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my first pandemic-era flight

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

Coronavirus all but evaporated demand for air travel. Airlines grounded the majority of their fleets and consolidated their remaining flights, to try to maintain passenger loads. Most flights still in operation were cargo-only. I can't count how many cancellations I received and how many hours I spent on the phone with customer service teams over the past months.

As coronavirus restrictions began lifting in parts of Europe, I decided to try get back to London for an extended visit. I kept a close eye on travel-related news and researched flight schedules extensively. To hedge my bets, I booked an assortment of flights out of Munich, on a bunch of different airlines, on a variety of dates. In fact, I still have two useless flights booked for early July.

When my 18th June flight canceled on 29th May, I rang British Airways and asked what the next available flight would be. 1st July was the answer. This wasn't the case for only BA. According to Munich's departure timetable, which was sparse and mostly limited to domestic cities, there weren't any flights, on any airlines, flying to London until July.

It was time to start thinking creatively. I knew passenger flights were taking off from Frankfurt, so I had a look at schedules. Lufthansa was operating three flights a day from FRA to LHR. This was going to be the way forward.

After weighing up all my options for how to get to Frankfurt, I ultimately took my housemate up on her very generous offer to drive me (thank you, Carla!).

With a ride to the airport secured, I went ahead and booked my flight for Monday (1st June) at 14:00. I had exactly two days to pack, tie up loose ends and say my goodbyes.

Since the pandemic was causing all sorts of uncertainty and travel restrictions were changing regularly, I decided that I'd pack all my belongings and take everything with me. My departure was three months premature, as I was meant to be in Germany through the end of August. I knew I'd have to leave the UK again, but I intended to go to the USA during the visa process.

At 8am on the morning of my flight, the road trip commenced. It took 3:20 to get from Munich to Terminal 1 at Frankfurt Airport, which left me with two hours and 40 minutes before my supposed departure (I was still skeptical that it wouldn't actually take off).

I found it interesting that there wasn't any coronavirus-related signage outside the airport. I was expecting reminders to practice social distancing and/or advisories discouraging entry if experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms. But there was plenty of signage inside.

Luckily luggage carts were available for use, as I had seven bags and couldn't possibly transport them all from the car to the check-in counter without one. I had to put six suitcases in the hold due to the German Aviation Authorities' current baggage policy, limiting the amount of hand luggage to one piece only.

The queue to check bags was fairly long, mostly because people were respectful of physical distancing. The check-in attendants were not wearing masks, but did have Plexiglas shields at their counters.

I must admit that I was surprised by the amount of flights on the departures board. I had not expected that.

...Especially considering there were no people when I got to passport control. Although I think was because most people were flying within Germany/the Schengen zone, so they did not get funneled through concourse Z.

At security, there were four people in front of me, but it took ages, which was surprising because everyone only had one personal item with them. Body temperature scans were not conducted.

All shops and restaurants were all shuttered pre-security, but some were open after. I did not notice any hand sanitizer dispensers in the terminal.

By the time I got to the gate, it was 13:00 and I had only an hour to wait. I wasn't allowing myself to get too excited because I was still convinced something was going to go wrong with the flight, but the anticipation was bubbling up inside me. It was eerily quiet at gate Z15. I'm not sure if that was because passengers were anxious, traveling solo or had difficulty speaking with their masks.

Boarding was a tad chaotic. People were too close and it wasn’t contactless as Lufthansa’s website claimed. I was asked to lower my mask in order for the airline rep to verify my identity. No health questions were asked.

I was as prepared for my flight as I possibly could have been with all my personal protective gear including mask, hand sanitizer, gloves and disinfectant wipes. I selected a window seat, away from high-traffic areas. I put my hair up and wore a coat so I wouldn’t be cold when I blasted the air condition towards my face. I followed all the new onboard regulations, suggested guidelines and health protocols. Planes have never been more hygienic. it's a problem that it took a pandemic to get airlines to start cleaning their planes, but I digress.

An unsavory and sad fact for all you frequent fliers...The masks do not block out bad body odor.

The flight was completely full and middle seats were not vacant, as I had anticipated. COVID-19 is still relatively new, so accurate data on how it can spread between aircraft passengers is in short supply. Although many people think that sitting in a confined space for long periods would inevitably spread infections, the chief engineer at aerospace giant Airbus insists that is not the case. And International Air Transport Association (IATA)'s Vice President believes, "physical distancing on board is not necessary." I personally would like to see a bit more scientific data before I make up my mind, but it's clear where Lufthansa lands on the issue.

Flight attendants did, however, hand out a disinfectant wipe to everyone onboard.

The pre-flight safety demonstration was adapted to take the current situation into account:

'If needed, oxygen masks will be released overhead. To start the flow of oxygen, reach up and pull the mask toward you, fully extending the plastic tubing. Remove your current face mask before placing the oxygen mask over your nose and mouth and slip the elastic band over your head. To tighten the fit, pull the tab on each side of the mask. The plastic bag does not need to inflate when oxygen is flowing. Be sure to secure your own mask before assisting others.”

78 days after the coronavirus outbreak brought my world to a standstill, I finally resumed some version of travel. Oh how I had missed the eagerness that getting on a plane always brings me...Which is less to do with flight itself and more about the new adventure that I am about to embark on.

After take-off, there was a PSA about health precautions, coronavirus symptoms and instructions for what to do if you were feeling unwell upon landing.

The beverage service consisted of a plastic bottle of water. There were no snacks nor food for purchase. It was difficult to eat/drink with a mask on, and I didn't want to remove it, so I opted to be dehydrated and hungry for the whole hour and five minute flight.

I didn’t hear a single cough, which was excellent, but one guy did sneeze and everyone looked at him like he was a pariah even though his mask was on and he sneezed into his elbow. Poor guy.

When we landed, I was so overcome with emotion that I shed a tear of happiness. Thank goodness I had a mask on to hide the majority of my face.

We disembarked at the gate closest to passport control in the Queen's Terminal. I have never walked such a short distance at Heathrow. The airport was completely dead. You could eat off the floor at the airport and the aroma of concentrated disinfectant was profuse.

Since I arrived into London ahead of the UK government's controversial 14-day quarantine policy (still slated to be enforced beginning 8th June), I wasn't legally required to self-isolate for two weeks. I did so though, proactively, so as not to infect any loved ones.

No temperature screenings were carried out at upon entry. Although I did get interrogated at immigration, because of my one way flight, I was surprised that I wasn't asked any health or accommodation-related questions.

I pleased to say that my first adventure since coronavirus disrupted my life was uneventful! Even though there were some oddities, it still felt somewhat normal. Seeing the safety measures implemented, firsthand, was reassuring and gave me hope for the future of air travel.


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