I had to get on an airplane to fly internationally in the middle of an ongoing pandemic. Here’s what it was like
First things first, let me tell you I only did this because I absolutely had to, as in, my student visa was about to expire and I needed to exit the country. The UK gave me no other option with no auto extension or ability to transition onto a tourist visa – that’s another issue entirely. But know that this trip was not for leisure.
I made it through about six weeks of quarantine shut in a house with a housemate I didn’t really speak to before cracking. I didn’t start socializing, no. I merged quarantines. So, by the time I had to fly back to The U.S. from England I’d been around people (only two of them, but still…people) for about six weeks, so I wasn’t completely starved for human interaction. Still though, there was something so wonderfully, comfortably, normal about this usually very routine thing in my life – travel.
I was super lucky that the couple I’d quarantined with was willing to drive me to the airport – it meant so much less stress and a lot fewer hours with a mask on. We live in Norwich which is about 2.5 hours driving to Heathrow.
We pulled up to Heathrow T5 around 3:00 PM on a Monday. There were five cars at the terminal, one was a taxi, one a security car, one was us. We unloaded my bags, I sanitized my hands and grabbed the first mask from my red fanny pack.
‘You’ve got it backwards, Caitlin.’ George is a dentist.
Right. Lighter blue in. Got it.
“Pinch it over your nose.’
I hugged the two people most responsible for my sanity at that point in time and said goodbye.
I do not know when I’ll be able to return to England.
At the doors of the terminal were signs indicating the necessity of masks and a man off to one side handing out wipes for trolley handles. There was no one going in or out of the doors as I entered. I was directed to the far end of the terminal where there were the only open check-in desks. The entire rest of the departures hall was shuttered and empty.
Yellow circles marked the floor of the queue indicating appropriate social distances, but there was only one woman in front of me and one man who eventually walked up (far) behind me. At the check-in desk (where the British Airways agent was not wearing a mask) I asked for a window seat, as I always do, I handed my luggage over and got my boarding pass. Nobody inquired about why I had three carry-ons rather than the allowed two. It was all very civil.
I walked to security where the usual mess of humans, heat, and wait time was completely non-existent. As I entered the still roped off queues (yeah, I had to zig-zag back and forth to get to the front) I passed by a black booth where a woman was sitting behind a plastic shield. There were signs on either side of the booth saying something about data not being retained for any other uses. The woman did not look up as I continued past: temperature checks.
The security agents were all laughing and joking with one another – their masks pulled down to their chins or constantly being readjusted. Their totally relaxed manner was reassuring, even though they were perhaps the most dangerous people I encountered on my entire trip – touching everyone’s things who passes through. The simple fact that they were on the ‘front lines’ and seemed so unfazed was calming. Security was the same as always, everything out, shoes off, and it didn’t appear that the tubs were being cleaned. The one thing that was different was that the full body scanner was not in use – less possibility of needing to do a pat down, maybe?
On the other side of the x-rays I repacked my liquids and electronics and got a squirt of the hand sanitizer affixed to the end of the scanners (has that always been there?) before setting off to find somewhere to sit.
The halls of Heathrow Terminal 5, the usually bustling international departures area, were completely still. The only shop open was Boots and there was no one in it. There were five departures on the board.
I found seating where a few others were scattered quietly around. I sat down for the hour till my gate was announced and watched the cleaning staff circle the area – wiping and re-wiping. I pulled out my own wipes and rubbed down the armrests of the chair – high touch surfaces – though I also made a point to simply keep my hands in my lap.
By this point I had learned two things:
- I would need to aim to keep myself cool – the mask made overheating easier and sweat dripping down my lip was nasty and there was nowhere for it to go but into my mouth.
- The exact way to wiggle my nose and chin to readjust my mask so I didn’t need to touch it.
The gate was announced at 3:55 for my 5:10 flight. I’d have to go to the B gates, I was currently at the A gates. This meant getting on one of those inter-airport trains.
Others gathered – staggering appropriate distances from one another – waiting for the train to arrive for the four minutes a repeated announcement was made that the train was one minute away. I joined the flight attendants in the front car. Two things I noticed about them:
- They too were relaxed, laughing, and standing close together
- They twisted the straps of their masks before putting them over their ears – I’d try that for mask two.
As we arrived at the B gates everyone disembarked simultaneously. It was this moment when we all left off the train in an instinctual airport rush that felt like everything was fine. Until, that is, we all got to the two escalators and everyone suddenly froze, politely letting others go first and then allowing four or five stairs to go past before stepping on.
Again, at boarding, everyone was polite. The plane boarded back to front (surely this is logical regardless of ongoing pandemics!?) and people waited their turns, patiently.
Onboard I had a row to myself, as did everyone else who wasn’t traveling together. The center seats were empty and families used them to spread out and lay down. Everyone was masked though no one seems to have a clue how to appropriately wear masks. Many were consistently worn below the nose, some on the chin. Almost everyone moved their mask up and down by pinching the front. I never touched the front of my mask except for once when I woke up to an itchy nose and my hand flew to my face. That happened twice more but even half asleep I grabbed for my hand sanitizer first.
I wiped down my seat before sitting. My seatbelt buckle, my TV screen and remote, my arm rests, the entire wall next to my head, my chair reclining button. Everything. I only went to the toilet once – yes, the entire time from Norwich to Vermont. And I went with a wipe in each hand which I threw away in a bin outside of the toilet before returning to my seat and hand sanitizing again. I changed my mask every four hours – though I may have gone a bit over once when I overslept – pinching the metal, pulling to all the way down over my chain, and twisting the straps like the flight attendants, which I found key it from riding up into my eyes. Meal service onboard consisted of a lack luster sandwich and pre-poured juices and waters. I’d brought snacks though (thus the third carry-on) so I was fine. There was no wine.
We were asked to fill out a health declaration form which asked simply if I was experiencing symptoms and where I would be going in The U.S. – it was unsurprisingly not thorough. Off the plane (in Boston) we got temperature checks – no one warned us these would be in the jetway and so all of a sudden everyone who had been deplaning with space in between were stacked up waiting. My temperature was 97.5.
I went through the same immigration as always – though there was, again, no wait. I wrote down the address and phone number of where I would be staying again for the border agent to record. He asked me if I would be staying in The U.S. permanently now. I threw up my hands in a ‘who the hell knows’ gesture (I realized you have to be extra gesticulative when wearing a mask since no one can really read your facial expressions) and off I went.
We then got our checked luggage and went through the extra luggage scanning where the agents, though masked, seemed not to realize their was a global pandemic and pulled numerous people out of line, having them stand close to one another, so they could rummage through the snacks in their bags. They did it to me – I had a Snickers bar. Priorities, America, come on, focus.
And then out I went, into the Boston terminal where usually there are tens of people waiting around – and usually someone for me. There were two people waiting, each with a sign. And no one for me. I got int a rental car (which I wiped down fully) and drove 3.5 hours to Vermont where I am now in quarantine for 14 days.
I’ve heard I might get a phone call from health services checking in, but that’s yet to be seen, today is day three.
I’m hoping my precautions were enough to keep me, my family, and my community safe – but regardless I’m not going to mingle until I’ve done my down time. My mom is supplying me with wine which she drops off on the porch before backing slowly away.
Ya know, despite the stress, the funny thing about this trip; it was the most civil, relaxed, easy plane journey I’ve ever taken. While COVID is in the air, so is this respect and kindness and understanding. AND SPACE. Can we all just agree to stop selling middle seats, for, like, forever?