Travel in a Time of Coronavirus 

By William J. Furney

Garda (Irish police) checkpoints, traffic jammed and snaking back further than the eye can see, everything except places of business selling “essential services” shuttered for over a month as the darkness descends on this tiny, two-nation island at the westernmost point of northern Europe. 

Here, no one is permitted to travel beyond five kilometers (three miles) from their home, after cases of coronavirus infection and related deaths began to rise in October and the spooked coalition government ordered a second national shutdown. I, with my press cards at the ready, granting me exemption from distance restrictions, as media is rightly deemed an essential service, was on the way to a deserted Dublin Airport; on reaching it, my travel insurance provider informed me that, sadly, I would not be covered for countries not on the “green list”, which means this trip to London, England, and others will insurance-free. 

And, they said, unless I renewed my annual Gold policy in the next 24 hours, as it was due to expire, my policy would be cancelled and I would be unable to renew it because they are currently not accepting any new business, due to the lingering bug. 

Days later, taking off from an England that was also about to descend into lockdown, as the UK battles Europe’s biggest and deadliest corona outbreak, and people are desperate to get out. 

On our TUI flight from London Gatwick to a certain African archipelago region, babies abound. It’s a swanky, twin-aisle Boeing Dreamliner with sleek touchscreen-filter windows rendering a cobalt blue to turquoise at the maximum setting and multi-hued, pulsating overhead lights redolent of a nightclub (takeoff time 9:30am), and while the aircraft is not full, there are many people — and toddlers too — on board. 

All Aboard!: Pandemic and lockdowns or not, my TUI fight from London, England, this week was mostly full, including with babies and toddlers. (Photo: William J. Furney)

I’ve had three flights cancel on me in the last three weeks, with three airlines, and expected the same with this. One has given me vouchers for future flights, another allowed me to book again without a fee (gee, thanks!) and the third airline (Aer Lingus) booked me onto a different flight to a different airport, without asking, and after I cancelled and requested a refund — three times — I was still booked on the flight. Days after it landed, I received a customer service email with the subject line: “Tell us what you think.”

While I was wondering, ahead of a run in a storm yesterday morning, if I was about to be hit with a fourth cancellation, of my flight the next day, a text message bleeped through from TUI and I said to myself, “Here we go again.”

Due to the UK government announcement yesterday evening about the new lockdown, it said, we will only be operating flights for the next few days. Hooray! 

So how are all those on this holiday flight going to get back, and what about all the infants? Is going on holiday during a global pandemic that’s rapidly worsening, with your young kids, not the most irresponsible parental act ever? A young couple clamber aboard carrying twin baby boys like shopping and dump themselves down for the getaway.

*  *  *  *  *

It’s just after 10am and passengers are ordering whiskey and beer. I already have a bag-full of food and drink supplies, including tofu and tempeh I cooked the night before, and wine. But I order, to support the ailing airline industry and in case we encounter bad turbulence and I run out of vino. The cabin crew announce that, due to covid restrictions, there will only be one service, so you’d better order all you need now. 

Apart from the lingering and real threat of redundancy, as airlines the world over flail and dive into a deep sea of red ink, it’s a great time to be a cabin crew member, because you spend much of your time seated and watching movies and videos on your phone.  

Huwaida has no sparkling water, only still. I order it anyway, and two mini-bottles of red. I chuck them in my Samsonite and thank the London-toned, ivory-skinned young woman; her colleague, a middle-aged balding man who has been telling fellow passengers he is two years away from retirement (will his airline last that long?), asks if I’m having trouble with my seatback screen. “They’re all frozen on my row,” I tell him, and I’m the only person in the row. He says he was in this same place on a recent flight and it was the same story and that I can either move or he will have the system rebooted. They restart, but it still doesn’t work; there’s nothing on anyway. So much for in-flight entertainment — an extreme rarity in Europe — and just as well my tablet is packed with downloaded Netflix. 

*  *  * * *

We arrive on the island and hold our QR codes to scanners to transfer details of our passenger locator forms; they don’t ask where you’re staying, only the area. The forms say that if you develop any corona symptoms, such as a cough or fever, you must self-isolate. No one checks our temperature, like my dentist and several shops do here, and we waltz on through. In a couple of weeks, a negative covid test will be required for entry. 

Who knows how long the pandemic will last — it’s believed it will take around two years before the infection finally burns out, as the last great pandemic of 1918 did — and countries continue with travel corridors and requiring tests and self-isolation. Some travel companies and airlines may not survive, even with tons of state aid and bailouts, but one thing that will never change is the basic human desire to travel and see our spectacular world.

  • Title image is of a Boeing Dreamliner window and its electronic shade. (Photo: William J. Furney)

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