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Air Travel in the COVID-19 Era

by Dean Johnston

https://martensvillemessenger.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/No-touching.jpgIn mid-March, when all the coronavirus chaos really hit the fan publicly, we were in the midst of a 10-day hike down the Atlantic coast of Portugal. In a matter of days our plans changed from Algarve – Andalucia – Morocco – Las Vegas to “this town seems nice enough”. Then, at the end of April, we found ourselves embarking on a long, convoluted chain of flights back to Saskatoon, a fascinating and immensely different travel experience than when we had left Guatemala less than two months earlier.

Airports – Lisbon’s airport looked like an apocalyptic movie scene – only a couple of restaurants were open for takeout only, the hundreds of self-check-in kiosks stood silent and empty, and at every checkpoint we were outnumbered by security staff. The entire schedule of departures for the day took up half a single screen. In waiting areas every second seat was taped up and off-limits. Bored airport staff wandered around on the hunt for projects and a woman was disinfecting seats with the intensity of someone with 30 seconds left to defuse a bomb. Obviously, duty-free shops were still open, though, since clearly we’re not ready to contemplate a world without premium alcohol and terrific bargains on cigarettes.

Frankfurt was similarly quiet with highly restrictive safety measures in place, except after you moved from the EU area to international departures, where things were mostly business as usual, showing a very different level of concern for people about to LEAVE Germany. Toronto was also quieter than we’d ever seen and all the expected health and safety measures were in evidence.

Airplanes – On Lufthansa to Germany we were among the roughly 50% of passengers wearing masks  although, surprisingly, that half did not include the flight attendants. Only 60% of the seats had been sold, with all middle seats being left empty. Food and beverage service was limited but at least there was plenty of room in the overhead bins. Also, as expected, no virus is important enough to keep everyone from jumping up to pack the aisle the moment the plane stops moving.
Unlike on Lufthansa, masks were mandatory on our Air Canada flights to Toronto and Saskatoon. While the 60% policy was also in place, there were not nearly that many seats sold for the 8-hour journey across the Atlantic. This meant Laynni and I each had a 3-seat row to ourselves and there was never anyone close enough to glance critically at my onboard entertainment choices.

Security – Boarding in Lisbon we had to confirm onward travel out of Germany but there were no medical screening processes. Leaving the plane in Frankfurt a smiling young man asked if we had a connecting flight, to which we answered “yep”, to which he happily waved us on, despite the fact we still had to leave the secure area to check-in with Air Canada. Even though non-EU citizens were only allowed into Germany under very specific circumstances (none of which applied to us) we could have easily just walked out and faded into the German countryside. Luckily for them, even the prospect of unlimited pumpernickel wasn’t tempting enough for us to hit the road as homeless fugitives with a total of 6 German words between us.

In Toronto we immediately reached a checkpoint with forms to fill out – did we have symptoms, where would we be isolating, did we have anyone to bring us stuff? Apparently satisfied with our answers, we were directed to drop our forms in a beat-up cardboard box near the exit. Notably, we were NOT asked how we planned to spend the next 20 hours in Toronto before our flight to Saskatoon. Which felt relevant.

Then in Saskatoon we simply walked out without seeing a single official – no additional questions, forms, security or screening. Yes, we arrived on a domestic flight, but Toronto had (and has) exponentially more COVID-19 cases than all of Saskatchewan, plus we were surely not the only people on that flight who were connecting from abroad. A dangerous missed opportunity, in my opinion. We did receive several emails from both federal and provincial governments regarding self-isolation (but not until we’d been home almost a week) and a police visit on day 11. Not quite as timely as you’d hope but at least they’re making an effort.

Clearly, the travel landscape will continue to change, react and evolve at warp-speed over the next couple of years but, for now, if you end up having to fly somewhere, expect very few people, mandatory mask usage, even less appealing meals and, hopefully, ever-changing security measures.

Dean Johnston is the author of three travel books, including Roam: The 9 Greatest Trips on Earth. He is currently at home eagerly keeping tabs on future travel possibilities. You can get fully caught up at routinelynomadic.com.

PHOTO CAPTION:The Toronto Pearson Airport looks more like a ghost town amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Dean Johnston)

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