hear how airlines are doing their best to make sure people follow guidelines set up during these days of COVID-19. To me, it didn’t look like social distancing was happening at all.

On its website, American Airlines states, “The safety and well-being of our customers and team members remains our highest priority. American is in contact with U.S. and international authorities, as well as public health officials, and we continue to coordinate with them on all required health- and safety-related measures regarding coronavirus (COVID-19).” 

I reached out for comment from an American Airlines media representative, and received this statement: “On flights through May 31, American will limit the number of passengers on each aircraft. As part of this limit, American will not assign 50 percent of main cabin middle seats or seats near flight attendant jump seats on every flight, and will only use those middle seats when necessary. Gate agents will also continue to reassign seats to create more space between customers and to accommodate families who need to be seated together. Once on board — as long as there aren’t any aircraft weight or balance restrictions — customers can move to another seat within their ticketed cabin subject to availability.”

American Airlines also informed me that there were 11 empty seats on my first flight and 31 empty seats on my second flight.

Safety comes down to personal choices

Do the airlines want people back in their planes? You bet they do. They are losing money just like other businesses. Airlines, though, are not mom-and-pop joints. For instance, as part of the $2 trillion economic stimulus package passed by Congress in March, American Airlines (which is based in Fort Worth) received $5.8 billion.

I reached my final destination on time. Everyone was well-behaved on both flights. No drinks or food were served at all. People were encouraged to purchase bottled drinks before boarding. 

Was I personally scared to fly? No. Was I set on being intentional when it came to following health and safety protocols? Absolutely. 

In my opinion, when I saw that American Airlines wasn’t taking the passenger situation seriously it left me feeling like they didn’t care about passengers at all. I choose to believe that’s not true, but that’s how I felt.

I never felt like I was in danger on my flights. As I said earlier, everyone behaved themselves. 

Getting on an airplane during these COVID-19 times is a personal choice I made. It’s one that you will have to make for yourself, too.

Cover photo: Passengers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport maintained social distancing but many went without face coverings. (Joe Rutland/El Paso Matters)

Joe Rutland is a freelance journalist who lives in El Paso. He's a former assistant city editor with The El Paso Times and has worked for newspapers in Texas and Arizona as a reporter, columnist, and copy...