Journal

Flying During a Pandemic

Disclaimer: This post was originally written in November 2020.

You must imagine how high my anxiety was prior to the flight. I say this in contrast to my calm feelings mere days before.

In regards to COVID-19, I had much earlier decided that it is virtually impossible to avoid infection even with the most stringent rules—although I won’t go into a discourse about how I came to such conclusion. But I do understand the impact of becoming infected, despite my careless appearance in the face of it.

So with the rising number of cases in the European region and the announcements of lockdowns, it further fed my terror about going there. It took much rationality and assurance from my friends to eventually convince me to take the trip. I am grateful to them, come what may.

With the drastic reduction on the number of flights around the world, I was glad to have found a decently priced one-way flight with Swiss Airlines via Lufthansa. With them, I was to depart from Singapore, transit in Zurich, Switzerland, and arrive at London Heathrow airport.

Taking off

The flight was at 00:05am. I arrived 3 hours before at the airport, being concerned about additional security checks. But I soon found that it wasn’t even necessary to be that early—the airport was mostly empty, which meant virtually no queue at any counter. The officers at the check-in counters were chatting among themselves. I went up to the only available counter, and two officers checked my documents to ensure that I was allowed to fly to the UK. I had travel regulations from the UK government website printed out, but thankfully they took my word for it. Being well-prepared and confident in answering their questions helped, but it was still a rather stressful start.

Everything else, however, was as they were. Besides designated lanes, security and immigration were the same. It was eerie to find nearly all shops closed when they were supposed to be open. I watched a group of foreigners being led along by a local ground staff, supposing they were in transit. The water cooler was shut off as a preventive measure, and a kind man told me I could get water from the mother’s room. Basically, the once busy terminal was now like a ghost town, where I wasn’t quite sure if I would make it out alive.

To make matters worse, or better depending on how you see it, there were literally only three passengers including myself on the flight: a man in business class, and a woman and I in economy. Just the three of us on a huge Boeing 777, served by three times the cabin crew.

“Don’t get lost,” one of them jokingly said to me as I boarded.

Imagine being served a welcome drink in the economic cabin.

Airborne

I admit I had a pleasant surprise when I boarded the plane. The cabin crew first greeted me by name, which I did not expect as an economy flyer. Just when I was wondering what the point of having a seat number was, I found, placed on the table tray next to my appointed seat, a bottle of water, the in-flight menu, a pen, the infamous Swiss chocolate, and a Swiss plane plush. The sight of the plush was a comfort to my anxious heart. As soon as I sat down, I was given a contact tracing form to fill out, and then offered a glass of champagne (which I gracefully changed to apple juice as I don’t drink), something I thought is usually only offered to those in business class and above.

Already Swiss Airlines scored 10 out of 10 in my heart.

Meals were served as usual without any variation from the normal services before the pandemic. If anything, I was given an extra bread roll and an extra orange in my supper. I don’t know if less meal preparation meant better quality of food, but I think it was simply decent. I at least enjoyed the fluffy rolls very much.

Snacks as well as an abundance of Swiss chocolate were also offered, which the cabin crew very generously said, “Take as much as you want!” I tried for as much as I had the room in my backpack to carry them. After all, why not for the price paid to get on a plane?

Other perks included being able to lie down across the seats for one of the best sleep I’ve had on a flight, the quietest cruise in the night, and having a loo all to myself. But nothing beat the undivided attention from the cabin crew, one of whom I got to acquaint with when I asked for help with translating a document from French. It was definitely service you can’t enjoy in normal times shared with fifty other passengers.

It was without a doubt disheartening though, to see no other passenger on a 13-hour flight. A cabin crew told me how awkward it must feel to have him walk by every hour to check on whether I needed any assistance, although I was sleeping for a good half and more of the time. For once, I could feel how much the cabin crew had put their heart into serving us, the passengers, who often take them for granted.

Wonderful hospitality from Swiss Airlines

The transit and the second leg

I truly saw the difference when I took the short-haul flight after with about 50 other passengers. I no longer felt as if I had a personal waiter on me. In fact, I almost doubted that I would ever fly economy again just so that I could have the undivided attention of the cabin crew. Nevertheless, the price I pay shall not change my view of the crew.

Speaking of the number of passengers, I was surprised to find Zurich airport livelier than back in Changi. Perhaps it was the difference between night and day, the international hub of Singapore and the fairly open hub of European country. Besides these though, I saw the clear complacency in keeping the rules in relation to the pandemic.

Since I was in transit, the ground staff told me to simply wait in the area I had entered until the gate for my flight was open. Nobody watched me though, so I was certain I could have run off anywhere I like. I didn’t, but rather stayed at Pret in front of my gate. While masks were required in the terminal, I was appalled by how half of the passengers wore them: on their chin, or below the nose. As I told my friend, “The Asian in me screamed.” I was terrified of the possibility of being exposed because of their carelessness.

Perhaps you feel that I am overreacting. Perhaps you should understand that this is coming from me, who initially was complacent, until this virus took hold of someone close to me. Perhaps, if every human being had just abided by the rules from the start, there wouldn’t have been a need for a new lockdown.

I apologize for the biased sentiments, but that is honestly how I felt when I sat at the gate waiting to board. But I did appreciate that social distancing was adhered well with empty seats in between and gaps during the queue. But I felt the passengers could have been spaced out better on the flight, as I had someone sitting in the row in front of and behind me, but the middle column had several unoccupied rows we could have taken.

Although the flight was only for an hour, I prayed in my honest heart that I wouldn’t have the misfortune of becoming infected in that small window.

Touchdown

Nevertheless, the journey ended without issue. Immigration at the London Heathrow airport had its social distancing executed well enough (although I did judge one guy who kept standing too close to the one in front of him). The officers’ “interrogation” was as their usual, besides just adding that I was supposed to self-isolate for 14 days due to my transit in Switzerland.

And that was it. I arrived in London, just a day shy before the England-wide lockdown.

I will probably detail the situation in another blog post, but perhaps this will be enough to give you an idea on how a long-haul flight is like. Then again, I was biased towards Swiss Airlines because it is the only flight I have taken thus far. There is also the fact that Asia still has strong border restrictions compared to the West.

In any case, I only plead with you that you take the pandemic seriously. It may have been fun to be aboard an empty flight, but ultimately, it is the cost of human lives we are betting on. Keep safe now, and you will be able to save our airlines in the long run.

Behind the trip

I’m Angie, a traveller, web developer and blogger behind A Head Full of Travel. I’m here to document my adventures through words and photography, kindling a love for life. You can trust that all content and advice shared here is genuine and from my own experiences.

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