A man checks his phone inside a nearly empty Los Angeles International Airport.

What it’s like flying in the age of coronavirus

Photographs by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
Story by Kyle Almond, CNN

A man checks his phone inside a nearly empty Los Angeles International Airport.

Airports are looking dramatically different these days.

Terminals that are normally bustling with people are now desolate as many stay home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Countries have sealed their borders and imposed travel restrictions to certain areas. Airlines are scaling back their schedules, canceling flights and suspending some routes entirely.

A woman prints a baggage tag at the Auckland Airport in New Zealand on Monday.

Flights are canceled at the Auckland Airport.

Amanda Andrade-Rhoades, a photojournalist based in Washington, was visiting New Zealand this month when the outbreak became a full-fledged global pandemic.

She documented her return trip on Monday and posted the photos to her Instagram account.

“As soon as I realized things were out of the ordinary at the Auckland Airport, that's when I started taking photos,” she said. “It seemed important to start documenting what was happening and how different the process was from day to day.”

Passengers line up for flights at the international terminal of Los Angeles International Airport.

A woman passes a window in Los Angeles. “I’ve never personally seen LAX as empty as it was when I flew in,” said photojournalist Amanda Andrade-Rhoades.

Face masks were much more prevalent. Travelers were advised to leave space between one another while standing in lines. And many airport areas felt like a ghost town.

“It was a little bit dystopian,” said Andrade-Rhoades, who started in Christchurch before flying to Auckland, Los Angeles and then finally Washington.

The check-in process felt more complicated to her as well. Despite fewer travelers, it still took her over an hour to drop off her bag.

People in Los Angeles check in for a China Eastern Airlines flight on Monday. At the time, the international terminal was mostly empty except for this flight, Andrade-Rhoades said.

Passengers line up to be checked in at the Auckland Airport on Monday. In order to be admitted inside the international terminal, passengers were required to show their passports and proof that they had a ticket out of the country.

Andrade-Rhoades struggled with the decision to fly home.

At first she wondered whether it would be better to “ride this out” in New Zealand, which has far fewer coronavirus cases than the United States and many other countries. She pushed back her flight a week before eventually deciding it was best to get back to the States before travel restrictions could possibly tighten more.

She was not alone.

“The flight between Auckland and Los Angeles was surprisingly full,” she said. “Every other flight, I either had my own row or there was no one sitting in the middle.“

There were fewer than 20 passengers on Andrade-Rhoades’ flight from Los Angeles to Washington. “We were all able to have our own row,” she said.

A view of Southern California from inside a passenger plane. “I’m from the Los Angeles area originally, and I’ve never seen the beaches that empty,” Andrade-Rhoades said.

In between flights, Andrade-Rhoades would take more photos while making sure to keep her distance from other people.

But not everyone was as cautious as she was.

“People were not always maintaining social distancing, and people were occasionally hacking and coughing and that was definitely unnerving,” she said.

After arriving in Los Angeles, passengers had to pick up their bags and go through an additional screening and customs check.

Flight attendants enter the international terminal of Los Angeles International Airport. Andrade-Rhoades said that during her trip, it was not uncommon to see flight attendants wearing more protective gear than the people who work at the various airport gates.

What was most unnerving to her was that no one was being screened for illness.

“I went through multiple security checkpoints at every airport, basically two security checks at every airport. And the entire time, absolutely no one asked me if I was experiencing symptoms or if I had been exposed to anyone experiencing symptoms,” she said.

She acknowledged that people could just lie, but it still struck her that no health questions were being asked — even if New Zealand to that point had not had many confirmed coronavirus cases.

Baggage claim is nearly empty at Reagan International Airport in Washington.

Anita Milman, who lives in Massachusetts, put encouraging signs on her suitcase to thank airport employees in Los Angeles. Milman was supposed to be in Australia for the next four months, but she had to leave early because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And even with the best intentions, sometimes there was no way for Andrade-Rhoades to maintain social distancing.

“I tried to keep my distance, but it's very difficult when people keep kind of bumping into you,” she said. “I definitely washed my hands and my face quite a lot and I was fortunate enough to get some hand sanitizer prior to leaving.”

On her flights, she would “religiously” wipe down her seats and her tray table.

“If you're going to travel, you have to proceed like no one else is taking precautions. Because they're probably not,” she said, offering her best advice.

The airport in Washington was mostly empty when Andrade-Rhoades arrived home. “Although there was some construction still happening at the airport, most of the lights were dimmed and offices were closed,” she said.

“When I stepped outside of (Reagan), I noticed there were lots of gloves and other protective gear strewn on the ground,” Andrade-Rhoades said.

When she finally arrived home in the nation’s capital — after more than half a day in the air and an 8-hour layover in Los Angeles — Andrade-Rhoades continued to take precautions. She left her luggage outside and wiped it down with sanitizer before bringing it in.

“I could have stayed in New Zealand, but me as a journalist it felt really important to be here and keep working if that was an option,” she said. “It's not the kind of career you pick to be on the sidelines of anything. It's important to keep people informed. That was a really big motivating factor in choosing to come back.”

Amanda Andrade-Rhoades is a photojournalist based in Washington. Follow her on Instagram.

Photo editors: Brett Roegiers and Will Lanzoni