Hoffman's Houston
surreal skies

Ken Hoffman on the surreal 'ghost flight' from the U.K. to Houston

Ken Hoffman on the surreal 'ghost flight' from the U.K. to Houston

Spirit Airlines cabin seats
Riding on a "ghost flight" is downright surreal.  Courtesy photo

The best part of flying over to England a few weeks ago … was the flight back home to Houston. A whole row — the big one, seats E-F-G-H in the middle — to myself. And nobody within five rows of me. That’s social distancing.

When was the last time you flew on a plane like that? Every flight I take lately is oversold with people bought off to stay behind. But this time, the flight attendant held out a basket of single-serving packs of pretzels and said, “Take all you want.” Now, that’s luxury.

Of course, the extra elbow room was due to the coronavirus pandemic. My flight originally was packed — I snared one of the few aisle seats available, near the back of the plane, in the toilet zone. Who can sleep with those supersonic flushes?

No mob?
I knew the flight wouldn’t be crowded when I approached my assigned gate and didn’t see the usual mob jockeying for position at the Group 4 corral. I double-checked my boarding pass to make sure I was at the correct gate. Yup, London Heathrow to Houston Bush-Intercontinental, departing on time.

The mood at the gate was so relaxed I walked back to the duty-free store and blew my last British pounds on Walkers Shortbread cookies. They’re from Scotland and they’re delicious. I bought two boxes for friends back home. My friends will love these cookies.

I boarded and surveyed the economy section landscape. I grabbed a middle seat on the left bank to discourage anybody from taking the window or aisle. I knew that passengers were canceling travel plans, but this plane was spookily empty.

Wipe down, lie down
When a flight attendant announced that doors were closing, I bolted up, went to the front of coach and claimed squatters rights on the middle section of Row 2. I wiped down all the seats and tray tables with Clorox disinfectant cloths. I would have taken the front row, but the armrests don’t go up in that row, and while there’s more legroom, I had no intention of sitting up.

I was going to spend most of the 11-hour flight stretched out, sleeping, drooling, watching Netflix (Ron White and Jimmy Carr comedy specials, old Twilight Zones, and World’s Toughest Prisons) and eating those Walkers Shortbread cookies. (My friends don’t need cookies. I was doing them a favor.)

I brought an old beach towel from home as a blanket and a rolled up sweatshirt for a pillow. Here’s the thing about trying to sleep on a plane: reclining your seat doesn’t help. Reclining isn’t more comfortable, and it might infuriate the person behind you, who may be a maniac and everybody winds up on the 10 o’clock news.

Trying to sleep across four seats isn’t much better because the hooks of the seat belts jut out and it’s like sleeping on a bed of wrenches and claw hammers. I was tossing and turning all flight. Still, give me four seats in coach over one seat in business. The Boeing 777-200 had progressively tinted windows for the illusion of nighttime. Nice touch.

"Ghost flight"
During the flight — I know it’s against the rules — I snuck a photo of all the empty seats behind me. Apparently, lots of international flights are crowded with no passengers. They even have a name – "ghost planes." I counted 12 people in my section of economy.

When we landed — are you ready for the best part? The U.S. Customs hall had no lines.

I stuck my passport into the Automated Passport Control machine and the security person said “Line 6.” The customs agent stood up and waved his arms at me. I flew through customs, start to finish, in two minutes. That’s a welcome home.

A week later, I was reading nightmare reports of passengers stuck in shoulder-to-shoulder, sneezy, phlegmy, contagious lines at airport customs for two, three hours. That’s not social distancing. That's dangerous. 

I grabbed my suitcase at baggage claim, hopped on the spotty shuttle bus, picked up my car in Row B and was home 90 minutes after landing, a new world’s record — for my neighborhood. Now that I'm back, I am taking the Center for Disease Control's recommendations seriously and staying safe. I believe in science. I trust health care professionals.

Safe and sound at home
I'm finding other things to do with my time at home now that I can't watch sports on TV. Hey, who are you? What, I have a son? When did you happen? 

I'm listening to a lot of talk radio, too. I'm hearing callers, and an occasional irresponsible host, complain about entertainment and sports events being canceled. They say, "We've had flu and viruses that infected millions of people, with thousands of people dying ... and they didn't cancel sports events. This is a bunch of BS."

To them: The reason they're canceling your precious football games is so millions of people don't get infected, and thousands of people won't die, like in the past. We're smarter now. You might want to consider the advice of health care professionals, not some hot takes fool on the radio. Relax and have confidence and patience, your sports games will be back.