Travel in the Time of COVID

As a disaster reservist, I travel. A lot. But I have NEVER seen anything like the state of things today.

This time around, I deployed on Jan. 21, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and, I would later learn, the day the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States. A man in his 30s from my home state of Washington, who traveled to Wuhan, China, was diagnosed with novel coronavirus.

Image from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

Nine days later, on Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared a "public health emergency of international concern," only the sixth time it has ever done so.

On Feb. 5, the Diamond Princess was quarantined off Yokohama, Japan. On Feb. 26, the first case of
suspected local transmission emerged: a California man who had not been traveling to an afflicted area nor had contact with anyone known to have the virus. Still, the reported cases were fairly isolated and the incidents didn't seem all that unusual. One guy in California. And the ship? I thought of Legionnaire's Disease, which has also reared its ugly head in the close quarters of cruise ships.

On March 13, President Trump declared a U.S. national emergency.  Washington's governor, Jay Inslee, ordered school closures the same day. Two days later, the CDC warned against gatherings larger than 50 people. Conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events and weddings were cancelled.

That's when I started seeing things change dramatically. My fellow travelers were packing up and heading home, and few new ones were coming in. Things started circling the drain rather quickly.

The hotel at which I was staying met our needs nicely, until it stopped serving food and nearby restaurants started closing. Colleagues then saw the wisdom in relocating to a hotel with in-room cooking facilities so we didn't have to rely on increasingly rare open restaurants or live on take-out. So we moved, to the detriment of one and the benefit of the other.

Our hotel's occupancy rate dropped to about 10 percent when we left, and others weren't faring much better. Major chains were managing to keep their doors open, though they had been forced to lay off staff.

In most cases, they had stopped serving food: no more continental breakfasts or manager's receptions until further notice. Even the provided morning coffee had to be poured by a staff member. No more "helping yourself."

Then, suddenly -- but unsurprisingly -- we were all sent home.

Those who lived close enough to their field locations were allowed to drive if they wanted, while those of us who lived farther than a 12-hour drive had to brave the less-than-friendly skies.

Although my itinerary said the airline would have "Food available for purchase," it did not. Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) has discontinued food service except for packaged snacks of cookies, Cheese Nips and bottled water.  It has also removed everything from the seat back pockets except the FAA-mandated Passenger Safety Briefing Cards. What it has apparently NOT done is reduced the price to upgrade to Comfort+, which usually includes at least a complimentary alcoholic beverage or two. Not today.

To its credit, Delta tried to adjust passengers' seating so that no two were next to each other unless they were traveling together. And it worked pretty well, at least in coach. The place the nervous/cautious did not want to be was First Class. On both flights, that cabin was completely full.

Changing planes at Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) reminded me of a scene out of  a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. Or, as my son observed, Stephen King's "The Langoliers."

Empty waiting area at DTW

The high-top table at left in the photo above was where I sat to check my email between flights. The only other person who even ventured into the area was a pilot with his lunch from McDonald's -- one of the few food venues still open at DTW.

Across the concourse from my gate, the waiting area bore a striking resemblance to the seating area at the end of Terminal A: few people anywhere.

Arriving at my home airport of Sea-Tac International (SEA), I realized I'd never seen it as quiet -- even when I showed up at 3:30 a.m. for a job I once held at an airline lounge. "Eerie" doesn't begin to describe it.

With all that as background,  I was intrigued to dig into a news release from noted consumer intelligence company J.D. Power announcing that a new survey revealed,"Most Travelers Satisfied with Industry Response" to the crisis so far.

Except for halting food service (which might have happened anyway because of staff layoffs), I agree with the majority. The places I stayed in the last two weeks of my deployment -- when this crisis hit a fever pitch -- were extraordinary. One could hardly walk down a hall or through the lobby without seeing some staff member cleaning something, and that's a very good impression.

The hotel where I started writing this article scaled back housekeeping and was offering it "on request." Guests were invited to call when they needed replacement towels, more tissue or toilet paper (yes, the hotel had an adequate supply) and to place their trash cans outside their room for collection by the staff.

While that might make it seem like a less desirable experience, it kept my room more MY room. Housekeepers who could conceivably be carriers of the virus but not yet symptomatic came into my space far less often, possibly reducing my potential for getting sick.

Because of the crisis, hotels and airlines are waiving change fees and adjusting cancellation windows. Most travelers are happy with what they're seeing in that arena, as the chart below shows.

Chart provided by J.D. Power

So yes, I'm impressed by what the industry is doing. But I'm less impressed with the survey.

Power surveyed "1,633 past-year business and/or leisure travelers" on March 12-13, 2020, during the first comprehensive wave of travel cancellations. Sixty percent of those travelers agree hoteliers, cruise lines and airlines have demonstrated concern for the health and safety of the traveling public.

What basis do those people have for their opinion? If they traveled last August (as I did), what does that have to do with what's happening now? I suppose these folks can read reassuring emails and watch calming commercials on TV, but how do they really know? My honest answer: they don't.

In fact, one question was, "I have seen, heard of, or read about specific actions that travel suppliers are taking..." Seeing is one thing; hearing or reading about it is quite another.

A better survey - and a more interesting result -- would have emerged had Power contacted 1,600 of us who were on the road during the second and third week in March. How did we think the industry was doing? After all, we were living in hotels, seeing it first-hand.

That said, I agree with the overall sentiment and felt as safe as I could, given all that's going on.

I also agree with some comments made by Power officials, including one from Andrea Stokes, Practice Lead for Hospitality at J.D. Power.

“Travel suppliers have done a good job showing they are not tone-deaf to travelers’ concerns," she said, while noting that large hotel chains and airlines have cancellation policies that are somewhat inconsistent and downright confusing.

“This is not the time to nickel and dime customers on issues like refunds, penalties and waivable fees," Michael Taylor, Practice Lead for Travel at J.D. Power. "Our advice is to keep these policies straightforward without exceptions and qualifiers.”

What these companies do today will certainly affect them down the road.

Like others, this crisis too shall pass. "When" is uncertain, but it will pass. When it does and people return to traveling, they'll remember who treated them well and who treated them badly; who cared for them and who couldn't have cared less.

Those who cared will be rewarded with our loyalty and our travel dollars, once we're able to resume spending them.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photos by Carl Dombek unless otherwise noted
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