Until recently, long-haul travel was the norm for many. Any given journey began with often-frustrating queues to check-in, drop baggage or pass through security. Only once these administrative hurdles had been overcome could passengers enter into the bustling departures terminal where shops, restaurants and lounges hummed with other eager holiday makers or business travellers.
Today, international voyaging looks quite different. Five months after Covid-19 started to hit the newsand six weeks into UK lockdown, Ian Milne decided to make the long journey from his family home in Rutland back to his place of residence – Hong Kong.
“I chose to fly when I did because travel was still in lockdown and so I felt it would be safest. I had plenty of options in terms of flight routes but ultimately chose to fly from Birmingham with a layover in Amsterdam. I was aware that KLM, who I normally fly with, had cancelled quite a few flights and had bumped passengers in order to secure decent loads, but I was lucky to experience only one delay, which meant adding eight hours to my layover in Amsterdam,” says Milne.
He recounts that he was the only passenger at the Birmingham check-in desk, where he was attended to by three members of staff who collectively managed the entire check-in and baggage drop area. Security was eerily quiet too, but with lots of smiling and attentive service from the teams on duty. Once passport checks were complete he found himself in a nearly empty terminal where only one or two shops were open. Whilst he opted to wear a face mask throughout the journey, he notes that only a few airport staff had followed suit in Birmingham and even fewer in Amsterdam.
He experienced no temperature checks until arriving in Asia, and whilst he was assured that the plane would be clean, he used his own sanitising wipes to clean the seats and tables and doors he came into contact with. KLM requested that all passengers wear a face covering whilst on board but this was not strictly enforced.
Amsterdam airport was a similar story. “With only a few flights arriving all day, there were fewer than a few hundred passengers dotted about the vast airport. We were spaced out with several rows available between us on the plane itself.”
Milne had been warned that in-flight amenities were limited so he packed sandwiches and bottled water to keep him satiated throughout his two flights and lengthy layover. Keeping in mind that he may experience long delays upon arrival in Hong Kong, he grabbed food from any in-airport outlets that he could and the airport staff were very happy to assist with any enquiries.
“Both flights were only one third full so there was plenty of space to distance away from other passengers. Overall there was a positive calm and respectful spirit between the crew and passengers alike.”
In-flight alcohol and hot meal services have been suspended by most airlines, with sealed bags containing sandwiches, soft drinks and chocolate bars taking their place. Several airlines have also ditched pillows, blankets and inflight magazines in a bid to minimise transmission risk, although in-flight entertainment and Wifi are available.
Hong Kong’s Covid-19 prevention measures currently bar anyone without a valid visa or Hong Kong permanent identity card from entering. Those who do opt to enter the city are fitted with a Bluetooth-enabled tracking bracelet upon arrival at the airport, and take a mandatory saliva test. Those arriving before midday face up to ten hour-long waits for their test results in the nearby Asia World Expo – a large-scale convention centre where the likes of Alicia Keys and Coldplay have made concert appearances, and Disney’s The Lion King performed live as recently as January of this year. Those arriving in the afternoon or evening are sent to the Regal Hotel in Kowloon City where they must wait to be given the all-clear before returning home to complete their 14-days’ isolation. The hotel room and food for the first night and morning were covered by the government and then, some 20 hours after arriving in Hong Kong, Milne was allowed to return home. The system, he says, was excellent, respectful and efficient with him being tested, accommodated, fed and watered at no cost to himself, all with the aim of keeping Hong Kong residents safe.
Similar two-week isolation measures have since been implemented by the UK government, whilst arrivals into Australia may face enhanced health screening and have no choice but to quarantine in designated accommodation.
“Before Covid-19 put the world on lockdown, my journey would have seemed like an ordeal, but in light of the situation, I simply was relieved to make it back… and a whole row to myself for the price of an economy ticket was not bad at all!”
Whilst long-haul travel is generally not recommended in the current climate, taking a few extra measures can make a lengthy journey more comfortable:
· Pack your own pillow and blanket for peace of mind
· Bring multiple masks and change them at will in order to feel fresher throughout your journey
· If travelling with infants, consider bringing a baby carrier with rain shield to keep little ones protected
· Wear water resistant clothing, like a wind breaker, which can be wiped down regularly with antiseptic wipes
· Pack a large, reusable water bottle and a range of snacks, both for the journey and to last upon arrival too
· Hand sanitiser with at least 75% alcohol volume and disinfecting wipes should be used regularly
By Katie Forster