16 MAR 2020 – I arrive into Marrakech Menara International Airport from Gatwick, UK on a British Airways flight BA 2666. Just a couple of days prior to that I had caught up with a couple of friends for a drink or two at a local pub in Bromley, London. A day before I got on that BA flight, I was coughing all night. And on the flight to Marrakech I was feeling extremely cold. Given the pandemic was declared by then and the cases in UK were on the rise, I was hoping that I hadn’t caught the virus, but it wasn’t in my control. On arrival, my temperature check was ok and I was let into the country without any issues.
18 MAR 2020 – Morocco becomes one of the first countries to shutdown its airspace and all its borders including land, rail & water. No one was allowed to come in or go out.
20 MAR 2020 – With the intervention of all the embassies the air space was open to let repatriation flights into the country so they could carry all the stranded travellers to select parts of Europe. And on one such RyanAir flight FR 2020, I made it to Stansted UK and boy oh boy ! What an experience that was.
On the day of flying, along with 3 others travellers, I made it to the airport from the town centre of Morocco on a taxi. At the airport there were at least a few thousand people trying to figure out what, how, when n where. Although social distancing was to be followed, I bet none of them including me had no clue what it meant. We were lining for a everything as it was the last day on this planet and an UFO was going to take us away elsewhere and we didn’t want to be left behind.
This scene was no different at the boarding gate. As there were no seat allocations, we all had to just run on to the tarmac and form a line to get on the plane !! Although after boarding & take off, on the plane the cabin service continued as normal, except that we had to pay for everything despite paying three times the price of a regular ticket. No face masks, no sanitising gels, no coughing, no coughing/sneezing into the elbows, none. Somehow 4 hrs later when we arrived into Stansted, there were no checks of any sort, no sanitising stations anywhere and everything seemed almost as normal as it could be. All this when the world was already under the pandemic !!
FAST FORWARD TO:
11 JUL 2020 – I arrived into Bangalore, India from London UK, on an Air India flight AI112 which was a part of Mission Vande Bharat, a massive repatriation exercise by the Indian government to bring all its citizens home from around the globe. Being a Kiwi, technically I’m not an Indian national anymore and as such I couldn’t get on one of the earlier flights cuz it was reserved only for the country’s citizens. But after 62 days & 425 flights since the exercise commenced, I managed to get myself onboard a flight from LHR to Bangalore via New Delhi.
On the day of the travel, I had to arrive at the airport 4-5hrs before the scheduled flight to allow for all the additional procedures, from standing in extra long queues for check in, security etc to filling a few forms and temp checks. Heathrow looked almost like a graveyard in comparison to what it normally is or should I say, what it was in the pre-covid world. Cuz I highly doubt if we as humans will get back to a pre-covid normal world ever again. I was at T2 at LHR and on the day there were at least 30 flights, if not more, scheduled to different parts of the world. Each airline had an allotted zone, irrespective of their destinations; checkins to all the destinations were at the same counters. And Yes, the self check in counters were not in use as a result of which the lines everywhere were pretty anaconda-ish due to the strict social distancing norms.
The stores inside the airport weren’t all open and those that were, were accepting limited number of patrons. There were plenty of hand sanitising stations across the airport and so were the rubbish bins. Sitting next to a fellow passenger at the gate or at a resting area or shopping in the stores or using the toilets, all of them had new norms & guidelines. And prior to boarding the flight was a temperature check to ensure no one’s carrying the virus with them. Although some smarties had found a loophole of consuming an Ibuprofen, to keep their body temp in check, just so they don’t get rejected to get on the plane
Now boarding the flight was strictly by seat numbers, with no exceptions at all. Everyone had to put on a face mask at all times and those seated in the middle rows had to wear their body suits and PPEs. When the flight was full it felt like I was in a poor man’s space shuttle as one third of the flight looked like they were heading into the space with some cheap astronaut gear.
However, what I appreciated the most was the fact that there were prepackaged food boxes left on every single seat. Being a 13hrs overnight flight these packages included a meal box, breakfast box and a snack pack, along with water n juice. There were no choices, with everyone having to make do with whatever was provided. What a simple way of life when there are no choices to be made and accept what comes isn’t it? There was no cabin service whatsoever, although extra water was available from the galley for those who needed it. 13hrs later, with a stop over in New Delhi to let some passengers off, I was in Bangalore Airport.
On arrival, once again passengers were let off the air craft by seat numbers. They made sure the air bridge wasn’t full and everywhere in the airport there were clear instructions about the whole process. We submitted our health questionnaires, had our temp checks, thermal imaging done and cleared immigration & customs. The bags were thoroughly sanitised too. A vast majority of us had to quarantine ourselves in a hotel for which the travel and hotel arrangements were made as needed. A week later I was home, of course after the test results came out negative for COVID-19.
Now you might be thinking why I’ve mentioned about the Ryan Air and Air India repatriations when the two were totally different. Well it was just to give you an idea of how contrasting the two exercises were, first one was unprepared and haphazard where as the second one was extremely well organised and disciplined. Yes there was a lot of time gap between both of my repatriations, but the latter one could as well be a guideline for how the New Way of air travel could look like in the future or at least until a vaccine is found and/or a rapid-test kit could be done pre-boarding.
To sum all of these up, what we could possibly see in the short to medium term of air travel is plenty of changes to how things were before and that will most likely include – Stricter boarding by seat numbers, cabin crew who look like bomb disposal squads, PPEs for middle row, no cabin service, no toilet lines on board, in seat exercises to combat DVT, additional forms and health questionnaires to fill, thermal imaging on arrival, sanitising of the baggages etc
COVID-19 has truly put the world on hold and possibly changed humanity for the better. Every industry in every sector will go through some or the other changes and people will start to value everything a lot more, or so is the hope. All of the thoughts above were purely based on my personal experiences and also my craze for binge travelling the planet. What lies ahead will only be known as the time goes by and if the virus starts to behave. Until then it is up to all of us, to do what we best can i.e., Stay Healthy & Stay Safe !!