Friday, 14 August 2020

What To Expect When You Fly During The Corona Virus Pandemic

airplane waiting in an empty airport lounge

Crazy times we're living in. 

Who would have thought that only eight months into 2020, the airline that took me to Australia went completely bust and now no longer exists?  

Or that 90% of air travel, domestic as well international, is completely cancelled bringing even the all-mighty Heathrow airport to a standstill? 

Whilst travelling around Australia, the Corona Virus pandemic hit and after a first round of lockdown in Down Under I had to make the decision to cancel my trip and instead plan to get back home to London. It wasn't an easy decision given the fact that there were (and still are) limited flights going in and out as travel restrictions have and continue to tighten. The other concern was how to safely travel back across the globe in the middle of an ongoing deadly pandemic.  

Domestic Flights in Australia During Covid-19

Between March and June, I took two domestic flights in Australia. 

One, when Covid hit back in March, going from Townsville to Brisbane. My second one was towards the end of June when restrictions got eased and I made a move home. 

My first flight was a spontaneous decision as I had to be flexible and drop all of my other plans when the situation peaked at the end of March. I had taken the risk to go to Magnetic Island, a remote island just off the Queensland coast from Townsville. Luckily I was able to get a ticket for a flight to Brisbane though I didn't see myself covering the 1000km and returning safely to Brisbane that day. I actually thought I would be stuck in Townsville. 

When I arrived at Townsville airport, all flights were either suspended, cancelled or taken off the board. Only a few flights to Sydney were scheduled and my mid-afternoon Virgin flight to Brisbane. 

Back then, Social Distancing was only enforced during boarding and queuing, but completely waived at when inside the plane. All seats were fully booked so I would sit shoulder to shoulder to other passengers but wearing a face covering was mandatory. At Brisbane airport, I wasn't checked for any temperature or symptoms and everyone just continued their normal routine as if nothing was happening. In general, Australians behaved very relaxed and unbothered about the pandemic because of their remote location in the world. 

inside of an airplane

Fast forward three months of lockdown and I took my second flight with Jetstar from Brisbane to Sydney.

The restrictions had eased and it felt as if Queensland was in control of the virus. I made numerous calls to the Queensland and NSW government to find out if I would be allowed to travel down to Sydney. At the time travelling was only allowed for Australians and I couldn't find any information regarding internationals. It was a waste of time as no one could give me an answer so I just risked the journey down to Sydney. 

Brisbane airport was dead and I felt sad to see it like that, having travelled a few times to and from Brisbane and the usual picture was a lot different. In June, only four flights a day would leave internationally and about three domestic flights were permitted.

Social Distancing was heavily enforced for queuing and overall in the building. All businesses including coffee shops, newsagents, cloth shops and food places were all shut down. Before boarding, the crew would hand out kits with a disposable face covering, hand sanitiser and gloves, but then inside the plane, they would not leave rows or seats empty. The entire flight was sold out. 

Landing in Sydney was uncomplicated and again, no one checked for my temperature or cared that I was an International travelling across a border that was technically closed. 

International Flights From Sydney International During Covid-19 

So I spend my final two weeks in Sydney and even though it felt safe, there was always an underlying certainty, that this wasn't over yet and a potential second wave was coming. Even though rumours and news grew louder that Melbourne was preparing for a second lockdown, Sydneysiders preferred to continue their lives as normal. They all went on time to their offices on Monday morning, clocked out for lunch but left earlier to get home. Businesses were open and fully operated to restricted hours, public transport ran on time and hotels were still open, even though I had some of the quietest hotel stays ever. 

I had booked my return flight 3 1/2 weeks prior and was surprised that the flight with Singapore Airlines via Singapore came rather cheap at £500, given the short notice of the booking and some other return flights being in the exorbitant dimensions of thousands. 

Sydney airport presented the same state as the other airports I had seen: it was completely down and "broken". I could only imagine the millions of passengers that this enormous SYD International would usually cater for. 

I was the only person who checked in her luggage. 

I was the only person who went through security.

And then I was alone - alone in a massive terminal with all the luxury retailers lined up neatly for your usual Duty-Free Shopping, but all completely bust or "shut down until further notice".

Sydney International airport completely empty during the covid 19 pandemic
sydney international airport main terminal completely empty during the covid 19 pandemic
sydney international airport main termin during covid 19

You could hear a needle drop in that airport making the uncomfortable silence echo from every corner. 

I walked down empty corridors past deserted lounges, closed food courts and shops all accompanied by a silence which I usually welcome, but found rather disturbing at the time. It felt all so wrong and out of an apocalypse movie. 

With 2h to kill I roamed around and eventually managed to find a coffee shop. And then all that was left for me was to stare out of the window, watch a grim and rainy Sydney and wait for my flight to take me away. 

Sydney To London Via Singapore

Singapore airlines provided kits with disposable face covering, a small bottle of hand sanitiser and one-way gloves. Inside, they made sure that there was at least one spare seat between passengers. Wearing a mask during the entire transportation time was a must. Luckily my first flight from Sydney to Singapore wasn't fully booked, so I was able to secure an entire row at the back of the plane and had a rather quiet first 8h of my long way back to London. 

On arrival in Singapore, passengers for transit were given a green ribbon and there was a very orderly process of letting people off according to their booking. Transit passengers were the last group to leave the plane and were assisted and guided by the ground staff to a designated transit area in Changi Airport. 

Changi airport showed the same upsetting setting as Sydney. The airport was completely deserted and heavily controlled. All members of staff practised Social Distancing and wore face coverings. At the designated closed off transit area, passengers had the option to order food and drinks through an app and have food delivered to the transit area.

singapore transit area and food ordering during the covid pandemic

Unfortunately, I got to Changi at 6pm and had to wait for another 5h for my connection flight. Most of the food places had closed down and the app would only have three places open with very limited offers. I would have killed for a coffee but that wasn't available through the app. 

The transit area was small but I managed to find a quiet spot and get a bit of a rest before boarding the next flight. For boarding, the airport staff would call out the next flight and group people, as there was a strict boarding process. Again, a kit with hand sanitiser, face covering and a small bottle of hand sanitiser were given out and inside the plane, there was at least one seat left out in between passengers. 

Wearing the face-covering at all times was mandatory and I managed to get some more sleep on the 13h back to London. 

Arriving at Heathrow Airport During the Covid Pandemic

Before travelling back to the UK, I had to fill out a passenger locator form. The form was available electronically and I filled it out in Sydney as it had to be done 48h before arriving in the UK. 

The form was about three pages long and I had to state why I returned to the UK, provide the address of my hotel for quarantine, my families' address in Bristol and contact details. I was meant to show the form at boarder control but I swiped my passport and went through the e-gates without anyone checking me, taking my temperature or asking me any questions. 

London during sunrise shot from an airplane

I was unsure if I still had to quarantine as Australia had been on the Governments list of exempt countries. However, because I transitted in Singapore, the information provided on the Governments' website were ambiguous. I walked around the airport in need for someone to ask, but no one felt responsible and I even got laughed at that I wanted to do the quarantine. As long as I was "careful and sensible" I would be "fine". 

Ahhhhh ok

One thing that Heathrow did do right though, was to provide large quantities of antic bacs to disinfect your suitcase which I did straight away once I lifted mine off the belt. And the rest is pretty much me walking out of the airport, getting on the empty Piccadilly Line, joining the Wednesday morning grind and travelling to my hotel in Whitechapel. The social distancing on the tube was great and there were obviously a few who would not adhere to the rules of wearing a face covering. In general, I felt very content with myself and I was relieved I made it back home.

The hotel staff were also laughing at me for my decision to self-isolate and quarantine for the next two weeks, I had a great time by myself tbh. But that's a whole blog post for another time.  

BTW my story has been picked up and headlined by the Telegraph in their latest The Shambolic Reality of Britain's ridiculous quarantine policy.

Thank you so much for reading, 

Till next time, 

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