The “New Normal”: Travelling long-haul in the time of Coronavirus

Before the Coronavirus Pandemic brought air travel to a screeching halt,  in a normal year, over 300 million passengers flew over 6 billion miles on long-haul flights each year (source: Qantas airlines)

That’s a lot of people and a lot of miles.

5 months on from the initial travel restrictions, air travel remains at a tiny fraction of these numbers. Restrictions are still in place for many countries, and borders remain tightly closed to foreign visitors.  Airlines are struggling to stay afloat, while laying off thousands of staff.

In times gone by, long-haul travel held the promise of an exciting luxury adventure to a new continent. In more recent years, as airlines try to save money wherever possible, it has become more stressful, crowded, and decidedly less luxurious.  Over-filled planes, reduced leg room and the lack of amenities and refreshments, have reduced air travel to simply a means of getting from A to B.

Add into the mix a Global pandemic, and travelling across the world in a crowded, uncomfortable aircraft, trying to avoid other people – all the while wearing a slightly damp face-covering – doesn’t sound too appealing.

When writing about travel, I don’t usually focus on the actual flights, as it can usually be assumed these are a mildly uncomfortable necessity. The destination is the most important thing for me.  

However, given the current situation, I thought it would be good to write about our most recent long-haul trip home from Hawaii to the U.K.

Among all the sensationalist media propaganda, and inaccurate information flooding social media, here is a personal, unbiased viewpoint on what it was actually like to fly in the current environment (spoiler alert: it wasn’t as bad as I thought).

If you’ve read my previous posts, you may know that we ended up spending around 3 months (somewhat serendipitously) stranded in Hawaii earlier in the year. Our pre-arranged travel plans, which would have brought us home by the end of April, quickly unravelled in the face of sudden restrictions and cancellations.

Timing-wise, it was the best place to ride out the lockdown, and “shelter in place” order.  Although we couldn’t travel around the islands as planned, we managed to find a nice home on the Big Island, where we were able to extend our rental period until we could fly home.

We had set off from London on the 1st March, with no indications that the world would soon be completely shutting down for business.  

By the middle of May, Virgin Atlantic had cancelled and re-booked our flight home from Los Angeles for the fourth time. It soon became clear they were not intending to fly anywhere anytime soon.

With time running out on my visa, I managed to contact the Customs and Border Protection in Los Angeles, and received a “satisfactory departure” extension on my ESTA, until early June. 

Having now been away from home for several weeks longer than intended, we had to make a decision about our next steps.  I was nervous about travelling, especially since there were no direct routes now operating from L.A. to London.  Even if another airline was managing to fly, it would be an indirect route, putting us more at risk of exposure, and adding many hours to the trip. 

We chose to take a gamble, and buy new tickets with United Airlines, who seemed to be on track to honour their flight bookings. We then changed our Hawaiian Airlines tickets yet again, to travel from the Big Island back to L.A.

In all of the travel chaos, the only people who were consistently helpful, and provided any actual customer service, were Hawaiian Airlines.  Even though they were working from home, their chat function was useful, and they were able to change tickets with no issues, despite the constantly evolving situation.  It’s good to know that Aloha still exists somewhere!

Leaving Paradise

Once we had given up on Virgin Atlantic ever getting us home, and purchased new flights, the hardest part was going to be ahead of us.

The morning of our first flight dawned sunny, breezy and hot – the default weather setting for Hawaii! As the wind rustled the palm trees, we took in our last views across the empty golf course, and the imposing Mauna Kea volcano. We somberly packed our belongings and locked up the house which had been our place of refuge for over 2 months.  

The area and home had become familiar to us.  We had our own routine, and hadn’t really had to travel much further than the supermarket or the beach (once they finally opened!).

Were we ready to leave our little corner of paradise? The world as we knew it had changed so much in a couple of months.  America was now in the grip of protests and riots; coming on the top of weeks of lockdown, it seemed to be reaching a critical boiling point.

Flying from somewhere with relatively low rates of Coronavirus and travelling through several “hotspots” seemed like a bad idea.  But we didn’t have much of a choice.

Our original flight had been from Oahu to Los Angeles, but those plans had long since changed.  With no direct flights running, our new route took us from Kona to Honolulu (Oahu), then another flight to Los Angeles.

I wasn’t even convinced the first flight from Kona would be on schedule.  I had no faith in anyone actually flying by this point. I was fully prepared (read: secretly hoping) to have to try and extend our vacation rental again!

I had not slept well, which is normal for me, and was feeling stressed.  Luckily my husband is the designated driver, and was as calm – at least on the surface – as usual.  We got the car packed and dropped it back at the rental company with no problem.  

As we drove past, we saw that most of the rental companies remained completely closed.  With car rental prohibited to visitors to the islands, there was no need to be open for business.  The bare minimum service was running to allow customers to return cars and get to the airport. 

We donned our cloth masks, boarded the empty shuttle bus, and prepared for the long journey home..

Hawaii to Los Angeles

On arrival at the tiny airport at Kona, the first indication of the “new normal” were the staff members standing around in masks at the entrance.

We were asked to complete some forms before checking in.  It transpired that these were only actually relevant for either new arrivals, or people intending to stay on the other islands. There were no sections included for marooned people from the U.K on their way to the mainland!

After wasting a few minutes on the non-relevant forms, we passed a long table where men in military gear were waiting to unenthusiastically scan our temperatures.  Being in a constantly tropical climate and wearing a mask over my face, coupled with the fact that my stomach was upset (mostly from the stress!), I was worried mine may be high. However, we passed through this first obstacle with no problem.

In the same way that some people irrationally feel guilty when they see a policeman or walk through a security line, now we can all worry about suddenly coming over dangerously feverish the minute we pass through these temperature checks!

We proceeded to the check in desk, still in our masks, keeping a distance from the check in clerk, while trying to understand the muffled instructions. With all the constant flight changes, we had neglected to select our seats, so had to hope for the best.

The airport itself is very small, and mostly open air, so it was easy to “socially distance” from the few other people.   There was one small shop open for snacks.  While we sat in the mostly deserted waiting area, an inter-island flight arrived, and a trickle of people disembarked.  Most seemed to me to probably be travelling for work, rather than tourists.

The mostly deserted airport at Konaone of our last glimpses of paradise!

I couldn’t imagine that the stories I had read, reporting “thousands” of tourists arriving daily into Hawaii, could be correct.  With accommodation closed to new arrivals, and no car rental available, it didn’t seem likely that swarms of tourists would still be arriving. 

After boarding our Hawaiian flight in a socially-distanced manner, the rest of the journey was smooth and uneventful. It turned out I hadn’t forgotten how to travel on a plane.

The seating had been staggered to allow room between passengers, and everyone had a good amount of space. The inter-island flights are only around 30 mins actually in the air. A tropical juice drink was served as normal, by cabin crew in masks and gloves.

On landing into Honolulu, the first thing I noticed was how many Hawaiian planes were lined up on the tarmac, out of action and grounded indefinitely.

Flying into Honolulu was a bittersweet experience, as it should have been a part of our original trip. However, instead of spending time in Waikiki, we were to spend a couple of hours in the deserted airport, before leaving again!

The pictures speak for themselves. Honolulu International airport, once a thriving hub of tourists and locals arriving and departing, was a ghost town.

There had been several times when our stay in Hawaii had seemed like we had inadvertently stepped onto the set of an apocalyptic movie. This was one of them.

Leaving Hawaii – Honolulu to Los Angeles

The only real difference in boarding procedure during our trip was that passengers were keeping more distanced, and the airlines were boarding from the back rows to the front, to limit the number of people you pass en route to your seat.  Hand-sanitising wipes are now handed out to allow you to clean your seat, tray and screen.  

If the planes are being cleaned as thoroughly as we are led to believe, the little hand wipe probably doesn’t serve as much more than a psychological incentive to make you feel better about the situation!

Despite hardly seeing any other people in the airport, the flight to Los Angeles was relatively full.  I say relatively, because the middle seats had been mostly left empty, so it was a lot less crowded than it would normally be.  

As we left Oahu behind, with Diamond Head and Waikiki disappearing behind us, I felt very disappointed that we hadn’t been able to spend any time there on our trip. But with our plans firmly on hold for another time, the most important thing now was to get home safely.

Leaving Hawaii felt as though we were leaving a safe place and heading towards potential danger. Los Angeles had long since declared a state of emergency, and the constant reports about the rise of cases around the U.S. were worrying to say the least. We had to press on though, so I settled down uncomfortably in my mask and tried to rest.

During the flight, fellow passengers seemed to be adhering to the mask-wearing rules on the whole, and trying to maintain distance where possible.  

Of course, when travelling during a pandemic, one of the most concerning areas is the plane toilet, which is already so tiny, and a breeding ground for germs. Unfortunately, on a mid-long haul flight, there is no other option, so we just kept our masks on and made good use of our hand gel and wipes.

Arrival and overnight in Los Angeles

On arrival into LAX, there were some signs of life, but still weirdly quiet.  After 3 months in the tropics, the first thing I noticed was how cold it felt!  We called the Marriott hotel to check that the shuttle was running, and waited as normal for our transfer to the hotel, donning our face masks.

The Airport Marriott, which must normally be one of the busiest in the world, was, again, a ghost town.

Floor stickers indicated where people should stand while waiting to check in, but with absolutely no-one there, these were obsolete. With no food outlets open, we were informed our only dining options were some sad looking pre-prepared turkey sandwiches from the fridge, with a few crisps.

Having survived on crisps and snacks since leaving Hawaii, this was not the news I was hoping for, but needs must.

We enquired about the number of guests staying in the hotel, and were told there were “a few”.

The room was the usual Marriott room, maybe (hopefully) more sanitised than normal. By this point I was too travel-weary to care about it too much. I still went through my newly adopted practice of wiping handles, TV remote, flush handles, etc with anti-bacterial wipes.

We watched some TV, I ate half a turkey sandwich, and we were glad to settle down for a few short hours in a Marriott bed before the longest part of our journey.

After a few short hours, and with jet lag kicking in, we checked out and looked for some form of breakfast.  The executive lounges were, of course closed.  We had a quick croissant and coffee from Starbucks, which was the only available option, and got back on the airport shuttle..

LAX airport was predictably, and ridiculously, empty.  We sailed though security, where there were more staff than passengers.

Looking back down to the security area from the upper level, you would think that the airport was either completely closed, or that some calamity had made everyone in the airport disappear at the same moment.

Not knowing what new check-in procedures might be in place, we had arrived at the airport with time to spare, so we now had quite a wait until our flight. There were again only a couple of shops open, so we stocked up at Hudson News ready for the next leg of our journey..

The last two flights..homeward bound

What should have been a straightforward flight to London had now been split into two flights, via Chicago.

The Chicago flight was again, surprisingly full.  Although I am always surprised by how full flights are, now matter how many hundreds I have experienced!  Without fail, my husband has to listen to my exclamations on almost every flight we board, “But HOW could THIS many people just all happen to be flying to New York, TODAY, in the middle of the day??”.  I still don’t get it.  

We were travelling in Economy Plus, so had slightly more leg room, and middle seats had again been left empty where possible.

Annoyingly, the only people who appeared to NOT be adhering to the mask-wearing rules, were the couple sitting behind us.  They spent most of the flight happily chatting to other passengers.  The flight attendants didn’t seem to notice or try to enforce any rules.

The flight was comfortable enough; United were still providing pillows and blankets on their long-haul flights (I don’t know if this has since changed), and there were full movie/entertainment options.

Meals were still served (kind of negating the mask rule, as you have to remove it to eat!), but no alcohol.  This seems to serve 3 purposes; It saves the airline money, it limits cabin crew contact with passengers (although they were still serving other cold drinks), and I assume it reduces the number of times people need to use the restrooms/toilets!

In the past, I haven’t rated United Airlines very highly, and, in fact, we stopped flying with them, due to previous bad experiences.  However, surprisingly, the two flights home to the U.K. were probably the best I have experienced with them.  This could also be partly due to my gratitude towards any airline still flying!

Arriving in Chicago, it seemed a little more “normal” in terms of the number of people, though still a fraction of the usual amount. O’Hare International is normally the 6th busiest airport in the world. 

Our layover was shorter than expected, and by the time we reached our gate for the last flight, there wasn’t much time before boarding.  The airlines are currently allowing even more time for boarding because of the new procedures.

My husband went to get some McDonalds for us.  Weeks of not being able to go to restaurants or get take-out food, together with jet lag, suddenly made this seem like a delicious prospect.

before we left Hawaii, I was worried about any of the normal activities we would have to undertake when travelling – using restrooms, shopping, eating food prepared by other people.  I think there are many people feeling this kind of anxiety about things we used to take for granted.  But once we were “in motion”, I had the mindset that the only thing we could do was to be as hygienic as possible, and look after our own safety.  

If we were to get ill in any way, then flying 8,000 across the world would probably be the thing that would do it!

We had to eat, and we had to use facilities, and we had to just stay as safe as possible and try and rest where we could. 

We boarded our final flight, exhausted, and with mixed feelings about arriving back in the U.K. The depressing daily updates in my news feed suggested a country in despair, cracking under the pressure of the outbreak, and with a Prime Minister mostly MIA.

I was also worried about the travel and tiredness affecting our ability to fight off illness. Before we left the U.S., I had booked a car pick up from Heathrow, so that all we had to do would be grab our bags and go. Getting on public transport after this journey didn’t seem like a fun prospect.

The flight from Chicago to London was probably the least busy of all the flights. Understandably, as this was the first International leg of our trip, and there didn’t seem to be much reason for people to be travelling to London in the midst of a pandemic. I assume most of the other passengers must have been people returning home to Europe. Like us, many may have had to shelter in place away from home.

Within our cabin, passengers were able to spread out, and most individuals or families had a row to themselves. We had specifically booked the aisle and window seats on each of the United flights, thinking this would help to ensure our personal space. This probably hadn’t been necessary, as the middle seats seemed to have all been kept empty.

The final flight went without a hitch, and, again, the United cabin crew and general comfort seemed better than previous experiences.

Arrival into London Heathrow 

Although I was prepared for Heathrow to be quiet, it seemed as though our flight was the only one arriving at the time. It was a very surreal experience to see the airport so empty. On a normal day, around 200,000 people arrive and depart Heathrow.

When we were in the U.S., I had seen many statements on social media, and in the news, that 100,000s of people were still arriving into the U.K. during the pandemic. There were demands to close Heathrow completely, and shut the borders. Even to returning residents!

Walking through the deserted airport, with only the few other people from our flight, it didn’t seem that these figures could be remotely accurate. Even taking into account returning residents, you couldn’t make up such large numbers. Most of the flights arriving into Heathrow at this point were carrying cargo or medical supplies. Virgin Atlantic and other airlines had re-purposed their planes for this purpose.

I’m sure much of the online “scaremongering” is created by people who haven’t travelled since the coronavirus lockdown, and inflate inaccurate figures simply to make a point from their sofa.

With a few days to go before the U.K. Government planned to introduce a mandatory quarantine, we weren’t officially required to isolate for 2 weeks on arrival. Even so, the lack of any form of tracking or guidance was worrying.

We scanned straight through the electronic gates to baggage claim (where for the first time in the history of Heathrow, our bags were waiting for us), and then through to the arrivals area in double time.

Despite the one sign mentioning the “temperature check” at the border, we were not approached by anyone wanting to check anything. I’m not sure if this is now being actioned since we arrived back in June.

Our masked driver from Addison Lee was waiting for us, and we had a short journey home on eerily quiet Friday morning roads.

We had been away from home for a total of 3 months. Hidden away on a deserted island. The world, and our local area, had changed profoundly during that time.

Our first job was to run all the taps (faucets) and showers in the house, do a quick run for food supplies, and then sleep for a few days! Navigating our way through the endlessly changing rules and regulations of daily life in England would have to wait.

In the end, the journey home wasn’t as bad as I had feared. It was long; adding two more flights into the equation was exhausting. The jet lag when returning from Hawaii (12 time zones), is always debilitating. The added stress of the pandemic, and being away so long probably added to the recovery time!

The financial cost is still something we are trying to recoup. Though with Virgin Atlantic currently refusing to honour customer refunds, and their future looking bleak, I’m not holding out a lot of hope.

Have I been put off travelling? No. Far from it. If and when borders start to re-open, and restrictions ease, I will be getting on a plane and continuing my adventures.

In the meantime, we have to wait and see what happens, monitor the situation, and hope that the travel industry hasn’t been completely destroyed.

We have to count on some airlines surviving, and coming out the other side, ready to whisk us off to new adventures, near and far.

How that future travel will look like is is anyone’s guess.

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