Flying During COVID-19 – Unmasking the Experience

by Madam ZoZo

When it rains, it pours and for us that meant relocating overseas during a global pandemic. Though it was certainly not our preference to fly during COVID-19, let alone take an international long haul, that’s what we did. An overseas opportunity presented itself after months between jobs and we grasped it with both hands. Here’s how we navigated the task of flying during Coronavius and what you can expect from air travel in the time of COVID-19.

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Pre-departure preparations

Destination infection rates and health requirements

Before committing to travel, we wanted to understand infection rates at our destination and health requirements/restrictions in place. TripIt App users will find COVID-19 data has now been added to their Neighbourhood Safety Scores, which can be used as an additional reference to official government health department information.

Another consideration was quarantine – we previously spent 2-weeks in mandatory self-isolation after returning from the UK to Australia early in the pandemic and were prepared to do this again as per CDC guidelines for international arrivals into the US (not from one of the banned countries).

Finding flights

Once we had the necessary visas and other red tape in hand, we had to look at flight availability. Could we actually get from Australia to the USA? Were there even flights? At a time when many airlines are going bust and cancelling scheduled flights, we didn’t want to find ourselves stranded anywhere in between our old and new home or making unnecessary layovers. We found there was one transpacific flight that was running reliably every day. For the domestic legs in both Australia and the US, we had a few more options but still a greatly reduced flight schedule.

Airline requirements

All flights, domestic and international require passengers and crew to wear masks. Though in this isn’t mandated by law, you may get blacklisted by the airline itself if you refuse to comply. Social distancing is employed where possible.

If you’re signed up to any airline mailing lists you’ve likely been bombarded with emails about what they are doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and current requirements. If not, you’ll almost certainly find this information on their website.

Travel exemption to leave Australia

Due to Australia’s relatively good control of COVID-19, there are considerable restrictions on people leaving the country at the moment. Generally, you need to be leaving on a longterm/permanent basis because they don’t want you returning infected. Everyone requires an official exemption to leave the country – you can see the exemption criteria here. We received our exemption based on having lived outside Australia for the last 7years and having an approved work visa for the US.

Air travel during COVID-19

At the airport and inflight

Australian domestic leg

We allowed plenty of time for check-in and security at the airport. We weren’t sure whether the travel restrictions and social distancing would lengthen or shorten the amount of time it would take to go through pre-flight proceedings. As it turned out, the airport was mostly empty and it took us no time at all. We used the Qantas’ automated check-in and bag check, using hand sanitizer before using the touch screens as instructed.

After moving through security we found that most of the retail and food outlets in the airport were closed, as well as all airline lounges. There was only one place we could buy lunch before our flight, so it is a good idea to eat beforehand or pack a security-friendly lunch (ie no liquids/gels/powders – the TSA made me throw out my hummus once, but that’s another story).

There were plenty of police and military personnel at the airport helping to enforce restrictions. They were mostly processing arrivals from other Australian states, as Queensland’s borders were still closed at this point.

In all four airports we visited, there were regular signs reminding passengers to social distance, wash their hands and wear a mask where required. There were endless bottles of hand sanitizer available at touch points such as check-in desks and security.

The boarding process was also generally the same, with masks and sanitizing wipes issued before boarding. Passengers were boarded rom back to front of the plane, a few rows at a time, to prevent unnecessary interaction.

The flight was almost full so all the social distancing in the airport terminal was thrown out the window once on board. There were very few spare seats available due to the limited number of flights, but the staff did their best to space travellers that weren’t together.

Drinks and meal service were kept to an absolute minimum – a bottle of water and some pre-packaged crackers (it’s only a 1.5hr flight).

Transpacific flight: Australia – USA

The next morning we turned up at Sydney Airport’s international terminal nice and early for the same reasons as our domestic leg. After having our travel exemption accepted and processed by an official, we were allowed to check-in. Queues were minimal to non-existant and we breezed through security. Most people are respectful of social distancing. Due to low infection rates in Australia, no masks are required in the airport, only on the plane itself.

As we boarded, again we were issued with a mask and sanitising wipe, and asked to scan our own boarding pass. Our international flight was largely empty and there was no trouble with social distancing on board. As airlines are undergoing increased cleaning at the moment, we didn’t feel the need to do an additional wipe down of seats, screens etc. There were no menus, toiletry kits etc, and pillows/blankets were only available on request.

Again, food and drink service was reduced and meals were provided in disposable packaging.

After my fair share of colds and flus acquired in transit over the years, I have a set of health practices I keep to on a plane – you can see these in How to Survive a Long Haul Flight. The only addition I made to this routine was to wear a mask.

Layover in San Francisco

During our layover in San Francisco we were required to wear masks in the airport. Like airports in Australia, most food and retail outlets were closed. There were just a couple open, which made them busy at times as new flights came in.

US domestic leg

Similar to the Australian domestic leg, our US domestic flight was full. As per United Airlines policy, we were offered the opportunity to cancel or re-book because of the near-capacity flight. Needless to say at this point, we just wanted to get to our new home, so we declined and took the chance.

Having eaten during our layover and topping up our water bottles, we declined the snack service on this flight. Though this would have been limited to a snack bag due to the 2hr time frame.

Flight attendants gave instructions to disembark row by row and for those with gate-checked bags to remain in their seats until the bags were ready. This didn’t happen at all.

Flying in the time of COVID-19

Overall, this was one of the most pleasant flying experiences I’ve ever had. No queues, generally respectful passengers and even a friendly US customs officer! Planes and airports were clean and orderly. We didn’t feel unsafe or notice anyone with obvious symptoms around us. Generally, the situation was much more in hand than when we made our dash back from the UK to Australia in March, as borders were closing and cases skyrocketed.

Despite the positive experience, I don’t intend to fly again for at least the remainder of this year. I can’t support unnecessary air travel at this time, especially with the US and other countries still recording such high case numbers. However, I may be up for some road-tripping and exploring locally around our new city and state – stay tuned!

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

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