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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.


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.


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)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • guesswho2000 says:

    Very helpful contribution 🙄

  • Ron says:

    Interesting read, thank you, Michael. Hope you’re now safe and healthy in Perth.

    I’ve seen a video on YouTube about people rushing back to HK when the situation deteriorates in the U.K.. Most people on the flight has full PPE or at least face masks/ gloves on. People were not having food/ drinks on the flight and also tried not to go to the toilet. That’s all sounds very extreme and I hope this won’t be the norm for future travel!!

    I know the U.K. government and WHO advise the general public don’t need face masks, but looking at the number of cases and death in HK, where face masks are being wore by most people. They seems doing a pretty good job controlling the spread. People in HK also seems to have a much better understanding of how to wear face masks and the knowledge of the standard and quality of face masks too. (I use HK as an example as my family is there). Surely if people in the U.K. do the same, it would massively help to ease the pressure on NHS?!

    • ken says:

      We can’t get sufficient quantities of basic PPE to workers in hospitals and care homes as it is.

      People in Hong Kong / Singapore have been wearing masks for a long time particularly when air quality is bad.

      If airlines offered everyone the choice of a free high quality mask and hand gel or free alcohol, I can guess what many Brits would go for.

      • Ron says:

        I know PPE is running low in the healthcare community, but if face masks could slow down the spread, then that would also help the PPE situation, as less people would need to be hospitalised.

        I was in HK when the SARS outbreak happened, I remember wearing a face mask to attend a 3-hour long alevel exams, it was not pleasant!

        • Charlieface says:

          Don’t confuse the government with facts

          • Doug M says:

            Don’t wear PPE because you’re stealing it from the NHS. Or we screwed up as usual and didn’t ensure adequate supplies. Clap for the NHS. That way we can make them feel good while we pay them sod all. Isn’t this old soldier marvellous. That’s another £25mil we can lop off the NHS budget.

      • CV3V says:

        Yup, all across Asia buying packs/boxes of face masks in shops is easy, you could even buy packs of them in their version of a poundshop (its called Daiso, and its amazing the amount of stuff it sells that no one needs!)

  • Michael (author) says:

    It looks like all the trolls are coming out from under the bridge today.

    This was a light piece of content that was meant to provide a short insight into something not many people will experience. You do not know the reasons why I took this flight and I wasn’t about to explain a lengthy family and medical situation in a travel blog.

    If anyone has any genuine questions about the flight, I would be happy to reply, otherwise keep your negativity and narrow-minded judgement to yourself.

    • Jordan D says:

      Michael – I for one, appreciate the article. My father was brought back to the UK on a repatriation flight from India, having travelled out there before UK went into lockdown to be at the bedside of high dying mother (My grandmother). As you say, people are quick to judge with without knowing all the facts.

      Safe journey back to the UK when it comes.

    • Mike says:

      Well said, people should be less quick to get on their high horse. Thanks for the article!

    • Darren says:

      I don’t judge your reasons, you made your choice to return to your family. But this isn’t a light piece of content at all and the current lack of restrictions to the UK and quarantine is worrying.

      How the world works out how to travel in the future will be fundamental to stop this now and in the next steps.

      • TGLoyalty says:

        Why are you worried about people coming through the border when c4-5k people a day arel testing positive for it in the UK without having been anywhere abroad in the past 28 days?

        If these people come in to the country, go home and stay at home like EVERYONE in the UK should be then there is no more or less risk than anyone else walking around in the supermarket.

        Worry about the lack of quarantine when the daily count here is increasing +2/3 people

        • Darren says:

          If that ‘advice’ was in place in Feb/Mar we may be in a better place than we are now. It was increasing x2/3 in these months and nothing was in place.

          • TGLoyalty says:

            France have announced their first confirmed case was actually Dec 27th …

          • Novice says:

            Honestly the most weird thing is I was really ill in December/Jan… laid up in bed with all these symptoms and mum had to stay over I was so bad. My family keep saying you must have had covid 19 because it was horrendous but in UK, we didn’t have it then, did we? And nobody else got infected from me (which could be coz I’m OCD so very clean) but it is weird now as my family and friends carry on saying I’ve had it, even though I’m sure I just had a bad case of infection…

          • TGLoyalty says:

            Considering this patient was in hospital with pneumonia at this point he probably had it for a number of prior to his hospital visit and contracted it 3-12 days before that. So completely plausible you could have had it in late Dec/Jan aswell.

            Let’s not forget that the vast majority of people show no or mild symptoms or simply don’t visit the hospital for a bad cough unless they are on deaths door.

          • Novice says:

            Won’t really know till I do a test I guess. I don’t know the story but I made the comment because it could also be that a lot of ppl are now assuming that they have had it, just because they probably had a bad case of an infection which is pretty common in winter. And I don’t do myself favours being an OCD. Logically, I’m aware that my extreme cleanliness makes me sensitive to everything as I probably don’t have a great immune system 😂

          • Darren says:

            @TGL that’s my point really, the lack of action in the early days. The contrast in Feb between Asia and the Uk was striking.

            @Novice you need to get an antibody test at some stage, as do we all when it is more reliable.
            My colleagues have mentioned the same thing but this may be down to confusing another virus with Covid.

          • Josh says:

            Sounds more like a case of the pussycat virus to me.

          • Lady London says:

            @SS do antibiotics work against viruses? Could you have had a bacterial – or even fungal which is much underrated – infection?

    • Lev441 says:

      Ignore the trolls, some people have nothing else better to do except moan.

      Was an interesting insight to travel in these crazy times.

    • T says:

      You have perhaps missed the point most of the ‘trolls’ were making.

      Travelling half way across the world is simply not essential. You put other people at risk.

      If there was a ‘medical reason to return’ perhaps make that clearer rather than saying “Instead of spending the days locked in my tiny flat in London, I thought I’d use this as the chance to return home“.

      This pandemic is not an excuse to have the U.K. pay your wages whilst you head to Australia to escape your tiny flat.

      Anyhow, all comments questioning your need to travel appear to have been deleted.

      And oh, someone informing you your travel is not essential and that you risked the lives of others does not make them a troll; perhaps just more considerate than yourself

      • BlueThroughCrimp says:

        That’s essentially what I said earlier but can’t find the post now.

      • Rob says:

        Many other comments today are about the value of going around as many PayPoint convenience stores as you can find in your town to top up your Monese or Revolut card ….

        • BlueThroughCrimp says:

          I’ve only seen one, maybe more have been rightly deleted for being so irresponsible.

          As a key worker who had no additional PPE until late March, can’t keep socially distant while working, and hand sanitizer was the only provided prevention for a few weeks, it makes me rather cross that people who are still being paid or working from home are complaining about boredom, and ignoring the clear guidance.

          I’m guessing those dealing directly with patients in the health and care sector would be livid at people going out playing the points game.

          It just beggars belief. Some people need to have a word with themselves.

          • Doug M says:

            You might do likewise, have a word with yourself that is. Just stop and try to think for a moment about a person 13,000 miles from home being endlessly in a small flat, possible for several months. Wondering when it ends, and will they get to see their parents again. There has been enormous uncertainty with all of this. Instead they chose to return home to be with their parents. Nothing selfish or wrong with this.

          • BlueThroughCrimp says:

            As it’s been said since the article was published, he said it was for reasons he wouldn’t go in to.

            I did acknowledge this, in a now disappeared post, with regard to essential travel.

            I was replying to a specific comment about playing the points game thanks.

          • Jeff says:

            Why all the ‘disappeared’ posts Rob?

            Why all the censorship?

            Are you simply protecting the poor wee author from feeling delicate?

          • Rob says:

            Wasn’t me! The team do not need my permission to delete stuff.

        • TGLoyalty says:

          They do. isn’t the goal a holiday they might not be able to normally afford?

          Not advocating going around topping up at pay point right now as other things are more important. But in normal times. I still use my morrisons gift cards to buy a couple M&S and JL GCs for the next couple weeks while I do my branded food shop.

        • Anna says:

          I’ve left my property twice since lockdown was declared, once for a walk ( not my only exercise though!) and once to pack food parcels at a local warehouse. All my points collecting has been done from home. The only thing I’ve missed out on is my Curve cash withdrawals. This may all prove pointless though as my OH is a frontline key worker 😩

    • Harry T says:

      I don’t think it’s narrow minded or trolling to question why someone would travel across the entire world when both the UK and Australia have advised against all but essential travel. Seems quite reasonable, especially as the article seems to suggest the OP travelled due to feeling a bit cooped up in his flat.

    • Charlieface says:

      Seriously, don’t worry about a bunch of online trolls. You’re anonymous, they’re anonymous, it means nothing. Just a bunch of bitter people cooped up at home.
      We’re not here to argue about the ins and outs of what someone else classifies as essential travel, and even if it wasn’t right, it still remains an interesting article, which was the point.

  • Spaghetti Town says:

    I think this was fine. Better for mental well being to travel home to be with someone if you can.

    As long as you take the correct steps not to put anyone at risk. If you’d been going off on a jolly it would be a different story.

  • krys_k says:

    I’m pretty sure that most countries were asking their citizens to come home due to pandemic (my own cousin was in New Zealand at the time and had an adventure getting back to Poland, but doing so was an instruction from the government; I myself took one of the last flights from Poland to UK – was in Poland for business but am a British citizen). I would suggest that the author did exactly as instructed. If there were beneficial unintended consequences to the trip e.g. seeing family, then so be it. In addition I learned what a flight during restricted times looked like – so some genuinely exclusive and interesting content.

  • Novice says:

    Wow, the level of judgement here.

    I live quite close to mum n dad and as soon as I realised there might be some form of lockdown (mid-march), I closed up my home (I have cctv thankfully) and came to live back at my parents.

    The level of comfort you get being with your parents at such a trying time is understated. They kept you alive and well as a baby/kid so why not be with your superheroes if you can in such a time. My siblings did get jealous but I was the only one who lives alone and so why should a person not be with family if they can.

    From this he stated in the article he went to his parents. Good for him.

    • Harry T says:

      I mean, I’d rather live in a flat with my girlfriend and have the freedom to be as depraved and debauched as possible…

    • Anna says:

      Did you go to look after them or so you could get your washing done and tea made every day?! I have a teenage son and frankly can’t imagine him ever leaving home and fending for himself 🤦‍♀️

      • Novice says:

        No they are possibly more healthy than me thankfully. I went because I just didn’t like the idea that I might not see them for a while. Also I thought my dad might need me for hard business decisions as he’s a softie and thinks about employees before himself.

        So selfish reasons as well as didn’t know the government decisions at the time. I came bk in mid-march. I have only made a couple trips bk to my place which is half an hour away.

        • Novice says:

          I must admit my mum is the best cook ever and I’m an absolute foodie so every meal I do start questioning, why did I ever move out? I can’t cook to save my life so you can imagine my joy.

          I probably took her for granted as a kid n then as a teen. I keep thinking maybe I should put my place up for rent and just move bk permanently. My parents place is huge so I’d have privacy.

  • A different Michael says:

    LOVED the article Michael, a wonderful insight, thank you.
    Shame so many snowflakes read it and felt the need to pontificate.

    • Qwertyknowsbest says:

      +1 and probably the silent majority.

    • Novice says:

      If you have ever read my comments it’s getting quite legendary how I mention I’m young.

      Usually my generation are called snowflakes so I resent you calling judgmental ppl the same 😂 you’ll find the snowflakes don’t usually pass judgements.

      • mr_jetlag says:

        OK Boomer 😉

        • Anna says:

          My son calls me a boomer, it’s highly offensive! I keep having to point out that I am actually Gen X which sounds a whole lot cooler, as well as being true 😂

          • Novice says:

            I’m definitely not boomer. Possibly early gen z or later millennial.

  • BA-flyer says:

    Having read this article on my lunch break and returning now, I’m surprised at how many comments have been deleted. None of them were rude or aggressive, just offering a different point of view.
    And as for the OP describing these people with differing opinions as “trolls”, that’s just ridiculous.

    • Harry T says:

      I can’t see a situation in which I would travel to the other side of the world to see family during this pandemic. I wouldn’t want to take the risk of transmitting covid from a country with a high rate of infection (the UK), especially as my parents would be at risk of greater mortality and morbidity due to being older than me!

      • Harry T says:

        Yeah, probably – I’m not a virologist. Fair criticism (sorry, long day).

        I’m just a bit tired of seeing people justifying all kinds of things as essential travel. The OP may have had a legitimate reason to travel, but the article certainly doesn’t read that way – which makes criticism largely predictable IMO. Not sure someone should share their life on the internet if they react adversely to obvious scepticism.

      • Lyn says:

        Harry, I can all too easily imagine a family situation that would make me seriously consider travelling to Australia. Hopefully it won’t happen for another few years though!

        Reading Michael’s article, I was guessing his trip might be well-justified given his parents’ particular situation, even though this wasn’t shared with us. Partly because I believe the 2 week hotel quarantine is probably paid for by the Australian government, and I doubt if anyone would take this decision lightly.

        • Fred says:

          Sorry? Did you read the article?

          “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.”

          Yes, I am aware a later attempt to move the goalposts then occurred.

        • T says:

          So it’s okay to risk the lives of others so you can say goodbye to your parents; completely ignoring the fact you might infect 30x others (who will then be faced with the same predicament)?

        • TGLoyalty says:

          @Fred you have no idea what situation his parents are in that means seeing them now may be his or their only chance.

          He didn’t decide to say what the exact personal situation was on a public website. Perhaps because it’s no one else’s business but his and his parents …

        • Lady London says:

          +1 @Lockdown Larry. Now it just looks like the person that wrote the article (which was good btw) is just changing their time and coming up with a more acceptable excuse after criticism. The new excuse just isn’t believable now.

          If you’re going to lie or gloss something over because you don’t want to.share – then it’s best to find words that mean it won’t look as though you are backtracking and trying to claim something was for a more socially acceptable reason later. You could have not commented, or said words that didn’t say everything but would not be contradicted by what you’re now saying. FWIW, being in a similar situation myself, I just don’t believe that the newly introduced excuse for the trip was the real reason.

    • Lady London says:

      It’s weird how these attacks of political correctness keep occurring. Good that.the trolls ones disappear although Sundays some of the worst ones have stayed up a bit too long. But sometimes the trendy censorship seems to get a bit heavy-handed and swathes of post that just reflect a different opinion just disappear – there seems to be some level of political correctness at play

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