WRAL EP documents plane trip to help you decide about summer vacation

When reporter Joe Fisher pitched "the future of flying" to me as a story a few weeks ago, I knew he was anticipating what so many people want to know or will be wondering about soon.

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I’m thinking about a trip to Yellowstone. For years I’ve been wanting to explore that Big Sky country of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, to drive through craggy, empty country and come upon verdant valleys and sparkling lakes. Or maybe, as writer Lee Smith quotes her father as saying, “I need me a mountain to rest my eyes against,” so different from the views here in central North Carolina that both Smith and I have adopted as our home.

Expedia, AirBnB and Kayak are in heavy rotation in my internet browsing right now, and while rental car costs and hotel prices are still pretty steep, flights from RDU to many cities, including Bozeman, seem pretty reasonable. But, the question I struggle with as COVID-19 numbers in our state continue to rise is, is it safe to travel yet? Would hopping on a plane right now for a vacation be irresponsible, and would it put me and people I love in danger of contracting or potentially spreading the virus?

As part of my work with the enterprise team at WRAL, I’m always looking to answer the questions people are asking now or tell stories that we think our viewers will be wondering about soon. As journalists, we’re often able to get access to people and places that not everyone can, and I think that’s part of our responsibility to our audience.

When reporter Joe Fisher pitched “the future of flying” to me as a story a few weeks ago, I knew he was anticipating what so many people want to know or will be wondering about soon. What safety measures are being taken by airlines and airports? Will everyone be wearing masks? Is social distancing even possible on that narrow, enclosed fuselage? Bottom line: should I fly now, and what’s it going to look like when I do?

At WRAL, we’re being very careful about protecting our staff from exposure to COVID-19 (which you can hear more about in our podcast, How to Commit Journalism). And while Joe Fisher was willing to tackle this story, knowing that he regularly works with other photojournalists and the public, we didn’t want to add any potential exposure for him. A couple other people who don’t regularly work with others said they weren’t comfortable with the assignment, so Rick Gall, our news director, reluctantly agreed to let me take on shooting the story myself, as long as I promised to take every proper safety precaution (that N-95 mask never left my face, Rick!) and remain working from home for at least two weeks after my trip.

I flew from Raleigh Durham International to Hartsfield in Atlanta and back, all in the same day, equipped with masks, hand sanitizer, a couple GoPros, my iPhone and so many charging cords my laptop bag looked like Clark Griswold’s basement.

The whole experience was … eerie. The lot where I parked was so empty I made it to Terminal 2 in about three minutes, and there wasn’t a single person in line at the Delta ticket counter. The TSA line was non-existent, though there was still that bunch up in the baggage area where staying six feet apart seemed pretty much impossible. Almost all restaurants and shops were closed on the Wednesday morning I traveled, and while seats in the waiting area at the gate weren’t cordoned off in any way, most people were trying to keep their distance.

Few signs in the RDU terminal directed people to hand sanitizer or reminded them of social distancing or mask-wearing, and that was a huge difference from what I saw in Atlanta. (I won’t go into detail on the worst part of the trip where the person across the aisle from me on the plane threw up, and since they didn’t have time to fully clean it up before landing, the flight attendant covered it with paper towels and a paper bag and asked people to step over it. Let’s just say I was extra thankful to be wearing a mask right then.)

I won’t give away more of the story I collaborated on with 5 On Your Side’s Monica Laliberte and Jenn Sorber before you’re able watch it Thursday night at 6 p.m. on WRAL. Tune in then to learn more about the “Future of Flying” at RDU and elsewhere.

Since traveling and shooting this story, people have asked me if I’d fly again anytime soon. The truth is, I don’t know. I will tell you, that Bozeman flight still isn’t booked and “Yellowstone 2020” remains just an idea saved to my Airbnb account. Anyone up for a road trip--a really, really long road trip?


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