Un-furloughing my Passport....
My passport, (like that of many across the world this year) alongside my jeans (because let's face it, who's actually wearing jeans when leggings are THE clothing choice of lockdown), has spent a fair chunk of time gathering dust in the bottom of my drawer.
So when the time came that I could FINALLY board an aircraft and speed along the runway to sunnier climates, I could not wait! Even the mundane parts of travelling, such as placing my 10 100ml liquid bottles into a plastic bag, suddenly seemed exciting.
At the time of publishing this in January 2021, there are fairly strict restrictions in place regarding air travel out of the UK once more, due to an increased rate of COVID-19 infections, and travel bans around the world are very much in force. Please note that in writing this, I am in no means advocating breaching the current restrictions, more that I aim to provide inspiration, hope, and assurance for when the time comes that the world is ready, and most importantly YOU are ready to travel again.
I have always wanted to honestly portray my experience of flying through a pandemic; whilst being sensitive and mindful to the variety of different circumstances out there. Travelling is something that I know has been and will continue to be a daunting task to many given the isolation and restrictions we have faced and continue to face globally for the past year. Those who know me know I'm about as honest as they come, so please know that what I write, I write purely to help inform and not to preach. Hopefully though, my experience will help to demonstrate that air travel is safe (don't worry I'll be chucking in some COVID-19 related aviation facts to back up my on-board experience!) and help to persuade the world to #buyairlineticketslikeyouboughttoiletpaper once more. I'll also be writing about what actually travelling around a country during a pandemic is like (let's face it, deciphering the restrictions in the UK has at times been headache worthy never mind another country!). Despite this, I'm happy to report that I personally found very little difficulty along this way in adhering to restrictions, and I even ticked off my 'must do' things to hit in the beautiful corner of the world that is Sicily. I'll post these in a subsequent blog to remind the world of the true adventures out there to be had!
So firstly, where did the hashtag #buyairlineticketslikeyouboughttoiletpaper come from and why does it matter? Over the summer of 2020, my colleague more commonly known by the Instagram handle @captainchris created the hashtag and corresponding imagery inspired by the Instagram account 'Dude With Sign', to essentially persuade the world to purchase airline tickets and get the world moving once more, through the magical art of humour. Remember how in the early weeks of March, you could not buy a pack of loo roll anywhere? And buying hand sanitiser involved delving deep into the black market? Well that's what everyone in the aviation industry is praying for in regards to ticket sales to ensure the recovery of the industry, and allow the thousands that have lost their jobs to resume their roles. We know how incredible this world is, and not being able to connect people around the world with their dreams and loved ones is really painful for us. The message soon went viral, resonating with aviators and passionate explorers around the world, and although most certainly a little bit of fun (well I assume having toilet rolls thrown at you whilst wearing uniform classes as a decent way to pass lockdown!), the message is definitely poignant.
Buying a ticket to allow you the freedom to move might seem ridiculous, when the whole world is locked down or restricted, but the airlines were and are continuing to work hard to revolutionise the safety of flying and ensure that those who NEED to fly, can do so with confidence, so that when the time comes that those who WANT to fly can, passengers are as safe as can be.
For some scientific backing to this from the industry we can turn to our regulators. IATA (International Air Transport Association) has confirmed since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, despite 1.2 billion passengers flying, there has been just 44 confirmed cases of in-flight transmission (IATA, 2020). This is due to a range of factors such as the barrier formed by seat-backs and wearing of masks, as well as the HEPA filters installed onboard which are 99.9% effective at removing any virus/bacteria/fungi from the air, ensuring that the air in a cabin is completely exchanged every 2-3 minutes. Moreover thanks to passenger testing and pre-flight screening it is highly unlikely that you would sit next to an infected passenger. All of the above plus intense cleaning and disinfection is ensuring that air travel is as safe as possibly can be. From the airlines that I have flown with during the pandemic, I can assure you that they are taking their responsibility seriously and you will be in incredibly safe hands.
'But I'm not guaranteed to go on this trip and what happens to my money if I can't?'. 'Will I have to quarantine on arrival or on return to the UK?' and 'What happens if the country I get to suddenly gets removed from the travel corridor list whilst overseas?'. I hear you. Trust me, I do. However there are ways around this. Airlines are offering innovative new insurances and policies, for example many are now offering free COVID-19 insurances, that will cover the costs of repatriation, and any incurred costs if you were to contract the virus overseas which should aid peace of mind. As for quarantines, my dearest hope is that within the next 6 months following the roll-out of the vaccine we will see fewer restrictions, or immediate entry allowed to a country following increased testing protocols/ on providing proof of the vaccine. All of this will aid the recovery of air travel. Another innovation comes from Virgin Atlantic, who have introduced its' 'Escape Pass'- a revolutionary idea which guarantees the purchaser a holiday to a destination on the network that does not require quarantine either side of the trip. The purchaser will be informed of the destination two weeks beforehand (a nice little surprise!), and will head off for a worry-free Caribbean getaway.
I class myself incredibly lucky that I flew as cabin crew through the pandemic, and therefore wasn't too nervous to fly on holiday with my family, as I've been well-informed and careful throughout. We chose wisely with our destination ensuring that it was on the list of countries with a UK 'travel corridor' as my family all were required to return to work after this holiday (for those who may be reading this living out of the UK this is a list of countries that the UK and relevant authorities in the respective country have decided that due to low levels of transmission there is no need to quarantine on arrival into the destination or upon return), and filled in all the necessary forms for travel. These were sent to us prior to departure by our airline, and were relatively straightforward and non time-consuming to complete. I travelled to Catania, Sicily with Easyjet from Manchester airport on the 10th September which was prior to lockdown 2.0.
At Manchester airport everyone was wearing masks, plenty of staff were on hand to remind those travelling to remain socially distanced from each other, and an abundance of signage was displayed to inform travellers about the steps that had been put in place to ensure the safety of travellers. I was truly pleasantly surprised at the buzz of the airport. Apart from the above, nothing had really changed. The air was still full of excitement of the possibilities of what an adventure away could bring, and it's that exact buzz that I'd missed so much. I also know that as we are in the midst of lockdown 2.0, this is a feeling and sight that is once more missing particularly within regional airports that had such little chance to recover after the first lockdown.
The staff onboard our flight were absolutely nothing short of exceptional. They were all helpful, friendly, and you could see the gratitude they had to be flying a plane full of happy passengers on the way to their destination. The flight was mostly full, which I know surprised some travellers, however as rows were mostly filled with 'bubbles' it made very little difference to the feeling of safety onboard.
The service was for the most part normal, but with contactless payment encouraged, and the menu having been downloaded on the app prior to take-off to reduce literature onboard and reduce further the risk of transmission. Duty free was also available to be viewed by an iPad on request and delivered to your seat. Queuing in the aisles wasn't permitted during the flight (it was asked that you waited until a toilet was available before leaving your seat) and when not eating or drinking you were required to wear a face mask. None of the above I personally found made the experience less enjoyable, in fact it was just so refreshing to see that travelling was still very much doable during a pandemic.... and I know I'd truly missed it.
Disembarking into Sicily you could immediately see that passenger safety was regarded as just as important, if not handled even more efficiently than here in the UK. Passengers walked under temperature sensors as they came into passport control, which an official was monitoring from a far away corner. Not invasive in the slightest, but clearly important to identify COVID-19 positive passengers as it tests for one of the key symptoms. Again walking through the terminals, masks were compulsory, and very similarly to at Manchester airport, signs were present everywhere to remind people to remain distanced and sanitise your hands regularly.
Countries particularly in the Southern Mediterranean regions of Europe have been hard hit by this pandemic, in that the complete lack of tourism has really starved these countries of vital income. More than ever, the gratitude that you'd chosen to spend your time and money in this gorgeous country of Sicily was quite apparent to me, and although restaurants were fairly quiet at points throughout our stay, I have full faith that the passionate spirit of the Sicilians will drive them to sunnier days again.
In regards to COVID-19 safety abroad it was largely similar to in the UK. Masks were encouraged in shops, and when moving around restaurants. Social distancing signs were present in most locations including on the beach. Anti-bacterial hand gel stations were located in most shops, and public spaces. I can happily say that I felt completely safe. However the best thing was that there was no debate anywhere about what restrictions were, and opinions on these restrictions, it wasn't even highlighted on local radio stations every 5 minutes. For 10 days I heard relatively little about this pandemic (which after a year of what I'm now calling COVID fatigue) was a blessing. The Sicilians were just happy to oblige and encourage restrictions as and when needed, and they seemed to just be going about life as normal with their passionate spirit.... except now with a mask!
At the time of writing Italy is no longer on the travel corridor list, and as already mentioned there are an increasing amount of countries that are denying entry to UK citizens for the purpose of tourism. It may be that when travel does start to resume again, there are new pre-requisites for entering a country, for example compulsory PCR testing, or quarantining for a set amount of time at destination or upon return. My best advice would be to always check the government website both of your home country, and destination to ensure that you fully understand the restrictions in place, and consult with the airlines/airports about what testing protocols are offered. Choose destinations that are conducive to your lifestyle, for example testing pre-departure is not free of cost, so you may choose to holiday in a destination without that requirement. Always travel where you feel suits your needs, and is safe for you and your family!
Travelling right now is not for everyone, and I totally understand and appreciate that. Just as I said at the beginning of this pandemic 'everyone is in the same storm, but not in the same boat' or something to that effect, and I think it sums up 2020 perfectly. There are definitely some people who are happy to stay home right now, and there are some people who are desperate to travel, whether that be for tourism, work, or to see family and friends, and I can only empathise and say I understand how suffocating this year has been... as well as devastating for those of us who work and write for the travel industry.
Whatever you choose, know that when the time comes that you are ready to fly, you will be well looked after, and I hope that 2021 and looking beyond that into the future, sees us reconnecting the world once more.