Air travel is in flux. At the beginning of the pandemic, photos of nearly empty planes circulated as the Transportation Security Administration hit record-low passenger numbers in the spring. By summer, flights were going viral for the opposite reason: They were so packed that one even inspired a U.S. senator to propose a bill to ban airlines from booking middle seats during the pandemic.

Now that airlines are adding flights back into their schedules and more travelers are flying, what is actually happening on planes?

With the holiday travel season just around the corner and as people gauge their comfort levels while coronavirus risks remain, we spoke with six travelers about their recent domestic and international flying experiences.

“You can feel more safe or less safe depending on the airline.”

Kyle Potter is the editor of the travel site Thrifty Traveler. Based in Minneapolis, Potter has been limiting air travel as much as possible during the pandemic, but he has recently flown to California to see family and has taken a few work trips to compare flying experiences.

“It felt safe, it felt fine, and I’m still not eager to get on a plane again soon, which is very rare,” he says.

Potter says that while he has experienced full flights, airports have been emptier than he has ever seen before. However, “there are areas in every airport that you may want to avoid,” he says. “Checking in at the airport desk and getting in line to drop off baggage and then getting to the baggage carousel where people also congregate — these are the only places in the airport really where there are any crowds whatsoever.”

To avoid some of those crowded hot spots, Potter recommends travelers stick to carry-on bags instead of checked luggage during the pandemic.

A traveler waits near a Southwest Airlines banner touting the airline’s new safety and cleaning procedures before boarding a flight from Denver to Minneapolis on September 15 in Denver, Colorado. (Kyle Potter)

After comparing how four airlines — American, Delta, United and Southwest — were approaching their coronavirus measures, Potter says travelers can feel more safe or less safe depending on the airline they take.

“If people are going to travel or are thinking about it, they need to do their research … because every single airline is doing things drastically differently right now in terms of blocking middle seat, how they clean, what kind of service you get on board, whether they’re boarding the plane from back to front or boarding as normal,” Potter says.

“There’s a time and a place for Spirit, and absolutely right now is not the time.”

For her first work trip of the pandemic, Amanda Burroughs flew from her home in D.C. to Houston on Southwest in July. “I was extremely impressed,” she says of the experience.

But throughout the pandemic, Burroughs has chosen airlines based on which ones offer direct flights, hoping to minimize time in airports and contact with other travelers. Sometimes that has meant flying Spirit Airlines.

“There’s a time and a place for Spirit, and absolutely right now is not the time,” she says. “Of all of my flights, was probably the most anxiety-ridden flight.”

Not only was her flight “jam-packed,” the airline is continuing its food and drink service. Burroughs felt uncomfortable seeing groups of passengers around her with their masks down to eat and drink the entire flight.

Another place Burroughs felt uncomfortable? Passing through the TSA checkpoint.

“Even though it’s fast and efficient, I’m not confident that TSA is sanitizing their bins whatsoever,” she says. “So right after I go through TSA, it’s my process that I use hand sanitizer immediately and then go to the bathroom and completely wash my hands.”

“They gave out hand sanitizer three different times during the flight.”

Tatyannah King is a graduate student at Widener University in Chester, Pa., studying to be a certified sex therapist. Now that all of her classes are taking place online, the Philadelphia resident has been flying to see family.

“I’m not even going to lie — if there’s one thing that I like about the pandemic, it’s having my own space with flights,” King says.

Her flights have varied in capacity. At the beginning of August, she took a United flight from Philadelphia to Chicago that was overbooked. “They were asking people if they wanted flight vouchers to move their flights to a different date,” she says. “I didn’t feel safe because everyone was practically squished together.”

Tatyannah King waits for United Airlines flight to take off on August 9 in Philadelphia, PA. (Tatyannah King)

King felt more comfortable when flying Delta in September thanks to the airline’s strict mask policy and efforts to enforce social distancing. Middle seats were blocked off on her flight from Virginia to Georgia. From Georgia to North Carolina, King says, each passenger had rows to themselves.

“They gave out hand sanitizer three different times during the flight: at the beginning, near the middle and near the end,” she says of her Delta flights. “I really appreciated that as well.”

There were a lot more empty seats.”

Bizzy Coy is a Fulbright scholar who flew to Ireland in September to begin her program during the pandemic. “I had no choice but to get on a plane,” she said of making the decision to fly JetBlue from Rochester, N.Y., to New York City, then from New York City to Dublin on Aer Lingus.

Compared to her experiences flying to Ireland before, Coy says her September international flight was much less crowded. “From my perspective, it seemed like everybody was following the rules and having a calm and peaceful flying experience,” Coy says.

While she didn’t have anyone seated directly next to her, she did have passengers immediately in front and behind her.

“It felt kind of like, what’s the difference?” she says. “There were a lot more empty seats; There could have been more strategic distancing of passengers. But at the end of the day, we’re all in the same tin can for six hours in a row, so does it matter? I don’t know.”

“I wiped down everything around me.”

Shea Gorden is a public relations account executive in Santa Monica, Calif., who flew American Airlines with her sister to see their family in North Carolina in September. Gorden felt a little uncomfortable on the first leg of the trip, as the flight to Chicago was fully booked and the sisters sat next to a stranger, but her personal protective equipment relieved some anxiety.

“Everyone had their mask on, I had my face mask and my face shield, so I felt pretty protected that way,” she says, noting that flight attendants passed out a bag with refreshments and sanitizing wipes to passengers when they boarded the plane. “I wiped down everything around me, everything I can possibly touch. Those things helped me feel a lot safer.”

If she does fly again, Gorden says, she would probably do more research to see which airlines promised to keep the middle seat open, not only for her coronavirus comfort but because it is nice to have extra space.

“Would I travel again? Yes. But it would probably only be for the reason of seeing family or something important … not so much for vacation just yet,” Gorden says.

“I’m not sure if I’d fly just for the heck of it.”

In September, Pattie Turnbull and her husband flew round trip on American Airlines from Fresno, Calif., to Tucson, with a layover in Phoenix.

“We flew first class, mainly due to the pandemic, so we felt a bit more secluded and the seats weren’t that much more expensive than the regular economy seats,” Turnbull said in an email.

On their way home, the Turnbulls’ plane from Phoenix to Tucson was so full that American asked for volunteers to take a later flight. The couple felt safe flying nonetheless, in part because of their own safety precautions.

“We were one of the last people to board each flight,” Turnbull said. “We wiped everything down with Clorox wipes prior to sitting down. We wore N95 masks and face shields. We used a lot of hand sanitizer.”

Turnbull says the experience was indeed nerve-racking, but flying was a much easier option than driving more than 11 hours to see her daughter. “I’m not sure if I’d fly just for the heck of it, but I would do it again in order to see my family,” she said.

And one more interesting element of pandemic flying? With everyone in masks, people tend to talk much louder.

“I heard more personal conversations on this trip than I have ever heard before — or wish to hear again,” Turnbull said.

Travel advice during the pandemic:

Road trips: Tips| Rental car | Snacks | Train | Foliage finder

Flying: Coronavirus testing | Packing | Airports | Mileage

Camping: First-timers | Camping alone | Meals | Glamping | National parks

Places: Denver | Los Angeles | Hawaii | New York | D.C. | Caribbean | Mexico | Europe