Flying during the coronavirus pandemic – what can you expect?
Is flying during the coronavirus pandemic advisable? And if not, why on earth would I fly anyway?
Well, let me tell you. While previous summers saw me working, tending our garden and enjoying a bit of quiet, this summer kicked me in the guts real bad.
As a result of this, I travelled far more than I desired. First by train for work within Germany, then internationally, flying during the coronavirus pandemic. And what I experienced makes me want to crawl under a rock or at least not leave the house for a few months. Given that I turned up for work and voluntarily exposed myself to the virus – using all appropriate protection, and things being somewhat under my control, I felt that with travel, I had lost all that control.
So, then… what is it like to fly with new coronavirus infections creeping up again? And what can you expect as a traveller?
I had to fly from Berlin to London and back on a specific date. I wangled two days off from my employer, then looked at my options.
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Flying during the coronavirus pandemic: Booking a flight
At the time of writing, only two airlines operate direct flights between Berlin and London: British Airways and Ryanair. Pre-pandemic, you would have a choice of direct flights on at least five airlines: British Airways, Lufthansa, Eurowings, Easyjet and Ryanair.
When I looked over the Ryanair website ab out two weeks before my trip, Ryanair sold tickets for up to three flights daily. However… when I checked the flight updates on their website, an awful lot of flights in the coming seven days appeared to be cancelled.
So… I spent a bit more money and booked a flight on British Airways through their website. I paid about 175Euros for an Economy Class flight with hand luggage only, flying out after work in the evening but due to their latest return flight being about 15:30, I would need to spend an extra night in London, which, I thought at the time, might not be the worst idea. So, flight booked, I was then treated to an almost daily email from British Airways telling me how they are well prepared for the new hygiene situation and how they take this all very serious.
My Travel Essentials
These days, I travel with a selection of facemasks, hand sanitizer and minimal luggage. I have about ten homemade cloth face masks – with matching cases, so I know which ones are used. I also have a few medical face masks – instead of tossing mine after work, I put them in the wash at home and then use them when I am expected to exert myself, like running for a train etc. They are more breathable than most of my homemade masks which are quadruple layer thick cotton. I also have a small supply of N95 single use masks. Again, I re-use some from work. Either I keep them for two weeks in a sealed plastic bag after use or I use a mask from a day when all my tests were negative. But you can also buy them in Europe now, and medical supplies in hospitals are currently re-stocked.
I got a 100ml squeeze bottle and filled it with Cologne. And a small tub with hand creme – important if you douse your hands in alcohol all the time. I clip back my hair with some small grips as to avoid touching it during the journey. And a water bottle which I try to refill after security and after washing my hands thoroughly. And that’s it.
At the Airport
Even though it takes 40 minutes by public transport to Berlin-Tegel (TXL) from our house, I arrived way early, about two hours. I was told to arrive no more but no less than two hours before my departure, but nobody was actually checking my ticket, In fact, TXL was deadly empty on a weekday afternoon – 90% of its shops and 70% of its food outlets shut. I have to add that TXL is scheduled to close for good at the end of October so from a business point it makes sense given there were almost no flights for months, but it isn’t particularly nice for any travellers going through TXL. Thankfully, public transport to and from TXL is still running frequently.
Free Testing at TXL for arrivals from risk areas
What is interesting now is that, due to a directive from the German Health Ministerium, you can get a free SARS-CoV2-RNA test if you arrive from a risk area ( as defined by the RKI). In fact,a few days ago it has become compulsory but of course when and how it is enforced remains a mystery to me. It doesn’t mean Germany is open to tourism, though! Widespread restrictions are still in place. Basically, you are only allowed to enter Germany if you are a German national, a German resident, an EU or Schengen national or have urgent business in Germany.
I had checked on online and printed by boarding pass, so once I checked my gate, I sat outside in the central reservation. There was no kerosene scent wafting across, and no cars or buses whatsoever. About an hour before departure, I joined the security queue at my gate. I passed security and passport control and sat in the gate area where it was business as usual. I saw no markings, no blocked seats but then, people should know by now to keep their distance, right?
On Board British Airways Short-Haul Aircraft
Unfortunately, once on the aircraft, we had no chance to do so whatsoever. They made some half-hearted attempt to board in groups but the flight was 90% full. Middle seats were kept empty in Business Class only, the majority of travellers were sitting neatly stacked up at a seat pitch of 29 and a seat width of 17inches in its A319. Just for comparison: Even Ryanair gives you an extra inch pitch in their Boeing 737s.
Upon Boarding, we were handed a small sachet of sanitizer and a wipe. The plane looked reasonably clean. However… this very same aircraft had arrived from London 55min before, and how the cabin had been cleaned in such a short time is anybodys guess. There were no magazines, no newspapers – just a laminated emergency card and a sick bag. I felt at this point like I mght need it, wedged in between two people in my middle seat. Even for a “full service airline” choosing your seat costs between 20 and 50 Euro, dependeing where you want to sit. Oh, and I was repeatedly offered a Business Class Upgrade for 89 Euro one-way, so there is always that option if you want to throw money at the problem.
Arrival in Heathrow
Due to hardly any air traffic, we arrived in London Heathrow (LHR) about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Pale faced and somewhat queasy (it was a very bumpy flight), I gathered my small case, then set off on the very long walk from my Gate in Terminal 5 to the gate shuttle, then to the exit. Seriously, I don’t know how a relatively new Terminal can be so traveller-unfriendly. Endless slow-running escalators! Dim lighting! Poor aircondition! Long, long walks to the exit with no travelators whatsoever. No obvious ATMs!The way to the London Underground was a maze.
Once I sunk into the reliable skanky bouncy tube seats, I was beyond caring… just went to my hotel (in Shepherds Bush, 30min on the tube on a good day, cheap, fairly central, lots of nice food options) and stripped off and right into the shower scrubbing off the perceived viral load.
But London is pleasantly alert and considerate
However, as skanky as the tube seats were, and I guess no pandemic is gonna change their seats into shiny wipeable seats any time soon, I was pleasantly surprised by the availability of hand sanitizer pretty much everywhere. I hardly had to get my own bottle out as soon as I entered the UK. Also, town was much, much emptier than Berlin currently is, Covidiot demonstrations nonwithstanding. And the few people that are about wear masks and are very polite and considerate… well, like I remember most Brits in general!
If you would like to know what London is like now, give me a few days. Even though I did nothing touristy, funeral and all, I did go on some long walks including a visit at the supermarket and one of my favourite cafes, which currently only does takeaway. Bear with me. I’m gonna call it “Ghost Town” – so you get the gist.
Departure from Heathrow Terminal 5
Like flying in, I received several emails from British Airways about checking in online, checking my baggage, upgrading to Business Class etc. and not coming to the airport earlier than two hours but not later either… fact is, 2,5 hours before my departure I was in Terminal 5, having done everything I felt I needed to do in London and feeling somewhat rough and tearful.
Although Terminal 5 was basically empty, the queue for the baggage drop was reassuringly long, so I joined it, only to queue for about 40minuted because everyone seemed to be taking ages! Luggage dumped, I went through a much shorter security queue to the main lounge only to find at least half the shops closed. After having finally found a newsagent to spend some money on mindless magazines, I went to the actual departure area which was deserted, and here, social distancing was no problem at all. I found a shut-down Starbucks and pulled a few comfy armchairs and read in splendid isolation. About six or seven flights were leaving on that afternoon and evening, so far spaced out that you had enough room.
Arrival in Berlin TXL – really taking the bisquit!
Okay, I will not lose many words about the flight itself. It was essentially like on the way in. Except we flew in an Airbus 320 which was nearing its 170-seat-capacity. We arrived in TXL Terminal A which is an old-fashioned 1960s hexagonal “drive-in” building with compartmentalized gates, passport control and baggage reclaim areas. This meant the passport control was right at the end of the passenger boarding bridge, leading to a nice backflush into the plane cabin and queuing in a crowded boarding bridge for 20 minutes. As if that wasn’t enough corona-related fun, they mixed us with an equally full Turkish Airlines plane just arrived from Gaziantep. Which is still very much a COVID-risk area! So we had to claim our luggage and then leave through the bottleneck of a tiny door where customs were more or less helplessly watching the chaos.
Flying during coronavirus – overall
Honestly, never in my half year dealing with COVID left,right and centre have I felt so unsafe and unable to protect myself than on these two flights, especially the return flight. I fully appreciate this is just my singular personal experience but this is what could well happen if you fly now. I do not know much about the efficacy of air filtering systems in buildings and on aircraft but this no-distancing exercise was enough for me to not fly in the near future except for urgent reasons.
If you have to be flying during coronavirus
A few tips on improving personal safety
- Take as little luggage as possible to minimise interactions in the airport. Some Security checks only allow one item of hand luggage. Have essentials (Boarding pass, passport) in a pocket so you don’t need to rummage in your luggage for it.
- Carry a small bottle of disinfectant/hand sanitizer. I take a 100ml bottle cologne (with 80% alcohol). It is fairly kind to skin and also has the pleasant side effect of smelling good. Also fine for sanitizing most items like passport, phone etc.
- Eat and drink before you enter the airport. If flying shorthaul, there is no reason to eat and drink on the plane.
- If you can, take an emergency high-filtering mask such as a FFP2 or 3 (Europe) or N95 (US) mask with you. This is to increase protection when social distancing is not possible. And do not take it off the entire journey. Passport control will make you take it off, so only do that with freshly sanitized hands.
- Wear clothes you can toss in the laundry bin immediately after travelling.
- Consider a flexible ticket and taking an earlier/later flight if your chosen flight is very full. Airline policies vary a lot here. But it is worth asking. I took a domestic Turkish Airlines flight last year and when I asked to fly earlier, they just checked me in, no questions asked.