Flying isn’t back to normal. It’s worse.

TURBULENCE — Over the weekend, I flew with my two toddlers for the first time since last summer. On that Fourth of July weekend in 2020, in what turned out to still be the early days of the pandemic, there was no federal mask mandate in airports, though most airlines had their own mask requirements. Even though I flew on a holiday weekend, my flight last year turned out to be smooth and eerily pleasant.

This Memorial Day weekend, our experience was totally different. My two toddlers and I squeezed into a crowded Delta plane. They nearly spilled orange juice on the passenger sitting next to us. Staff were brusque in their interactions — pre-Covid, flight attendants always managed to help me board the plane, sometimes offering to hold a baby while I settled into our seats. This year, no one helped us board — airline staff were more concerned with making sure my older son and I had our masks on correctly.

We’re firmly in the next era of pandemic flying, as my trip revealed. Passenger volumes are quickly approaching pre-pandemic levels. Flights are packed. No more empty middle seats. As the summer travel season starts, millions of newly vaxxed Americans are traveling to see family and friends or just escape more than a year of quarantining. Nearly 2 million people flew on Friday, matching passenger volumes from early March 2020, but still down about 600,000 passengers compared to Memorial Day weekend 2019.

But the virus threat isn’t over for unvaccinated travelers. And airlines are trying to bridge two contradictory messages. They want to assure passengers that planes are safe, but also to continue to be on high alert.

This limbo state has created a noxious travel atmosphere. The threat to flight attendants has gotten the most attention: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged passengers Sunday to respect flight crews after a sharp rise in assaults, mostly related to attempts to enforce mask mandates. Southwest said that it wouldn’t resume alcohol service after a passenger traveling from Sacramento to San Diego assaulted a flight attendant and knocked out two of her teeth. American Airlines is also delaying a return to drinking in the main cabin after the incident.

Punching a flight attendant is unforgivable, and less violent outbursts from rude passengers don’t need to be tolerated, either. But even compliant people are frustrated and confused by the counterproductive overabundance of caution in the skies right now. Airline Covid rules, like outdoor mask mandates, are not always rooted in the realities of virus transmission. They’re still handing out sanitizing wipes when you get on the plane. A nice touch, perhaps, but wiping down your armrest and tray table won’t stop you from getting Covid. And if masks are so important, why are we allowed to take them off to eat? A friend I met in Atlanta this weekend for a walk said that on his flight from San Francisco, Delta asked passengers to re-mask in between bites and sips.

Traveling with children was never fun. But the pandemic has made it even more challenging. Ali Rizvi, a journalist who has done freelance work for POLITICO, told Nightly that a Southwest crew member refused to let his family board a flight in early May to Houston from Washington D.C. because their recently turned 2-year-old couldn’t keep his mask on properly. Rizvi and his wife are vaccinated and were traveling to meet family for Eid celebrations after a long separation. They had their masks on, but struggled to get their toddler to wear a mask.

“We’ve been shocked and reeling from the ordeal,” Rizvi said in an email. “The airline displayed such a lack of empathy and understanding over what parents go through to even get the courage to plan a trip with a toddler.”

It’s also yet another example of pandemic guidelines followed to an illogical extreme. Vaxxed, masked parents struggling to get a 2-year-old to wear a mask isn’t the same as an adult who blatantly refuses to wear a mask for political reasons. But airline staff don’t differentiate. The rule also ignored the realities of virus transmission — toddlers just aren’t super spreaders. Rizvi said that, while they were struggling, Southwest staff peppered them with comments like “the pandemic is real.” Since the trip, his toddler has refused to wear a mask at all, he said.

Southwest told Nightly that the airline crew was just trying to adhere to federal law. “We worked with the family to gain compliance prior to their flight’s departure but ultimately, we were not successful,” wrote Southwest spokesperson Brandy King in an email about Rizvi’s situation.

She also pointed out that the federal mask mandate has been extended through Sept. 13, 2021.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas for us at [email protected], or on Twitter at @renurayasam.

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