Flying in July 2020’s Covid Times
Flying Now: Barcelona to Vancouver, Canada
By Anne Watson
After traveling 24 hours from Barcelona, via Paris, Amsterdam, and Calgary, I’ve been home in Vancouver for less than a week, and I’m sick with a bad cold. It’s July 2020.
It’s not Covid-19. I have a stuffy nose and congestion, not coronavirus symptoms, and anyway I’m pretty sure I had the virus when I was in Alicante, Spain.
But still, imagine, I caught a cold on some plane, in some airport, along the way. This doesn’t bode well for someone who hasn’t had the virus and travels by air.
Two Airlines Flying in July 2020
In Canada where only two airlines are flying, it’s easy to track flights where there’s possible exposure. Already in July, 17 international flights and 14 domestic flights have been flagged.
Here’s my epic, first-hand adventure through airports and in planes and what I’ve learned. Each airline and airport handles Covid-19 protocols differently. The one constant: masks are required.
I drove to Barcelona El Prat airport to return a rental car the day before my flight. It was downright eerie, as it was the following morning.
The lanes, usually chock full of rushing cars, was empty. No flights took off or landed and this is odd given that Barcelona is the largest airport in Catalan.
Three years ago, this airport accommodated 47 million passengers. Today, only one terminal is open. The Spanish skies have been very quiet since March. I can attest to this having been in Alicante from March 9th until flying home on July 11.
Although Spain reopened its borders to EU countries at the end of June, the tourism industry is seriously struggling. Tourism accounts for 13% of Spain’s GDP. In 2019, 83 million international visitors traveled to the country and spent more than 90 billion euros as reported by El Pais. This year, Spain expects less than 50 billion euros from the industry.
El Prat’s Terminal 2
I anticipated long lines, temperature checks, and extra precautions, but instead, so few people were flying the lines moved swiftly both through the check-in and security.
People observed the 1.5-meter distancing, a measure throughout Europe, and in all the airports (2 meters is required in Canada). At check-in, I was asked if I had Covid-19 related symptoms. A simple “no” was all that was required.
El Prat’s terminal 2 felt like a ghost airport. Though it holds 50 stores and restaurants as well as airport lounges, only one coffee shop was open.
I flew Air France to Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport and would take it again to Amsterdam. The flight to Paris was only partially full – premeditated, I thought, to keep travelers safe. Air France, like all airlines, has a policy for traveler safety.
High-Efficiency Air Filtration
In addition to thoroughly cleaning the planes, they have a High-Efficiency Air Filtration Systems, identical to those used in hospital operating rooms, and the air is refreshed every three minutes.
I felt safe enough…but that all changed in Paris.
CDG Paris Airport
Charles de Gaulle airport, the largest international airport in France, is one of the busiest in the world, and the second busiest, next to Heathrow, in Europe.
Due to the reduced number of flights, Terminals 1, 2C, 2D, and 3 are temporarily closed. That meant all travelers passed through only two terminals.
Also, all Air France flights have been diverted through Charles de Gaulle, though Orly, the other Paris airport, opened at the end of June.
I had to collect my bags and check-in again at KLM which I’d booked with from Paris to Vancouver. I was nervous; travelers from Spain, specifically, are still quarantined in France for 14 days.
I contacted the Canadian Consulate in Madrid for advice before flying and was told I needed a document, produced by the French Government, attesting to the fact that I was in transit through the airport and had no intention of entering France. I also had proof of my next flight.
A nonchalant customs officer asked to see the signed document and flight information, left the booth to talk to another officer, and soon came back to let me pass.
After I picked up my luggage, I entered the mayhem in Terminal 2F. The strangely empty had morphed into what felt like an old normal.
Large, extended families flying to their vacation destinations, long lines, people trying to cut in front – normal, right? But these are not normal times.
10 % Tourism Economy
The tourism industry in Europe accounts for 10% of its economy, and most countries will be lucky to recover 50% of that this year. Airports have consolidated.
I learned that airlines, which have lost an estimated US$230 million a day, are trying to rectify those losses by filling their planes. For travelers that means being crammed together.
Body to Body
I went through the steps: self-check at the kiosk, body to body in the curling queues without regard for social distancing; bags bumping into other bags. I paid for two bags. When I put them on the weight belt, one was overweight, the other under.
Ordinarily, I would open my bags and move items from one bag to the other but I figured with Covid-19 this wouldn’t be allowed. Much to my surprise, the attendant told me to go ahead.
Security was fast and efficient, but no one social distanced, and it was hard to tell if any precautions were taken with the bins. Before boarding the plane, people clumped tightly together. And once on the plane, some sense of security from wearing a mask disappeared when masks slipped off for drinking.
On this flight, I was given only some apple juice. Food offerings have been reduced. For Air France, if the flight is under 2.5 hours, a beverage is served; over that time, a beverage and snack.
I planned on relaxing and picking up something to eat in Amsterdam, but I was stopped at customs.
The officer, more officious than the officer in Paris, listened to my story. Then he asked how long I’d been in Europe. I knew I was over the allotted three in six months for non-Schengen travelers.
Having arrived in the UK in January, I entered Europe in late February and then couldn’t leave because of travel restrictions.
I was nervous when he stepped out of his booth and told me to follow him. Holland, like Germany, is known to be strict about Schengen infractions. The customs officer said I needed different documents; new paperwork would be generated. I stood in a holding area with two other travelers.
One young man was going to the US, but his visa was being questioned. He was a person of color and looked anxious. An older man, from a Middle Eastern country, was trying to get to London to visit his son who was dying of cancer.
He also didn’t have the necessary paperwork. I waited for 10 minutes and they let me go.
With little time to spare, I rushed to a gate where I was required by the Canadian Government (also true for Saudi Arabia) to have a medical screening.
A handful of restaurants and stores, and a couple of lounges were open; flights departed from several terminals, G-pier, H-pier, and M-pier. Again, the distancing of 1.5 meters was in place, but no one bothered. I grabbed food at Breadway. My “focaccia” was so hard it seemed like it might have been there since lockdown.
The Longest Flight
The nine-hour flight to Calgary was on KLM. A tent had been erected by a gate for countries that asked for supposedly exceptional medical testing, and several perky people, not doctors, escorted me through the simple process: first temperature taking, then signing a document that I didn’t have Covid-19 symptoms.
A seated man was complaining to the attendant that he needed to get to Canada. The attendant told him they were required to be very careful and since he had a fever, he would not be allowed to fly. I later saw him on my flight.
Most people were seated by the time I boarded the large, full plane. It is difficult finding flights to Canada that are reasonably priced. Because of the reduced number, airlines have boosted the cost. I’d had two flights canceled in June and July on AirTransat, and had to find another flight because AirTransat isn’t flying out of Spain until November.
Older People from India
I sat near a group of older people traveling from India. Some wore masks, others had masks covering their months only. A few were coughing. Knowing the horrible situation regarding Covid-19 in India, I guessed safety from exposure had just flown out the window.
And later in the flight, one of the older women tapped me on the shoulder and handed me all her documents so I could fill out her entry form, and another man placed his cell phone in my hand because he wanted help putting it into the plane’s charger properly.
The pleasant KLM attendants passed through the cabin once with hot food, vegetarian pasta, and sodas or water. We didn’t have a food choice and KLM, like many airlines, is not serving alcohol. The food arrived within the first hour of the flight. Empty trays were soon collected.
About twenty minutes later, a plastic bag filled with “survival foods” – Coke, water, caramel waffle cookies, spicy corn snacks, granola bars, etc. – for the remainder of the flight were handed out. The flight attendants then disappear for the next seven and a half hours.
I entered Canada at the Calgary airport. Passing through customs was a breeze. When I asked the customs officer about assistance during quarantine once I reached Vancouver, knowing I had no food at home, she escorted me to a young woman sitting at a long folding table. The woman couldn’t answer my question, explaining she didn’t know what it was like in Vancouver and she’d never had anyone ask about food delivery assistance. It seemed odd since this was her job.
Calgary Quieter than Barcelona
Calgary airport was even quieter than Barcelona. My next flight was on Westjet. The flight attendants, both very young, seemed inexperienced and giggled a lot. They handed out wipes upon entering the plane and told passengers they could wipe down their seats.
Though this seemed silly, Westjet is taking similar precautions to other airlines. There was no food or beverage service on this flight, but it was short. The plane flew with only about 15 passengers.
Home at last …Vancouver
I disembarked in Vancouver, picked up my bags, jumped in a cab, and went home. No one stopped or talked to me at the airport about mandatory quarantine or my plans. I had been given two sheets in Calgary explaining what was expected of me for the next 14 days. Basically, I am not allowed out of my apartment at all.
I can’t help but wonder about the many places germs are spread on planes and in airports. Where did I catch this cold? Picking up my bags from the carousel, putting them on the belt at check-in, touching the check-in kiosks, passing tickets to security guards and attendants, going through security and placing my boots, computer, backpack and hand sanitizer in bins?
Or was it at an airport restaurant, or touching an armrest in an airport? Could it be from taking the quarantine sheet from the woman in Calgary? Sure, it could have been the other people on the plane, but it also could have been anywhere else.
Anne Watson, a dual Canadian/American citizen, is a writer, artist, and filmmaker, living in Vancouver, Canada. Since 2018, she’s mostly been working from the road, traveling constantly and loving it. A 365-day story about her adventures can be found on the blog, www.countriesandcobblestones.com.