“You are?” my European friends responded, bug-eyed, to my disclosure that I was flying to America this week. They had been watching CNN or some other similar network, in which the impression was being given that the country was burning to the ground a la Mad Max. I knew better, and dodged the subject: “Well, the flights are really cheap, to be honest, and I can also do some in-person work for a client.” Both reasons were true, but to be honest, the idea of flying post lockdown seemed purely theoretical to me until it actually happened today.
I arrived back in Paris the day before lockdown in March of this year. I had cut short a business/ski trip in Bulgaria under advice from friends, though by Monday night, as I arrived back into Paris with all the shops in the airport already closed, it looked like wisdom. Unbeknownst to any of us who came back that night or in the days after, we would not get to leave the country again for months, and even our daily trips out of our homes would be curtailed with the strange experience for those used to living in free societies: if stopped, we were expected to have “our papers” on us, explaining what we were doing, and why we were doing it, with consequences for “incorrect” answers.
I was delighted when confinement in Paris ended, almost a month ago now, and most of the city is quite “normal,” whatever that word means. Masks are only really required on public transportation, and most Parisians comply, but out on the street, a dwindling minority voluntarily wears them even when not required by law.
My first attempted flight purchase for this trip had been abortive, with Turkish Airlines. Turkish had been selling “ghost flights,” flights they had never intended to run but were happy to collect revenues for. In fact, when I told a frequent flier friend about the ticket, he sounded dismayed. “Turkish. I’m not sure they will actually honor that flight.” Sure enough, they didn’t and two weeks after I had booked that flight and two weeks before I was supposed to fly, I was told that Turkish had cancelled my flight and yes, it might take 2-8 weeks to get a refund. Chagrined that I was being used to help finance the airline’s working capital (yes, things are that bad) I was happy to find a comparably priced Aer Lingus ticket, though I had to shift my dates of travel slightly to make it work. First rule of this current phase of travel: flights you buy might not actually happen. Be prepared; stay flexible.
I had chosen a mid-morning flight out of Charles de Gaulle, but the terminal felt as though it was either very early in the morning or very late at night, and in some strange circumstance. Almost every single shop was closed, everyone was masked, and there was no rush, no stress, no bustle.
I made my way to Terminal 2A, which is not where Aer Lingus normally operates out of, but they had helpfully told me by email a couple days before not to go to Terminal 1. Second rule of this current phase of travel: pay extra attention to email alerts telling you where to go and what to do; it can be the difference between making and missing your flight.
I stood in a “socially distant” queue to check in, though luggage tends to naturally space us. When I got to the checkin desk I slid my passport under the now ubiquitous plexiglass. The agent took my luggage, handed me my boarding pass, and then asked me if I had filled out the “Covid form.” Because she asked in such a nonchalant tone my brain didn’t go to red alert. “No,” I answered. “If you can wait here for my colleague, she will bring you a copy.” I turned to my right and saw a small queue developing of other similarly clueless travelers. Before too long her colleague did return with paperwork specifically from the government of the Republic of Ireland. The form was intended to help with contact tracing, but for transiting passengers like myself, less information was needed. Third rule of this current phase of travel: be prepared for extra paperwork that may be country-specific. Be patient and don’t panic when confronted with something you didn’t hear about ahead of time.
When I arrived in Dublin this morning I wasn’t permitted to stay in the airport and follow the signs to “connecting flights” but was directed to the border and airport exit where I turned in my form and got a stamp in my passport for my shortest stay in Ireland ever. “Sorry I’m not staying,” I smiled. “Next time,” she nodded. Fourth rule of this current phase of travel: be prepared to have to “exit” the airport, even on a layover, and go through security again, and don’t forget to keep it snappy while doing so: there’s no guarantee they’ll hold the flight while you’re taking your time.
I left through baggage claim and went upstairs to departures and, like all the others on my flight who were continuing on to destinations after Dublin, had the great pleasure of going through security a second time, but this time with an Irish accent.
I looked up at the screen and saw that I would get a gate number after passing through US Customs. Ireland, like Canada, has a US Customs section which pre-clears incoming passengers to the US, allowing them to skip the line when they land. There are always random additional security searches, but with so few passengers traveling to the US, your chances of being one of the random searches increases dramatically. My lucky number came up and as I was unpacking my carry-ons for the third time today (there’s an additional security screening at the US border in these countries) I was told to follow some of the employees to a secluded part of what was already a ghostly reception area. They made me turn on my laptops and ran bomb residue checks on my hands and almost every part of all my bags.
Having passed my third security screening of the day, it seems that the authorities of three different countries, France, Ireland, and the United States, were satisfied that I was not a malefactor. If you think about it, this makes sense. At a time when so few people are traveling, it might be the perfect time to attempt an act of terror. Fifth rule of this current phase of travel: each country you pass through on your trip may make you do additional screening that has nothing to do with your physical health. Stay patient and stoic through the process.
Mostly Empty Plane
As we boarded the A330 for our transatlantic flight, the flight attendants told us that we could sit anywhere we wanted. There would only be 39 souls on a flight that could seat 340. But as we got closer to departure the purser announced that the seats had been allocated by the computer based on flight load, and there was a method to the random assignments: we needed to sit where we were assigned for takeoff and landing. In between those times we could sit where we wanted in between. I was one of the last ones to board and watched most of the plane walk past me to the back, where they were originally seated. Sixth rule of this current phase of travel: be prepared to have a lot of space to yourself. On the Dublin-Chicago segment I had a 4-seat row to myself, with no one sitting in the row in front of me nor in the three rows of window seats to my left.
I have a friend who works at Emirates who has kept me filled in on the lean and bare bones conditions of the flights they are still running. Hence, I was prepared to be tossed a box of cold food then watch the flight attendants disappear until right before landing. This wasn’t the case. Not only did we have a beverage service, but we had hot food (“Would you like chicken or beef?”), followed by tea and coffee service, followed by ice cream service. Then, hot calzones and another beverage service before we landed! Cheers, Aer Lingus. Seventh rule of this current phase of travel: in-flight service might be the same. Enjoy!
What wasn’t the same was the mask requirement. We were told that we had to wear them the whole flight, but obviously we had to take them off to eat. Since we were in an enclosed space, using recycled, non-medically-treated air for all seven hours of the flight, taking off the mask to eat would have been all the virus needed to get from one of us to all of us. So, it’s a bit of security theater, like taking off your shoes when going through security, but I understand the airlines probably wouldn’t be allowed to fly if they didn’t participate in this charade.
Nevertheless, some of us lingered over our meal a little longer, enjoyed the “authorized” masklessness, but after the service the flight attendants were really only there if you hit a call button, so you could feel free to be as masked or unmasked as you wanted to. I have only worn a mask when required to in Paris, which is to say, on public transportation, so these two flights were the longest I’ve ever worn a mask for any reason in my life, and that might be a challenge for some. Eighth rule of this current phase of travel: be prepared to wear a mask the entire time you are on the plane, and perhaps when you are in the airport as well. Make sure it’s a comfortable one.
When we landed in Chicago I realized that the pre-clearance I had gone through in Ireland wasn’t entirely valid because of the additional measures being taken in the US. We had to turn in a CDC form, similar in quality to the one that I had to turn in on arrival in Ireland. However, it seems half of the passengers of our flight were given this CDC form at the gate and the rest of us grabbed one of the photocopies in the customs area when we landed.
We then got into another line in which we were orally questioned as to whether we felt any symptoms or had been to China, Iran, or Brazil in the last 14 days. After answering no to all of the above I was sent to another line where my temperature was taken contact-free (I was 97.5 F – the plane must have chilled me) and again asked where I had been in the last 14 days, specifically if I had been to one of the three aforementioned countries. When I answered in the negative I was given a handout and told that I should “self quarantine for 14 days.” I smiled, nodded, and went to get my baggage. Ninth rule of this current phase of travel: You might get to go through customs for the same country multiple times. Bear with it.
Chicago isn’t my final destination, but flights to destinations that are not major hubs are two to three times more expensive at the moment, hence I’m on a DIY layover, in which I self-transfer to the domestic airport in Chicago, Midway, and take a $50 Southwest flight on to Kansas City. Tenth rule of this current phase of travel: be prepared for a comedic sequence of planes, trains, and automobiles as none of the regular transfer/conveniences can be reliably counted on. Don’t assume; call ahead.
How long will this state of affairs last? As you should know by now, nobody knows, and anyone who claims to know is just guessing. But what is certain is that the chilling effect on travel as a whole is rippling out worldwide. Those closed shops and empty queues and empty seats are harbingers of an untold disaster much worse than even the most hysterical headlines tell us. In one way the disaster is economic, yes, but there’s a psychological toll as well which can paralyze people from even considering travel.
I remember being told some time ago about research that showed people were more “happy” before and after a vacation: before because of the anticipation, after because of the revisiting of the memories. In those pre-covid times we seemed unable to be present and savor the vacation while we were on it at least as much as we anticipated or revisited it. But we are now in a time in which we can’t anticipate “normal” (again, whatever that term means) travel. All we can do is plan lightly and curb our expectations. If we can adopt the right attitude when we travel in the weeks and months ahead, not only can we start to create necessary momentum to once again give our fellow friends and humans the confidence and desire to travel, but we can also take a moment to be grateful for the privilege of traveling when so much of the world is still locked down. As we do so, we might recapture, however cautiously, however tentatively, that joy we take when seeing new places and old faces.
Photo was taken halfway through my flight from Dublin to Chicago.
This article also appeared on Dispatches Europe.