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What is it like flying during Covid-19? – a HFP reader story

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With the majority of lounges and airport shops closed, travelling is very different experience at the moment.

Whilst the HFP team is currently grounded – although my trip to Australia caught the very beginnings of travel restrictions – one reader has got in touch with a unique trip review of his flight from the UK to Australia to get back to his family, including 14 days in quarantine on arrival.

We thought it would make an interesting companion piece to our recent review of staying in a hotel in lockdown.  Over to Michael:

I knew that flying during the biggest downturn in global aviation that the world has ever seen was going to be an interesting experience but I didn’t quite know what to expect.  Would it be more stressful than usual with enhanced security checks? Would boarding and service be slower due to social distancing rules?

Here’s the story of my 19 hour Covid-19 flight from London Heathrow to Perth, Australia in mid April.

Why was I even flying?

After the UK Government announced a furlough scheme for employees, I’d been told that I wouldn’t need to work until the start of June at the earliest. Instead of spending the days locked in my tiny flat in London, I thought I’d use this as the chance to return home and spend some quality time with my parents.

Flights were limited and expensive with Qantas pulling their direct route and the likes of Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific all ceasing flights into Western Australia. Thankfully, Qatar Airways was still operating three daily flights out of London.  With an hours connection in Doha I could get back on Aussie soil in a ‘quick’ 19 hours.

Grounded

The first indication that things were going to be very different at Heathrow was the sheer number of parked planes. Everywhere. Driving along the perimeter roads to reach the airport I saw BA and Virgin Atlantic jets in every free space across the airport.

Every spare piece of tarmac that wasn’t operational had a jet parked in it. In an airport where things rarely stand still, this was an odd sight. Even weirder was seeing planes that won’t be flown for a while with their engines covered and taped up:
What is it like flying during COVID-19?

Check-in

Pulling into Terminal 4 was a strange experience. There were no taxis dropping people off and only one other car to be seen outside.  I entered the terminal and found the Qatar Airways check-in desk without passing a single other passenger checking in for my flight. The staff were friendly, apologised for the lounges being closed and were probably glad for someone to interact with.

(I took my flight before Heathrow Terminal 4 was fully closed.  All flights have now been moved to Terminal 2 or Terminal 5.)

Weirdly no-one was wearing gloves and only about 1/3 of airport staff were wearing masks or any protective gear. Fast track security was closed, yet the standard security line was delightfully quick with the lack of passengers, and there were no extra Covid-19 screening checks before heading airside.  Got a fever?  Guess it doesn’t matter since you’re leaving the country anyway.

What is it like flying during COVID-19?

Lighting was dimmed, shop fronts were shuttered, and the only signs of limited life came from Boots and WH Smith which remained open. Everything else was closed.

What is it like flying during COVID-19?

How many flights are leaving?

It was 1:30 pm and the departure board displayed only seven flights departing over the next nine hours:

What is it like flying during COVID-19?

I walked the length of the terminal and saw no open gates and no flights waiting to depart. Looking over to one of the other active terminals I saw all of their air bridges hanging in the air, connected to nothing. It’s what I imagine Heathrow to be like in the middle of the night … except it was a bright and sunny Thursday afternoon.

What is it like flying during COVID-19?

There was definitely no plane spotting to be done today.

Biosecurity threats

I started walking around the empty terminal and came across a few passengers that were waiting for a flight later in the day. Maybe 20% of waiting passengers had face masks on, which seemed to echo the UK stance that Covid-19 is no big deal.

Later on, I noticed some movement back towards security.  My heart started racing as it looked like a biosecurity team, dressed in head-to-toe white hazmat suits had entered the terminal. Was this to deal with severe health complications with a passenger that had made it past security?

What is it like flying during COVID-19?

Cautiously I walked back towards security and noticed the suits and facemasks were all slightly different in finish, some with goggles on and others with plastic sheeting stuck together across their face. This was no biosecurity team, but passengers arriving for the later flight to Shanghai. Travelling to the epicentre of the virus, these passengers were clearly taking no risks and taking the situation far more seriously than the British public.

Priority boarding for all

Just as boarding was scheduled to commence I wandered over to our gate (easy to find, since it was the only one open) and saw about 20 people waiting around. Usually boarding a Boeing 777-300 takes a good half an hour with about 250 passengers on an average flight.

I was on a videocall saying farewell to some friends when less than five minutes after the gate was announced, all passengers had boarded and the gate was closing. You’d be forgiven for thinking we were boarding a small propeller plane, not a Boeing 777-300! I finished my goodbyes and was the last passenger to board, minutes after boarding commenced.

We promptly pushed back from the gate and began our taxi through the deserted airport. With no other planes waiting to take off and few landings it was straight to the end of the runway and up to 35,000 feet for us.

What is it like flying during COVID-19?

Social distancing

Qatar Airways had left the majority of the economy cabin empty and seated all passengers (about 40) in the small rear cabin where my seat, 51A, was located. Putting everyone into the rear cabin made service easier for the crew, but meant passengers couldn’t practice social distancing as much as they could if spread out across the aircraft.

Some rows like mine had a single passenger, but others had two and there was someone in the seat in front of me; a good 45cm away, not the recommended 1.5 metres.  This made it easier for Qatar to thoroughly clean the part of the cabin we were in, however, and also provide attentive service with reduced crew numbers.  It is possible that the other part of the cabin had been used on the outbound flight with our area blocked off.

That said, on my flight to Perth we were free to sit anywhere in the vast cabin, totally contradicting my previous experience. Who knows what Qatar Airways is thinking?!

I was pretty happy since I still had three seats and a window to myself.  As there was no-one in the row behind me I was free to recline at will.

What is it like flying during COVID-19?

In-flight service

Both flights had the normal above-average economy experience you expect from Qatar Airways. Friendly service, decent food and a good selection of beverages. I’m talking Bombay Sapphire gin, Baileys and an impressively tasty Carménère (a medium bodied Chilean red wine).  Dinner was a tasty beef stew served with spinach Strozzapreti.

What is it like flying during COVID-19?

All the cabin crew wore facial masks and were still as polite and happy to interact with passengers as ever. Qatar Airways usually has an efficient, yet slightly robotic, style to their service since personality and going off-script doesn’t seem to be encouraged, so the facial masks didn’t impact customer service at all.

I was told on the flight from London to Doha that pillows and blankets were no longer available which I thought was fair enough – I’ve heard enough stories about them not being overly clean at the best of times.

However, upon boarding for the 11 hour trek from Doha to Perth, I was delighted to see that every seat in the 250+ economy cabin had a pillow and blanket awaiting us.  Time to build a pillow fort and get some decent sleep.

Transiting in Doha

With global aviation at a standstill and passenger numbers dropping by nearly 95%, I was surprised and a bit shocked to have to get a bus to the terminal when we landed in Doha!  Cramming the ‘full’ plane of circa 40 people onto a bus didn’t seem like the best way to practice social distancing.

Once inside, it was a quick trip through security (Doha can be a transit nightmare at times) and into another deserted terminal. How they couldn’t find a gate for our incoming flight was beyond me!

Unfortunately I only had an hour transit, which due to the remote gate meant I had to head straight there to catch my flight to Perth.  On the day I travelled Qatar Airways had announced that they were closing all lounges except the award-winning Al Mourjan business class lounge, which is usually off limits for status card holders in economy.

Arriving in Australia

As expected, we were the only international flight arriving into Perth and the scene in the airport was very different.  After landing, a border security official came onto the plane and announced the process we were about to undertake over the PA.  He confirmed the mandatory 14 day hotel isolation we would go through and the cabin crew provided Covid-19 declaration forms we were to fill out; one from the federal government and the other required to enter Western Australia (a hard border has been put in place to separate it from the rest of the country).

What is it like flying during COVID-19?

We disembarked the aircraft and were handed another information form from a security official dressed in a mask and full white body suit.  I appreciated the walk through to immigration control as I knew it was the last decent walk and taste of freedom that I would have for the next fortnight.

Immigration was quiet and the eKiosks were updated to confirm we knew we were to isolate for 14 days upon arrival. After officially entering Australia, we underwent a health screening and asked if we were experiencing any symptoms and if we were in contact with anyone that had a confirmed case of Covid-19 in the past week. They took and recorded our temperatures before proceeding to baggage claim.

After getting our bags, it was straight to a police desk where we confirmed our intent to either stay in Western Australia or transit to the eastern states. The officers then provided our ‘isolation direction’ and were warned that breaching this direction would result in fines or imprisonment.

We were escorted directly onto buses, with all of two minutes contact with the outside world.  They split the 40 passengers from my flight across five buses and then formed a police convoy to take us to our hotel in Perth’s Central Business District.  The convoy of five buses was flanked by two police cars at the front and back, with one driving forward to block off roundabouts and intersections, ensuring the fleet of buses went through together.  I felt more like a convicted felon than a returning traveller.

It was then straight to my hotel room where I would remain for the next fourteen days.

All in all my flight to Australia was better than expected, with the low passenger numbers making the economy travel experience positively enjoyable. The only odd thing was Qatar Airways inconsistent policies – both in terms of seat allocations and offering blankets and pillows (or not!).”

PS.  Qatar Airways is still operating flights from the London Heathrow and Manchester  You can see the list of countries where it is currently flying on this special page of their website.

Comments (210)

  • John says:

    “Maybe 20% of waiting passengers had face masks on, which seemed to echo the UK stance that COVID-19 is no big deal.”

    Most face masks (non FFP3) do not protect either the wearer or those around them from droplet spread.

    All they do is make people believe they are safer, and reduces the chances of them maintaining a social distance (which is based on average droplet spread from an adult cough/ sneeze) thereby increasing the risk of spreading infection.

    (You are able to become infected via your tear ducts remember, which are not covered by a mask….)

    • ken says:

      I’d guess that people from China wearing masks are probably taking much better precautions across the board than citizens of the UK.

      We have only just discovered washing our hands and currently obsess about either when the football season will restart or when can we go to the pub.

      I’m a fan of both by the way, but would happily give my season ticket up alongside visits to the pub if the rest of life could get back to normal.

    • Paul Pogba says:

      You should stop reading the state propaganda on the BBC/guardian: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5779801/

    • Kai says:

      Yes all those Asian and European countries are nuts. Let’s just trust our gov.

  • Ramones says:

    “I thought I’d use this as the chance to return home and spend some quality time with my parents”. I don’t understand why this journey was actually necessary and don’t think UK taxpayers should be funding this holiday?

    • Rhys says:

      UK taxpayers aren’t ‘funding’ anything. Michael is employed in the UK and pays British taxes and has now been furloughed, as have many other foreign nationals who live and work in the UK.

      I know that, if my parents lived on the opposite side of the world and I rarely got to see them – and for periods restricted by my annual leave allowance – I would have made the same decision to stay with them for the indefinite period that furlough remains in place.

      • Allan says:

        Who pays the Australian hotel bill

      • ken says:

        you can sort of see the point.
        The furlough scheme is a short term retention scheme and most employers have written the variation of contract to say the employees should be available for work restart immediately. Some people are doing well out of it, others have been quickly impoverished.

        There seems a decent portion of the population who see it as an extended free holiday and will be putting up obstacles against their return to work.

        In the circumstances I’d be doing the same as Michael though.

        • Lockdown Larry says:

          “and most employers have written the variation of contract to say the employees should be available for work restart immediately.”

          They can’t do that as furlough has to be for a minimum of three weeks.

          “There seems a decent portion of the population who see it as an extended free holiday”

          How else should it be treated?

          • TGLoyalty says:

            Immediately once the 3 week minimum period is over. Means they can phone you on day 15/16/17 etc and say we need to back at work tomorrow

          • ken says:

            “They can’t do that as furlough has to be for a minimum of three weeks.”

            Of course you can – it is the minimum period a company can claim for that is 3 weeks.

            We furloughed an employee for a week then brought him back in.
            It just means we fund his pay for that week.

          • Lockdown Larry says:

            “We furloughed an employee for a week then brought him back in.
            It just means we fund his pay for that week.”

            You’re not following the rules then:

            “What happens during furlough?
            Length of furlough
            The minimum furlough period is three weeks.”

          • Lockdown Larry says:

            “Immediately once the 3 week minimum period is over”

            Yes. So you don’t need to be available to be ready to start the next day, if you’re only one week into your furlough period, for example?

          • ken says:

            Larry, you fundamentally misunderstand the scheme.

            In the olden days (pre Covid), the term would be ‘laid off’ and the amount of pay while laid off usually set out in contract. It was common in manufacturing and certainly exists in the car industry now.

            The amount of time furloughed (or laid off) isn’t governed by government – its between the employer & employee to agree.

            However, the scheme rules means an employer can only claim if that employee has been properly furloughed for 3 consecutive weeks.

          • Lockdown Larry says:

            “However, the scheme rules means an employer can only claim if that employee has been properly furloughed for 3 consecutive weeks.”

            OK. I misunderstood what you had written. Fair enough

    • Ramones says:

      Writer stated they are on furlough scheme for employees?

  • Linda says:

    Thank you Michael, for taking the time to inform us of your personal experience, really enjoyed reading the article Sadly, what I haven’t enjoyed reading, are the ‘negative’ comments your efforts have been met with, which is such a shame. I for one, appreciate that you are not a ‘professional’ journalist, but someone whose family happens to be thousands of miles away at a time when, if we had a choice, would probably make the same choice you did. Enjoy being home with your family, keep safe & well!

  • Olly says:

    I agree with CAB, John and others comments regarding facemasks, etc and presume the author wore his own for the 19 hour journey, which constantly wearing it would have given him a better insight to how the care workers who really need them but struggle to get them feel after a long shift.

  • mr_jetlag says:

    Lots of miserable jealous commenters today! Well done to Michael for the trip report and giving us a real unbiased view of conditions.

  • Optimus Prime says:

    Thanks for the article, very interesting.

    Did you have to stay in the hotel because you don’t have a permanent address in Australia?

    Asking because I think I read a similar article in OMAT about a couple returning to Shanghai and they had to quarantine for 14 days as well but in their own apartment.

    • guesswho2000 says:

      No, Australia is mandating quarantine in hotels now. Residents with their own homes aren’t exempt, although this was the case initially.

      I got home late March, just after the 14-day iso had been implemented, I had to fill in the green card shown in the photos above, but at the time we just had to make our way home and stay there – I took the airport bus to long stay, got in my car and drove home.

  • Nick_C says:

    Whoa!

    Courtesy to a guest writer please!

    I enjoyed reading the article. There are things I disagree with, and if Rob had written it I would have taken issue with him, but we should be kind to our guests.

    I’m sure many of us have wondered what air travel is like right now, and Michael’s article was interesting. Thank you Michael for writing it, and thank you Rob/Rhys for publishing it.

    • Rob says:

      To be honest, it was quite last night when I looked at this. Some of the mess is actually from changes I made, but fluffed. It has had a tidy up now.

  • Simon says:

    Such unnecessary travel, at a time when we are all asked to make small sacrifices of staying at home. This guy decides that travelling halfway around the world is ok, cos he does not want to be alone, we have all not seen parents/friends/loved ones for weeks now. I suppose he does not mind that on the way home he may spread the virus back into the UK.

    • guesswho2000 says:

      He’s entitled to come back here and he did his iso as mandated. He’s broken no laws.

      • bazza says:

        Set a terrible example though – when EVERYONE knows we have been asked to spend the MINIMUM amount of time outside out homes!

        • guesswho2000 says:

          Fair point, but I think the UK gov should have put things in place to stop it, if they deemed it that important (I’m not saying that it’s not) – Australia have implemented a travel ban stopping its Citizens and PR’s from travelling overseas (OP will be fine, as he can demonstrate he doesn’t live here), UK should have done the same, imo…

        • Rob says:

          Most of the cafes and restaurants near us are now open in some form, whether takeaway or delivery only. Our Pret is open, as are 2 x Joe & The Juice. Five Guys is open. Waitrose, M&S and all the independent delis and food shops are open. The cycle shops is open, the DIY shop is open (Leyland claims it is trade focused), the Post Office etc. If you are not a clothes buyer it is pretty much life as normal.

          • BlueThroughCrimp says:

            Yet in mid-April (when this travel took place) they weren’t.

          • Nick_C says:

            Homeware, building supplies and hardware stores were never required to close.

          • Phil says:

            Or needing a haircut or a dog groomed

    • BlueThroughCrimp says:

      +1