My choice to fly long distance during the Covid-19 pandemic was not taken lightly and was not for leisure; a necessary trip as an expat.
I was keen to find information on flying during the pandmic, actual experiences from other travelers with explanations from start to finish. A lot of this information is covered well by a variety of websites and information sources online, but it’s hard to get the truly comprehensive view. I know I have other friends and family who have to fly during these times and asked me questions about the experience. I had not initially wanted to blog about the topic but felt the need to at least provide some details.
I flew from London Heathrow (LHR) to Boston Logan (BOS), and this was my experience.
What to expect?
Looking for a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) version, here are the key things in summary.
- Signage and announcements everywhere.
- Sanitizer stations are everywhere inside the airport.
- Services at airport and on plane are limited and are luxuries, not standards.
- Pack masks; at least 1 for every 4 hours of travel.
It’s tremendous hassle to travel right now and you have to prepare before taking flight. In my opinion, it is not worth the effort and risk to travel at this time for anything other than essential reasons.
My Experience Flying Long Distance During the Covid-19 Pandemic
Booking the Flight
The booking process did not change much, other than to provide Covid warnings throughout the booking.
I flew with British Airways and they were not price gouging, the cost of a short notice flight in the summer was not more than I would have expected to pay during a time of normal demand. Many other airlines had paused the LHR-BOS route and only one or two were running flights on that route – mostly BA & their codeshare partners.
One thing I did notice – BA’s official recommendation is to fly without hand luggage, but their flights are still significantly cheaper to fly with only hand luggage.
BA’s website has good Covid information, but it’s sometimes hard to find (especially now since their Sale has taken over their homepage). During the booking process there were only 2 new announcements that are not generally there:
- On the Flight Selection page, this is the Covid reference:
- On the Review Your Flights page, this is the reference:
There are no references during booking about whether or not you are allowed in the country you are traveling to/from. If you are considering traveling make sure you check out all the relevant government pages for where you are traveling to and your own country for the return. While booking my tickets I knew that I needed to quarantine for 2 weeks on either side of the trip and made those arrangements before buying. This is not referenced during the booking process, so buyer beware.
2 Weeks Before Travel
There was no automatic rebooking with BA, as I had seen from them before when this has happened. I was prompted to visit a new part of their website to select my new flight. Luckily there was another flight with BA on that day, just later, and I was able to rebook on this site without any hassle at all and no extra cost.
Any type of travel during the pandmic needs to be flexibile in nature – connection flights may prove problematic, and cancellations are likely to be more common. Due to the circumstances of my travel I had that inherent flexibility with my transfers, work, and accomodation.
Traveling to the Airport
Normally I have a direct coach that I can take to the airport without hassle, but the route has not been running for months.
Instead I called for an Uber and had no trouble in locating one. The driver arrived with their mask on and I loaded my carry-on suitcase to the boot/tunk myself. I sanitized my hands and then put my mask on before getting into the Uber. The drive was short and painless, the driver courteous and respectful of the new rules.
It was more expensive and inconvenient to not have the coach available, but I was pleased that the Uber driver was following the rules, and I felt I was able to maintain some distance in his car while traveling to the airport.
TIP: Double check your Terminal number before flying – many of the Terminals at Heathrow are closed. Terminal 2 & 5 are open, but when I flew Terminal 3 had been closed.
Only ticketed passengers are allowed inside the terminal building, there are signs stating this on the way in.
I had check into the flight the previous day on my computer and printed my boarding pass – I was intent to avoid interaction at the airport and had read that this was the preference from the airline.
Except I was unable to complete my checkin since they wanted to complete a visa check on me. This is a common challenge as an expat – I am checked by airlines in both directions, from USA to UK and from UK to USA. The visa check meant that I had to go to the counter and speak to an agent.
BA had put up perspex screens between agent and customer, which was convenient. However the agents all seemed to be wearing their masks around their neck rather than their face. I was surprised to see this especially as I was at the Executive Club checkin for the mid-classes (loyalty members and premium economy customers). Staff were congregating and arguing about when to take their breaks in front of customers. It was definitely a much less formal or professional atmosphere than I have come to expect.
I was asked to remove my mask for the agent to validate my passport photo, but could immediately replace it.
As a frequent flyer with status I am used to having access to the “Fast Lane” security screening process – not so during the pandemic. The Fast Lane in Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport was closed.
I joined the regular security queue and there were only 2 lanes open – and no queue at all. I was able to step right up to the trays, which sat in front of a perspex screen that separated myself from the agent, and I could empty my backpack of laptops and electronics with only a few other customers there at the same time. The staff remained as supporting and vigilant behind the screen and the rest of the comments and interactions were comfortably familiar. Hearing “Any liquids in this bag?” left me with a feeling of familarity and comfort.
The only change came when the agent asked me to put my shoes on the belt – normally at Heathrow if I’m wearing trainers/sneakers I can keep them on. This came as a surprise but I took them off and loaded them onto the belt with the rest of my stuff. I’m used to this treatment on the US side of the security screening, so no skin off my back, but something to flag to travelers who think they’re familiar with the Heathrow screen processes!
Before I emptied my backpack I used hand sanitizer gel – the dispenser located just at the start of the security screening area.
I kept my mask on as I walked through the metal detector and again in the body scan.
Shops & Waiting in the Airport
Terminal 5’s shopping area felt significantly different after I passed through security. Several shops were closed but most were open and had implemented a one-way system. This worked a lot better with the World Duty store more so than with the smaller Boots property.
World of Whisky had a sale on several bottles, some beautiful short run expressions from BenRiarch, at 50% off. I was already luggage laden with my carry-on suitcase and backpack but it didn’t stop me from snatching up a bottle at the reasonable price.
The one way systems were clunky and confusing, especially when other customers were not following them.
Sanitizer stations were located everywhere in the Terminal, and thoughtfully placed. For example, one before stepping on an escalator to sanitize your hands before touching the handrails. Another at the entrance/exit at each store. There was always a station within my sight at any given moment.
Other passengers were mostly respectful of the mask rule. Some were wearing them around their necks, instead of their faces, but the majority of passengers were wearing masks.
The seating area within the main terminal had signs across every 3rd chair telling passengers not to sit there. It was an attempt to socially distance but given the numbers of passengers that were in the terminal I don’t think there was a chance anyone would end up sat next to one another – it was empty.
BA Lounges in Terminal 5
I have lounge access as a frequent flyer with BA, achieving Silver status due to travel with work for several years.
I didn’t know hat to expect from the Lounge but I had arrived earlier and passed through security without any issues. I even had taken a few moments to shop and still had well over an hour before boarding would begin.
The BA Galleries Lounge in Terminal 5 (main hub) were open, but the satellite lounge in B Concourse was closed.
The buffet and self service areas of the lounge had been shut down – from soda, to coffee, to alcohol and all the food.
Instead they had added QR Codes and table numbers, much like a pub, to each area of the Lounge. I took a seat next to a perspex screen and settled myself into a chair (after sanitising it for good measure). I snapped the QR code with my phone and was taken direct to an online menu app. I had to input a password, which was littered around displays in the Lounge or staff quoted it to me as well, and confirm my table number.
The staff were attentive and respectful of the social distancing and mask wearing. I was able to order my drinks and they arrvied at the table in minutes. I ordered an afternoon cake and it too came swiftly. I would have ordered a warm meal but I had eaten before leaving my home, anticipating that I would not have an easy time getting food in the lounge or on the flight.
There were several announcements about these new services while in the Lounge, but still no flight announcements as is usual.
Boarding seemed to start earlier than usual for the plane because by the time I arrived in B Concoure to board they were already on to calling rows, instead of groups.
BA had changed the boarding process to be focused on set of rows, rather than groups. This was later reflected in de-planing as well. The idea was to stop queues from forming while on the plane and allow customers to maintain social distance throughout the entire process. This was significantly aided by the limited number of guests. The only point where I had to queue for just a moment, was on the gangway, and it had distance markers running up the side to show where to stop.
BA had reassured flyers that they were thoroughly cleaning the planes between flights. Even so, I chose to wiped down everything in the area – seat, buckle, armrests, screen – with sanitizing wipes I had brought on board with me.
I had the row to myself, no one was next to me, as BA were aiming to keep everyone separated one per seat segment unless a family unit were flying together. That was my approach to the plane – better safe than sorry – and wiped everything down from the toilet door handle to my seat.
The first thing I noted was that the announcements had changed.
As a frequent flyer I can lipsync any safety demonstration on a BA flight and can give the standard announcements myself if push came to shove. Not on this flight.
The announcements started by asking that anyone with Covid-19 symptoms make themselves known to the staff; the list of symptons were detailed during the announcement as well. They shared the government advice on staying healthy – washing hands, sneezing into a tissue, maintaining distance, etc.
Then they handed out a small bag of PPE. Masks were not included, you must bring your own, but they did include 2 packets of antibac wipes and gel. They included a plastic bag to dispose of any used items into, this was super helpful. I was able to dispose my own wipes into that bag and my masks. I had also brought a bag but it saved me from digging it out of my backpack.
After we had taken off I looked around the cabin and tried to do a headcount; by my estimates there were 150+ seats and maybe 30 bodies in that section of economy. I had never before in my frequent flying history been on an emptier plane, including the Boxing Day flights I often took (which were always delightfully empty). I was in the last row of the plane and there was no one in the 10 rows ahead of me, and the staff knew me by name as they checked on me.
The BA staff were super attentive – taking drink ordersk, delivering pre-packaged meals, and checking on us throughout the flight.
Several of the toilets in economy were marked as closed, those at the back of the plane, likely to ensure that customers weren’t wandering into the galley (since they were adjacent). The staff did let those in the back, all 2 of us, use thos particular toilets though which I appreciated. I wiped the door handle and the surfaces in the loo before using it, just to be safe.
Food was another different element – the main “meal” came in a prepackaged box and contained a cold sandwhich, a small side, and a dessert. By the time they had reached my row it was only vegetarian left, since I was at the back of the plane, but I had already packed food so I didn’t take it. Having read other’s accounts of flying during Covid I opted to pack a sandwich and snacks from home to avoid any in-air dissapointment.
Towards the end of the flight they came by with a small paper bag that contained snacks and other items: water, a kit kat, and a graze box. Frankly I preferred this to the usual fare!
A form was handed out to everyone landing in the United States and asked passengers to confirm that they’ve not had any symptons and comfirm where they would be for the mandatory 2 week quarantine. I filled out this form and went over it with staff at the airport, and again at passport control had to re-issue the answers to those questions.
I had to wear a mask for the entirty of the flight, and since masks are only good for 4 hours a piece I had to change it out twice during the entirety of my journey (door to door).
When it came to de-planing they did this is a similar manner as to boarding, by row number. They asked those who had not yet been called to remain seated until their row was called. Surprisingly many passengers listened to the request and remained seated, though a few did stand and start collecting their luggage.
After exiting the plane, through another gangway that was well marked for social distancing, we did end up queueing as we went through an initial check to validate that we had completed the form. The agent went through the questions with us again and focused on ensuring we answered the questions to them about symptoms.
I was handed an information card from the CDC on symptoms, and proceeded through Passport Control.
Normally Passport Control in Boston have the new machines that you answer the questions to and complete an initial check of all travelers. Then you receive a receipt and proceed to have a brief chat with a Border Control agent before proceeding into baggage claim and then customs.
During the pandmic the automated machines had been shut down and all passengers were funneled into queues for agents. There was no line when I arrived and immediately could step forward to talk to a masked agent. I handed over my passport, answered the questions again (address for quarantine, phone number to be reached out, questions on symptoms). This time the agent typed the responses into the computer, in additon to the sheet they had collected.
It wasn’t long before I was on my way and out the door of the airport.
My Thoughts on Flying During the Pandmic
Wearing a mask for 12 hours without a break was a trying experience; my empathy grew tenfold for our health practicioners and essential workers who have had to deal with this for months and not just for the period a flight. Do not undersestimate what the experience of wearing a mask for that prolonged period of time will be like.
The flight had no bells or whistlies, no frills, but it operated quite efficiently. The staff were very curtious and helpful, but BA crew and ground staff always are, but it did not fix a sour taste I had in my mouth from dealing with their call center ahead of this flight.
If BA offer you a voucher do not take it, always push for your refund. Their voucher handling is an archaic process where it cannot be transferred and cannot be used online.
Know your rights before you fly and read up on the policies of your airline and the requirements for the country you are traveling to and the one that you are leaving. Quarantine is a frequent requirement for international travel at the moment, and though I’ve not been checked up on I am aware it could happen at any moment.
Traveling during the pandmic is not worth the effort, stress, or risk unless it is absolutely necessary.
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