For travel bloggers and travel addicts alike, the day the UK government announced its list of quarantine exempt countries was like a starting gun. Vague travel plans were immediately fixed and flights hurriedly booked. Just five days later, Mr Fluskey and I donned our face masks and backpacks ready for an Italian escape. Of course, as with pretty much everything else at the moment, flying was likely to be very different. We readied ourselves the new normal in air travel.
British Airways BA548 – 8th July
LHR to FCO
08:20 – 12:00
Getting to Heathrow
It was with a little trepidation, we stepped from the London Underground station at Heathrow. All of British Airways’ flights are currently operating from terminal five so at least working out our departure terminal was easy enough.
Face masks are mandatory on public transport in the UK so we already had them in place. For those arriving by car, they were expected to mask up at the entrance to the terminal. With the new normal in air travel, masks are to be worn within the airport and on the plane. Our flight to Rome was two hours and forty minutes and so we were wearing our masks for around six hours (seven if you count the tube journey).
Checking In at Terminal Five
All self-service check-in machines had been switched off and the terminal was operating manually. Italy has some specific rules about travel into the country and so all Italian flights were being checked in at section F. Helpful staff gave our health declaration forms which we were advised would be collected in at the departure gate. We then walked slowly past the temperature point.
Taking Our Temperature
Now, I have bad form when it comes to this. When I am overtired (which I often am with a 04:30 alarm) I get a really hot forehead….really hot! I flashed back to our very first day of the “Five Month Adventure” when the swine flu epidemic was in full swing. After an entirely sleepless flight to Delhi, my forehead was scorching and as the uniformed guards at the border worked their way down the queue of waiting tourists, Mr Fluskey and I could be seen frantically flapping and blowing at my head to try and cool it down. Not subtle, or probably that effective.
Today my forehead emissions obviously piqued the machine operator’s interest as he asked us to stop and took another reading with a handheld device as well. Happily, it wasn’t bad enough for any further investigation and we were on our way.
The check-in counters all had Perspex screens allowing the ground staff to work without masks. I think that this is so important both for verbal communication and the most basic of customer service skills, smiling.
All large hand luggage must be checked in for Italy as the overhead lockers are not allowed to be used. Luckily, we knew this ahead of time and so we could pack a large suntan cream. A bit cheeky maybe but we weren’t sure if the shops would be open post-security so our normal plan of buying it there seemed a little risky.
Security wasn’t too busy which theoretically made social distancing easy enough. Some space had been blocked off to create space on the side where you load your tray onto the conveyor belt.
However, once through the arch, everyone has to wait for their bags to reappear on the same belt, and inevitably people’s bags never come out together. People were hovering over the trays, whilst others tried to dart in and grab their belongings. Others walked around dazedly, lace-up shoes in hand, looking for a chair without a “Do Not Use This Chair” sign on it. It seems there is more that could be done to improve the situation here.
Beyond Security at Heathrow Terminal Five
As suspected, many shops were shut but I was surprised at how many were operating. Most had one way systems in place which we are getting very used to now. Mr Fluskey picked up a meal deal from Boots and they had an odd self scan, manned check out which we didn’t love.
Food and Drink
Elsewhere around terminal five, most of the cafes were shut with the exception of Pret A Manger and the Fortnum and Mason bar. Besides these, you could grab meal deals at Boots and WHSmiths. World Duty Free has lots of offers on biscuits and other confectionary. One wonders if the sell-by dates are fast approaching?
Apparel and Accessories
Fashion wise, Harrods was open for business along with Ted Baker, Paul Smith and a few of the seriously high end designer stores. There wasn’t much in the casual “pick up a fun something-or-other for the holiday” category. Cath Kidston, Accessorize etc all remained shut.
Finally, Dixon’s Travel has their small store open but this doesn’t have all of their stock.
The Departure Lounge
The departure lounge didn’t seem much emptier than a normal weekday in term time, but I think that is due to the lack of shopping/dining opportunities. Most people had just found seats in the main area while a few of us with zero patience wandered around.
Getting to the Gate
We took the transit to the further away B gates and most people were very good about social distancing on the transit train. One particular chap wasn’t and he received a very British tut from myself.
People ran up the escalators that we were standing on which breaks the distancing rules but we supposed that we would have done the same if we were late for our flight.
After preboarding of special assistance passengers and those with very small children, general boarding commenced. It was done strictly in seat row order, starting at the back of the plane and working forwards. Priority boarding has been suspended to ensure people have as clear a path as possible when they board the aircraft. One gentleman clearly hadn’t gotten the memo and looks scandalised when he was sent away to wait for his fancy front seat.
We were near the back in row 29, and on the second group called, we jumped up. We handed in our completed health forms, gave the gate agent a quick glimpse under our face masks and strolled down the airbridge to the waiting plane. The aisle was so clear that it may have been the easiest embarkation process I have ever been part of. This must be the way forward!
There were a few pre-takeoff announcements, one which specifically mentioned coronavirus and the measures in place to ensure our safety. I liked that it wasn’t overkill. They also reminded passengers not to place anything in the overhead lockers. Apparently fines could be issued and/or our belongings confiscated. Predictably, someone decided it didn’t apply to him. *sigh* The crew were very observant though and stopped him within seconds!
We did a quick re-wipe of our seats. Using the antibacterial wipes we brought with us, we did the seatbacks, tray tables, armrests, window shade and seatbelt buckles.
About ten minutes into the flight, the crew came around the personal protective equipment (PPE) packs. Each one contained an antibacterial wipe and a small sachet of hand sanitiser. We had brought our own wipes and antibacterial hand spray but it was nice to have them provided. The plastic bag the pack came in was to dispose of it safely when the crew came to collect rubbish. Not great for the environment but you have to pick your battles I guess.
I had mentally adjusted to the new world of British Airways short haul, where food is purchased and free drinks a dream. However, we were both pleasantly surprised when the crew wheeled a trolley of snacks down the central aisle. No mere mini pretzels, we were given a full packet of crisps, a packet of cookies and a bottle of water, all in individual bags. Turns out, this flying in the new normal thing isn’t all bad!
On the flip side, as the sound of people crunching their crisps permeated my AirPods, it occurred to me that every single one of these people has moved their masks to eat. Maybe something that requires one bite and a lot of chewing would be a better choice than crisps? A Maoam Stripe perhaps? Or beef jerky?
After the first flurry of activity, things calmed down and people dropped off to sleep after their early starts. It was all very much like a normal flight.
As with the beginning of the flight, this was done by row. We were all urged to wait in our seats until the row in front had moved away. It worked nicely and it was nice to relax in our seats rather than deal with the awkward cluster of people standing and waiting nonsense that usually occurs.
On our flight back with EasyJet, announcements were only made in English so this instruction was completely missed by a third of the flight. They jumped up as soon as the plane stopped at the Gatwick gate and pushed their way off enthusiastically. This was despite the crew’s wonderfully passive aggressive announcements.
“PLEASE sit down and wait for those in front you to leave the aircraft rather breathing all over each other, it is MUCH SAFER“.
We were also allowed to check in our hand luggage for free but then people had hand luggage in the overhead lockers so we don’t know what happened to that “law”.
It’s interesting that we were served a snack in economy cabin despite that not being part of their normal service. It is probably not worth paying for a seat in Club Europe during this new normal in air travel as you won’t get much more than you do in economy now. You also don’t get priority boarding.
Wearing a mask for hours on end can get a little gross, and it was a real relief to take it off in our Italian hire car. Masks should be changed every 3 to 4 hours so pack a few in your hand luggage, especially if you are travelling long haul.
If I am honest, I didn’t mind this new way of flying. It wasn’t as much fun at the airport, having to check in at the desk meant an extra queue and there weren’t so many fun ways to waste the time in the departure lounge. However, the flight was fine. I think that flying long haul with this new normal of air travel would show up more differences and may be less pleasant. Most of the time I felt totally safe, and for those points at which I didn’t (security for example) I just moved away and took my time. If you want to travel, don’t let the thought of flying put you off.