Airline passengers divided into four camps

Airplane filled with people

By David Leibowitz

If you’ve yet to travel by airplane in the age of COVID-19, you’ve missed out on some terrific people watching.

As we’ve discussed previously in this space, America has reached its most fractured point since, oh, the Civil War.

Jet travel is no exception, at least if my recent trip to Florida and back is representative. I spent hours closely observing my fellow travelers, and it appears we have divvied ourselves up into four teams these days, separated by how seriously we’re taking the pandemic.

Here are some thumbnail depictions:

Team Obey the Rules: These flyers (and I count myself among them) do what federal authorities and the airlines have mandated for safety nowadays, donning a face mask and doing their best to observe social distancing while on the rental car shuttle bus and in the airport waiting areas.

They don’t appear too freaked out, but neither do they look entirely comfortable—a feeling I would describe as similar to waking up and discovering that Donald Trump is president of the United States. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you try not to let it worry you to death. Still, you know it’s out there, lurking.

Team Defcon Three: These folks take the masking thing a few steps further. I saw a family of five at Sky Harbor traipsing through Terminal Four clad in masks, goggles, plastic face shields and latex gloves.

I didn’t know if they were headed on vacation somewhere or they were a band of gypsy dental hygienists.

The youngest of the three kids, a boy who looked about 5, apparently hadn’t been fully briefed on the new travel protocols, given that I saw him pick his nose with a gloved index finger.

Team Freakshow: Before flying, I had read news reports of people traveling in full-on plastic hazmat suits.

This is the kind of behavior I typically ascribe to Hollywood celebrities, the ultrarich and a few random germaphobes.

On four flights and four-plus hours spent in various airline terminals, I saw only one person—a 50-something woman from what I could tell—wearing what can only be described as a cross between an ill-fitting body condom and one of those inflatable sumo wrestler costumes.

Sadly, the getup didn’t include a clear plastic astronaut helmet and Prada space booties. On the positive side, she did have a small dog, a mini-Pomeranian who would have looked darling in a matching doggie suit. Alas, the beast had to settle for a tiny sweater.

Team Clint Eastwood: These outlaws seem to revel in defying any and all precautions. They’re the travelers with their American flag masks hooked over one ear and dangling.

Use a dollop of hand sanitizer in their presence and they roll their eyes, then offer up a stage-whispered critique concerning “sheep” and “fake news fear BS.”

They loudly bemoan the lack of in-flight beverage service and crowd the aisle when it’s time to fetch baggage from the overhead bin.

They’re the folks for whom nonsensical talking points like “we wouldn’t have so many COVID deaths if we didn’t test so much” were invented.

If 2020 actually was a blockbuster horror flick—rather than merely feeling that way—members of this team would die in act one, stomped by the dinosaur they denied existed, or slashed by the killer a minute after boasting how they’d love to run into that pansy in a dark alley.

To the extent that travel has been changed by the virus and its spread, it is more entertaining.

Used to be, you worried about engine trouble or terrorism. Now, you and your travel teammates spend the whole flight wondering when someone last disinfected your seat-back compartment.