Staff Corner: From the remote desk of Cara Simon
Current location: Co. Wexford, Ireland
Normal travel time New York to Dublin: 1 or 2 flights, 1 or 2 airports, 2 countries, 8 hours of travel
COVID travel time New York to Dublin: 3 flights, 4 airports, 3 countries and 15 hours of travel - not bad for COVID days.
Some of you readers may know that I was visiting my parents for a few weeks when the pandemic hit, and as a result my flights kept getting cancelled or rearranged. After two months, I was able to get an itinerary that didn’t require five different layovers (my normal flight is direct) around the world to fly to Ireland.
It was a trippy experience, kind of like the Twilight Zone or some alternate universe. I mean overall, outside of the health risk and all the badness of COVID, it was pretty enjoyable. There were no lines, I had plenty of leg room and my luggage wasn’t lost – #winning.
While I wasn’t overly worried about my travel personally, I did plan a little before leaving (see prep list below). What I didn’t necessarily think about was how to avoid other travellers who weren’t paying attention to social distancing or respecting space. If you are choosing to travel now or in the future, take care of not only yourself, but think about the others you are around and be cautious and self-aware. I like this tweet from the Governor of New York as a reminder, that when we take precautions, we are respecting not just ourselves but those around us.
So what did I bring with me on my travels?
- Hand sanitiser – I always travel with this even outside COVID, because you just never know. I did bring a little more than usual.
- Antibacterial cleaning wipes – to wipe down the airplane seats, the gate area, seats, etc.
- Gloves – I didn’t actually wear these, but had them in case I felt like I should
- Three masks – that way I could switch out as I felt necessary. I’m a face toucher, so switching out masks felt like a good idea.
- Change of clothes – I always bring this in my carry-on in case my luggage disappears (which has happened more times than I can count – shameful) but I figured it was wise to change clothes in between the long flights, and put exposed ones in a sealed bag.
- My own pillow – a friend suggested this, as pillows aren’t usually wrapped in plastic like the blankets; in the end I didn’t use a pillow but had it just in case.
Empty gate in Albany, Airport, USA
Empty terminal at Chicago O'Hare, USA
I began my trip in the Albany International Airport (ALB), it has three wings with maybe five gates in each, and that’s being generous. It’s a great little airport.
On arrival, I walked right up to the check-in counter, no lines and only two travelers ahead of me. The man who checked me in wore gloves and a mask, which is what I expected throughout my journey from others… not really the case. In New York, it is mandated that you wear a mask outside at all times, so in Albany that was the only airport I saw 90% of the people wearing masks.
Security is usually pretty easy in ALB, but today I was literally the only person in the line. It was fantastic, even beating TSA queues! There were maybe four security guards for just me. I started to feel like royalty.
My first layover was in Chicago, ORD, so a reasonably small plane was waiting to depart. I observed probably 20 people in the waiting area, and maybe about 15 of those were on my flight. Most everyone was sitting reasonably far apart, but I was still amazed at a few people that either did not care about social distancing or were aware of themselves and others to keep the distance. One guy had to charge his phone and sat literally back to back with someone to use the free charging station. That someone appeared visibly uncomfortable with someone so close and leaned forward in their seat. The dude was blissfully unaware.
The airline required all passengers to wear a mask, and if you didn’t have one they would provide it. Nice offering, especially since masks are in high demand these days.
Disembarking at Chicago O'Hare, USA
Empty gate at Chicago O'Hare, USA
We were one of very few planes on landing at O’Hare. I haven’t seen so few planes at an airport in a long time, and definitely never in Chicago. There weren’t really any rules with getting off the plane, so everyone just got up. I just waited until most people got off, so I wasn’t right next to someone. I think a big part of this type of travel is what you can do to keep yourself and others safe. So take your time and be aware of your surroundings.
The airport itself, or at least the section we exited, was something out of a movie, not sure what kind of movie, perhaps a love affair where all others fade away as you focused on your person or maybe a horror film and you’re the only one in the airport hiding from the airport monster, anyway, totally empty and a bit ominous.
I had to walk to another terminal, I maybe passed three people on the way. The terminal where my flight to London was taking off had a few more people congregated both in the gate area and in certain pockets of the hallway. I noticed again people not wearing masks, even less so than in New York. Maybe it wasn’t mandated in Chicago like it was in NY?
I also didn’t notice any signs about COVID, or warnings when I got off the plane. I could have missed them, but don’t think so.
All the shops/restaurants but two were closed. A bookstore and of course McDonald’s. There were a bunch of people outside McDonald’s, so no social distancing happening there… Big Macs always take precedence in unprecedented times.
The gate was pretty sparse, people were mostly spread out. I got in a habit of wiping down my seats with antibacterial wipes, and when I did in the gate area, I got some funny looks – totally worth it.
Boarding the plane – they loaded the back of the plane first again, which is good. We did have rows to line up in, with tape on the floor showing how close to stand. Again, being aware of your surroundings is pretty important. I observed a woman standing at her tape mark, and a guy came up to her to ask a question, with no mask and no thought about social distancing. The woman moved away from him, but something to be aware of. Just do what you need to do to feel comfortable traveling right now – don’t worry about what others think, as you’re probably doing them a favour keeping yourself protected.
Empty flight to London
Next stop – London
We had a brand new plane to fly to London in, my favourite. I am wondering if this is a trend or a coincidence during the pandemic. In theory a new plane “should” be cleaner, as it’s had less wear and tear right? The first plane I took was new, and so was this one. Anyway, new planes are glorious.
I should have paid attention to the type of the plane – 747 maybe? – I don’t know, but it was brand new, just like my other flight and only had about 30 passengers. It was 85% empty. I sat towards the back, but had no one within six rows ahead of me, and no one behind me. All pandemic things aside, it was a pretty nice set up.
The flight attendants were lovely – there were so many catering to the few of us. I chatted with one of them for a while, getting the scoop. She said this was the first flight from Chicago to London since the US airlines were told not to fly. What is that, like two months and no international flights on this particular airline? Madness. I wonder how many of us passengers were scheduled for that flight originally, or had been rebooked over and over like myself.
We arrived at Heathrow in London; there were very few planes again as we taxied in . It’s all a bit repetitive now, same thing, different location.
Once we disembarked, I could count the number of people around. Eerily quiet airport. I’ve never seen Heathrow so calm. My terminal had nothing opened; I don’t recall even a bookshop or convenient store open like in Chicago. I noted again not many people wearing masks, even airport staff. I had to get a ticket reprinted, and the woman had no protective gear on nor was there even a glass shield to protect her. Insert shoulder shrug emoji here.
At the gate, again there were very few people, and a couple signs about social distancing and marks on the floor to guide you on how far a part to be. Signage was better than anything I saw in Albany or Chicago.
COVID signage at London Heathrow Airport
Fáilte go hÉireann!
I had to transfer airlines for my flight to Ireland. The plane was again new and lovely, but there was no planning to help passengers be separated that I could note. They boarded by group as usual. On the plane I did have my own row, but we weren’t spaced out like we were on the other airline. I had someone in front of me, whereas before each row was empty in between passengers. Also, people weren’t required to wear masks, including the flight attendants. I think this airline got some bad press about this, so could be better planned for future flights.
Prior to disembarking, we had to fill out a piece of paper that we agreed to quarantine for two weeks (which I’m currently doing, quarantining, that is), we had to list our quarantine address and contact information. This was not done on arrival in the UK, although I’ve heard it may be starting, so make sure you have a plan for quarantine on arrival. This is a place where you can go or plan to stay without interacting with people, and be sure to have that address and your contact information for the form.
We headed to immigration, in an empty airport yet again. I actually think we were the only inbound flight. While it’s a pity the airport was empty, it made the travel so much easier. Silver linings.
I noticed pretty good signage in the airport, too, on arrival. It was the first airport to see large signs and announcements in bright colors and large fonts for everyone to read. It was basically in your face the whole time. It was the only airport, out of all four, where I felt guidelines were clear and at least visible to passengers. Well done Dublin.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect on arrival, if my temperature would be taken or if I would be questioned longer at immigration. I actually thought for sure there would be some questions from the Gardai after having been in New York for two months from. The Garda just asked where I’ve been, how long I’ve been gone, nodded his head when I said New York, and let me through. I’m not sure what I was expecting overall, but it was easy. I’m not sure what that demonstrates in regards to managing the spread, but after such a long journey, it was a nice end to my travels.
So, that’s it. It was an experience, one which I will make again in the near future. I would imagine air travel will be changing on a weekly, or even daily basis, as restrictions are slowly getting lifted.
My advice – do what you need to do to feel safe and be aware of your surroundings. By wearing a mask and following the guidelines, you’re not only protecting yourself, but everyone you come in contact with on your journey.
Stay safe and well everyone!