I flew on 2 leading low-cost airlines to see what budget flying looks like in a pandemic and found some cheaper carriers are doing a better job keeping you safe than their full-cost competitors

Flying on JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider Low-cost airlines are offering extremely discounted fares as they recover from the impact of the pandemic making them attractive to budget travelers looking to fly following months of lockdown. They don’t all have the best reputations […]

Flying on JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

  • Low-cost airlines are offering extremely discounted fares as they recover from the impact of the pandemic making them attractive to budget travelers looking to fly following months of lockdown.

  • They don’t all have the best reputations but flyers keep coming back for the low fares, even during a global health crisis.

  • I flew on Spirit Airlines and JetBlue Airways and saw how flying a low-cost doesn’t necessarily mean jeopardizing safety. 

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

More travelers are taking to the skies this summer despite the increasing number of US coronavirus hotspots. Though daily passenger numbers in US airports have yet to exceed 1 million, according to the Transportation Security Administration, flyers can expect fuller flights and less social distancing in airports thanks, in part, to extremely low fares from low-cost carriers. 

After flying on the big four major airlines – American, Delta, United, and Southwest – in June, I wanted to see how the smaller and cheaper carriers were coping with the new realities of flying and increased passenger numbers during travel’s busy season. Low-cost airlines, after all, are expected to bounce back quickly thanks to their domestic-focused route networks that are less vulnerable to travel restrictions.

I took two flights across two low-cost airlines, JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines, traveling between New York and Chicago, a popular route for both leisure and business travelers. JetBlue is taking a more conservative approach by blocking seats until after Labor Day Weekend while Spirit is not blocking any seats, though both are requiring face coverings to be worn onboard their aircraft.

The flights revealed that low-cost doesn’t necessarily mean less safe, especially as some of the largest airlines in the US have not committed to blocking middle seats while also suspending in-flight services on shorter flights.

Here’s what it was like.

My journey started in Terminal 5 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport with a JetBlue Airways flight from New York to Chicago.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

I actually arrived 24 hours earlier than I should have. That’s because JetBlue canceled my original flight, presumably due to low bookings, scheduled for the next day with only three days’ notice and I had to scramble to rebook both of my flights.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Arriving from the JFK AirTrain, I was greeted by four kiosks, two of them blocked for social distancing. Instead of blocking the two in the middle, JetBlue blocked alternating kiosks, which didn’t make too much sense.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The kiosks had been upgraded, though, to promote a touchless experience that involved using the JetBlue app for all major functions like getting a boarding pass and selecting a seat.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

I was then required to acknowledge this health declaration to ensure that I wasn’t knowingly flying with COVID-19 and would abide by face-covering rules in the terminal and in the air.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

As I was flying with JetBlue’s version of basic economy, I was assigned a seat at check-in — but the airline is blocking the aisle seats on the jet type on which I was flying so I didn’t have to worry about where I was sitting since I’d have the row to myself.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

American Airlines and United, which both sell tickets at a much higher price, aren’t blocking off seats in the same way. Score one for JetBlue.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

I headed to the gate after getting my boarding pass and saw a reasonably crowded Terminal 5 check-in area. That’s where it all fell apart.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

JetBlue has a sprawling apparatus for the security screening line but, for some reason, chose not to use it to ensure social distancing between passengers.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Passengers, instead, were funneled into one line that backed up into the check-in area.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

It created chaos and confusion, especially as there were no separate lines for TSA PreCheck or those who paid for expedited security.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

It didn’t make any sense, especially as using the snaking apparatus would’ve ensured social distancing.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Once on the formal line, I did see that JetBlue installed floor placards to remind passengers to social distance and support staff were telling people to back up if they got too close to the passengers in front of them.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Despite the chaos, clearing security only took around 10 minutes but TSA PreCheck members should allow extra time when passing through Terminal 5 since there’s no separate line.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The terminal itself was largely empty with the TSA reporting only 737,325 travelers took to the skies that day — compared to 2.6 million on the same day in 2019.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Source: Transportation Security Administration

Most sit-down eateries were closed as New York City has still not lifted the ban on indoor eating, with some retail shops also closed.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Wipe stations were spread throughout the terminal and individual businesses were taking proactive measures like installing hand sanitizer stations and social distancing placards.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The gate area had been completely overhauled with plexiglass partitions at the counter, social distancing placards, and even biometric self-boarding gates.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Though initially announced in 2017, this was the first time I’d seen the self-boarding gates in action and I fly JetBlue frequently.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Source: JetBlue Airways

More placards had been placed across the gate area – including on seats – to remind people to spread out.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Plexiglass partitions installed at each gate also separated passengers from the gate agents.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Despite the numerous safety features in the gate area, JetBlue lacked any signage or reminders informing passengers of the enhanced safety measures that were being implemented onboard – which most of the big four airlines have introduced as a peace of mind tool.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Read More: I flew on the 4 biggest US airlines during the pandemic to see which is handling it best, and found one blew the rest out of the water

And when it came time to board, the self-boarding gate didn’t recognize my mobile boarding pass so I had to go up to the gate agent, defeating the purpose of the scheme.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Our aircraft was the smallest in JetBlue’s fleet, the Embraer E190, a step down from the normal Airbus A320 serving the route.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

We boarded the jet back to the front – with social distancing placards also lining the jetway – so that those in the back wouldn’t have to walk through a crowded plane to get to their seat.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

We were held up for a few minutes while the flight attendant finished disinfecting her workspace, a good sign that the plane would be clean.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

And clean it was! Though the leather seats were noticeably tired as the E190 is a workhorse in the JetBlue fleet, there was no doubt in my mind that they had been cleaned to the standards touted by the airline.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Source: JetBlue Airways

With the jet arranged in a 2-2 configuration, only one seat per row would be occupied, typically the window. My seat was 21D with the aisle kept open.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The seat area was spotless with no concerns about the cleanliness of the plane.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Even the tray table was perfectly clean.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The default in-flight entertainment channel also had detailed information on the airline’s new safety policies and practices, which had been missing from the terminal signage.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The smaller jet has the advantage of closer air vents, which I immediately turned on to provide a cone of fresh air.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

With the plane less than half full, we departed on-time and were en route to Chicago in short order.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

As soon as we were settled, the in-flight service began and one flight attendant distributed the snack and drink bags.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The sealed clear-plastic bags contained a water bottle, two snacks, and napkins, as well as a card outlining the reasoning behind the modified service.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Though it was a far cry from JetBlue’s normal snack and beverage offering, it was more than what some of the major airlines were offering on flights of a similar duration.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Read More: American will start filling planes after doing the least of big US airlines to protect passengers. Here’s what it was like to fly the airline during the pandemic.

Masks were required for the duration of the flight – except when eating or drinking – and there was no trouble from my fellow passengers following the rules.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Our flight was noticeably empty with other passengers having had the same experience of being booked on the flight for the next day only to have it canceled.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

It was an uneventful flight and we arrived at a desolate Chicago O’Hare International Airport – normally a booming hub for airlines like United and American – in around two hours.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

As we approached the gate, flight attendants asked passengers to stay seated until it was time for their row to deplane. Most passengers complied but not all.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

JetBlue had also installed the placards in the jetway in Chicago, a positive sign showing its commitment to its new practices as some airlines tend to neglect outstation airports.

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on JetBlue Airways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

After a brief stay at the airport in Chicago, it was time to head home to New York but this time on the infamous Spirit Airlines.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

No kiosks at the three-row check-in area were blocked off, unlike those at the JetBlue terminal in New York.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Check-in counters, though, did have plexiglass partitions.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

And the kiosk’s welcome screen did outline all of its new safety features and cleaning practices such as disinfecting aircraft and requiring face coverings onboard.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

I hadn’t prepaid for a seat assignment so I could’ve been given any open seat – including a middle – but was assigned an aisle seat.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

It was already a step up from American Airlines, which assigned me a middle seat on a recent flight when aisle and window seats in empty rows were available.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Read More: American will start filling planes after doing the least of big US airlines to protect passengers. Here’s what it was like to fly the airline during the pandemic.

I have TSA PreCheck but, for some reason, Spirit didn’t put it on my boarding pass so I had to use the standard checkpoint. It wasn’t too crowded but going through the PreCheck screening would have made distancing easier and shortened the time spent in the crowded screening area.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Our aircraft was an Airbus A320, the middle child in Spirit’s all-Airbus A320 family fleet.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The gate area had very little in terms of social distancing but passengers were spacing themselves with a single-seat, as is normal airport etiquette.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

We still boarded the aircraft in zones with 1 and 2 boarding first – which is given if ancillaries like a carry-on or shortcut boarding were purchased – followed by 3 and 4. It was quasi-back to front boarding with those in zone 3 seated behind those in zone 4 but both 3 and 4 had to walk passed those boarding in zones 1 and 2.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Source: New York Times

And much to my surprise, the airline had installed floor placards with social distancing reminders…

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

As well as a hand sanitizer dispenser next to the boarding door.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Those were in addition to the plexiglass partitions at each counter. The only downside was that the gate agents had to physically see the boarding pass when it came time to board and I couldn’t simply scan it.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

And none of the social distancing reminders made it into the jetway.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Masks are required onboard Spirit’s big yellow Airbus jets, with flight attendants making sure to remind passengers during boarding that they’re required during “all phases of flight.”

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The jet was as well-worn JetBlue plane on which I’d just arrived, but also appeared to be quite clean.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

While the lack of a headrest and legroom was a concern, my overall safety was not.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The seats were spotless and the entire plane appeared clean.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Even though some tray tables did have signs of wear, I didn’t doubt they were clean.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

And the overhead air vents providing filtered air were thankfully strong.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The plane was not filled in the slightest and empty enough that flight attendants were able to ensure most middle seats were empty, even if it meant moving people around.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Flight attendants told me that they will keep middle seats open when they can, even though it’s not the policy. Sometimes, though, flights are just too crowded.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

After an on-time departure and take-off, it was time to head home.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The in-flight service promptly began after take-off and this was the first time in months I’d seen a beverage cart roll down the aisle. Menus were not distributed for safety reasons but the standard slate of offerings were available — including alcoholic beverages, an increasing rarity when flying now. Though, as one flight attendant said over the intercom, “don’t get offended if we cut you off.”

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

That was the only interaction with the crew, however, since it was a short flight.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

The flight was going perfectly until we landed in New York. As soon as we got to the gate, the entire plane stood up at once and the typical chaotic deplaning process took over with no regard for distancing in the slightest.

Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flying on Spirit Airlines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Overall, both airlines were imperfect but undoubtedly well-intentioned and each had positive aspects that outweighed the bad.

JetBlue fell down in the airport experience, especially at Terminal 5 where the security checkpoint line backed up into the check-in area when there was an entire overflow apparatus waiting to be used. In the air, however, the experience was nothing short of perfect and JetBlue did a better job than larger airlines, like American and United, which aren’t blocking any seats or providing an in-flight service. 

Even on a short hop from New York to Chicago, snacks and a beverage was provided with the airline finding a way to maintain safety while continuing to give passengers what they expect on a flight. 

Though Spirit’s airport experience was lacking, too, I was pleasantly surprised by the airline installing plexiglass partitions at check-in and gate counters, floor placards for social distancing, and hand sanitizer stations next to the boarding door. 

Onboard the aircraft, the flight attendants were going above and beyond to ensure distancing even when company policy is to sell every seat. The airline also didn’t assign me a middle seat just because I didn’t pay extra for a seat assignment, which I can’t say for American Airlines.

I wouldn’t hesitate to fly on either again and from my experience on both Spirit and JetBlue, I don’t believe being flying these low-cost airlines is any less safe than the majors as long as the standard precautions are taken like wearing a face covering and maintaining proper hygiene. 

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