Who does not enjoy flying, albeit in an aircraft? Barring those who suffer from aviophobia, all get thrilled by a flying opportunity. That thrill is the harbinger of the actual joy that one will experience as one passes through various stages of a flying-journey, starting with preparations for trip, entering the cool confines of an airport, queuing for check in, being a part of the hustle and bustle at airport, popping in at duty free shops and actual flying that you enjoy – watching without fear but awe the objects on the ground going smaller and smaller as you climb up, finally, their disappearance as aircraft reaches its usual trajectory-altitude of around 40000 feet. And the cabin thrills like enjoying a good meal while watching your favorite movie on the front-screen. Wow, great going with many cheerful faces around you! Can you imagine flying without these fanfares? Yes, that is the way now! COVID-19 has changed the way the world does things, so did it change the way one flies!
When I got confirmation to fly in the next day’s chartered flight, I felt very happy that I was going home. But that feeling faded out soon as I realized that the day to reach home was another 16 days away though I would be flying the very next day. Furthermore, when I visualized the journey, I realized that the journey with just three and half hours flying time was going to be tedious, devoid of any fun of travel. My travel agent told me to report 5 hours before the flight departure, which I did. With a surgical mask, an N-95 mask and a shield fitted on the face, along with gloves on hands, I reached the airport at 11 a.m. for the flight leaving at 4:20 p.m. Everyone religiously followed social distancing while waiting for the antibody test for the virus, the result of which came within a couple of minutes. COVID-19 negative! Heartening news! Well, I heard a murmur from inside: you are COVID-19 only till the time the blood was taken for the testing and that you have a long way to go before you complete the trip!
Airports throws a cool blanket around as one enters, but that was not so when I entered, for the airport was operating under-capacity. There were no long queues at the checking counters, with many of them remaining closed. The queues had social-distancing markings, and everyone followed them. A couple of kilograms of excessive weight in the check in baggage did not elicit any query or extra cost. The immigration procedure, with an addition of thermal scanning, was as usual, barring the usual busy queues. The boarding areas and its surrounding ambiance were always busy with duty free shops, coffee shops, lots of peoples, lights, sounds of frequent announcements about departing flights, etc. But all those hustle and bustle was absent. What I saw: one passenger here or another there sitting and enjoying social-distancing, many shops remained closed, and those which were open had scant business as I could see during my 4-hour stay at the boarding area. Mask-worn people shunned coffee shops although there were a few who took the risk and kept their masks away to sip coffee. I frequented many airports umpteen times but never saw such deserted look, nor did I ever imagine it. Times have changed beyond our imagination!
The passengers entered the flight observing the social distancing norms. All those norms, however, turned faux pas as the flight was full with almost all the seats occupied. After boarding, the flight was delayed for one and half hours due to some technical problem. Food was served during the flight, but many eschewed. However, it was bizarre to watch many others, some even wearing P.P.E., removing the mask and enjoying the meals. A few of them continued to remain unmasked after the meals, forcing the cabin crew to request to them to wear the masks. The airline has an excellent in-cabin visual entertainment system called ICE, which offers an array of movies from across the languages. But as per the COVID-19 protocol, ICE was too hot to be on in order to prevent contamination from the touch-screens. There were hardly anyone using washroom. People somehow want to complete the journey and get out of the aircraft – I felt so! With many mask-and-shield-ornate grim faces around, what else feeling can one get? There was no pulling up of window-shields to get a view of the sky! In between, display-screens were reminding passengers to drink enough water to avoid dehydration, but nobody seemed to be bothered about such reminders.
After landing at the Cochin International airport, it took an hour to get out of the aircraft, thanks to the deboarding of an aircraft that landed just before. Only 35 passengers were allowed to deboard at a time to maintain social distancing. Reception with sanitizer, thermal scanning, instructions to the arriving passengers by an airport staff through microphone were novel. As I arrived from the U.A.E., where the virus test was done prior to the boarding, no further test was carried at the Kochi airport. Other procedures at the airport included handing over of one of the two filled-forms – details about the test done, address in India, stay address, etc. – at the immigration counter, collecting the baggage as usual, giving the second filled-form to a counter and collecting exit-slip from there, showing the exit-slip at the exit gate to the police man – you are out of the airport. It all took around an hour. You can book taxi from the airport. The taxi that I hired had the passenger area separated from the driver’s place by transparent fiber-boards – COVID-19 protocol for airport taxi. It was amusing to see the big duty free shop at the airport turned to a kiosk.
It took fifteen and half hours for me to reach the room in Kochi from my room in Sharjah though the flying time was just 3 hours 30 minutes – 10 a.m. U.A.E. time to 3 a.m. Indian time. I did not have any food or water during this time period. I drank water after reaching the hotel where I am quarantining, that too after a shower and washing of the clothes worn during the travel. For the last 16 years, I have been travelling extensively as part of my job. I undertook long haul flights of more than 30 hours with flying times of 16 hrs direct, 22 hours mix, etc. and flew tens of thousands of miles. I always enjoyed all those travels. Though some of them were tiring, they were not dispiriting or dejecting because they were not burdens. I looked forward to and enjoyed every travel. But the trip – 15 hours and 30 minutes’ trip is not big for me – that I undertook a couple of days back was a burden and dispiriting. The new protocols and procedure that one has to undergo at airports and inside planes will mentally drain you – the joy of flying is taken out from you. Wearing mask and face-shield unabatedly for longer period puts strain on your head, sometimes making you feel like pulling them out and throwing them away. All these make flying a pain, not a happy experience.
If one has to endure such difficult times for a three and half hours flight, what will be the plight in a long overhaul flight having 10 or 15 hours flying time? The journey will likely to be of more than 30 to 40 hours between departure room and arrival room! Who can undertake such an ordeal, that too in a debilitating flying ambiance with fear of contamination by the virus? People go on overseas holidays as a break from work and familiar places they dwell. But if flying itself takes a toll on your physical and mental health, who will go for it? Similarly, for undertaking overseas business trips a lot of physical and mental strengths need to be conserved. But if flying itself drains that strength out of you, you will not be able to work to your potential after reaching destination country. It will be extremely difficult to undertake an international trip with these flying difficulties. With COVID-19 around, flying is looking to be a tedious affair. I loath to conclude a blog on pessimistic note but had to succumb to the reality. Unless a vaccine arrives or the virus disappears altogether, nonessential international travels seem to be off the table.