“Look at this,” said Balbir, a Lyft
driver, as he navigated his Toyota Corolla
around double-parked cars, suitcase-hauling pedestrians and the flashing lights of a Port Authority police cruiser on the departure level of Terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport.
“Move your vehicle, please,” a cop’s voice crackled from the cruiser at a black-car driver who was slow-walking back from his trunk. The officer said please, but he didn’t seem to mean please. “Now!” he barked.
“Like old times,” Balbir said through his face mask, pulling up — not to the curb exactly but to a place between the double-parked cars and the one lane of traffic that was still whizzing by.
Balbir was right. Sort of.
The past couple of weeks, spurred by Memorial Day weekend, reduced COVID restrictions, rising vaccination rates and 15 months of tedious Zoom
calls and remote-learning children in cramped city apartments, New Yorkers are indeed traveling again.
It isn’t just New Yorkers, of course. Nationwide, the TSA counted 1.9 million daily airport check-ins last weekend, a high since March of last year when the whole world pretty much shut down. But no one needs to travel more than New Yorkers do, and they’re doing it — by car, bike, boat, rail and air.
“We’d be happy going to Cleveland,” said Don Garcia, who was flying with his wife, Melissa, to Orlando for a wedding. “Even Akron. Or Dayton.”
“Or Cincinnati,” his wife jumped in.
That’s condescending New York humor, designed to make all other places sound boring. It’s another sign that New Yorkers are getting their post-COVID swagger back.
“Anywhere,” she emphasized. “Even Orlando. This is our first trip in I-don’t-remember-how-long. It feels like 147 years.” And traveling to an out-of-town wedding, no less. There certainly haven’t been many of those.
Almost everyone in Terminal 4, which serves Delta,
was wearing a face mask on Thursday. There have been reports lately about unruly passengers objecting to the mask rule, leading a couple of airlines to suspend the onboard sale of mini-booze bottles. But the vast majority of fliers seemed ready to comply with anything that will get them out of town.
Airline analysts point out that U.S. domestic travel is bouncing back more quickly than international, and that makes sense. Much of Europe, all of India and many other parts of the world are still battling a raging pandemic, and no nation has vaccinated more people than the U.S. has, though Israel and a few other smaller nations can boast they are ahead on a per-capita basis.
And the U.S. continues to bar the entry of nearly all non-U.S. citizens from most of Europe, South Africa, India, China, Iran and Brazil, despite heavy pressure from the travel industry to ease those restrictions.
At the same time, there’s almost no U.S. state that isn’t itching for visitors to help revive its COVID-battered hospitality industry. If you go, they will try to show you a good time, even if you are a condescending New Yorker.
On balance, the airlines sound thrilled. “We’ve been very, very pleased with the pace of demand recovery,” Delta president Glen Hauenstein told an industry conference the other day. “Bookings have been better than expected.”
Not back to the roaring days of 2018 and 2019, but a big, big improvement and far better than many feared. Though the air-passenger volumes reported by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration are more than six times higher than a year ago, they are still 22% below where they were in 2019.
The COVID numbers are also cooperating. The daily rolling average of new cases is down 45% in the past two weeks. Half the nation’s adult population has now been vaccinated, 41% when kids are included in the count.
Signs of COVID still linger, and not just the masks. Inside the Delta Sky Club near Gate 31, all the muffins were wrapped in cellophane and the egg-like offerings were served from steam trays by human beings. But the coffee and fruit-flavored water were self-serve, and there was, briefly, a line.
Aboard DL5593, the 9:50 a.m. flight from JFK to New Orleans, there was no space left in the overhead bins. Almost every seat on the plane seemed to be taken. And the snack cart ran out of cookies.
“What would you like?” the flight attendant asked the male passenger in 16A.
“What do you have?”
“We have pretzels and pretzels and pretzels,” she said. “Would you like some pretzels?”
Air travel, glorious air travel, was back again.
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.