Flying amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

I am a reluctant traveller at the best of times. I feel that leaving the comfort and warmth of home for something unknown and uncertain is best not done, if possible, and these days with the pandemic still raging even the thought of travelling should be avoided. But for most the latter will prove harder even than the former, and I recently had to take an internal flight, though I did not want to, especially in view of Covid-19.

After much debate with my wife and children, though, I decided I would have to make the journey, as I could not avoid it. Later, however, and after some soul-searching, I experienced something of an epiphany as regards certain aspects of travelling by air at the present time. I will come back to that.

Before setting out I had tried to get myself up to date, using a well-known search engine. But there is nowadays so much information available on the internet that it is impossible for someone with average mental abilities to remember it. The task is made harder by some of this material being contradictory, and I began my journey none the wiser.

What first greeted me at the airport was pretty much as I had expected, with a near deserted and almost desolate look. The hustle and bustle I had long known were altogether gone. My few fellow travellers seemed weary of the pandemic and every bit as reluctant to travel as me, and just as confused by some new check-in procedures. It must be admitted, though, that overall these have made things easier for everyone, and as a result I felt safer in the airport than on the city streets.

The first harbinger of change – and a very positive one was at the entrance, with the normally overbearing demeanour of the security personnel replaced by a blend of apprehension, weariness and perhaps even sympathy. Usually, the entrance security people scrutinise your ticket or boarding pass with the seriousness of overzealous auditors. They then take your identification document, compare the face with the photograph and the name with that on the ticket, generally then repeating the whole process, and with a suspicious look fixed on you all the time. I have always found that very demoralising, and it has certainly altered. The security looked at my boarding pass from three feet away, and then, after a cursory examination of my proof of identity, waved me on. They did not once reach for the documents that I presented.

Check-in was in fact dead easy. I had already done that online, so I just needed to drop off my bags. That was accomplished without any great ado, and with only very brief interaction at the mandatory safe distance. After that, I went through departure security, and likewise with very little delay. The airside lounge is typically abuzz, with crowds of people wandering around, but this time there was hardly anyone, with the shopkeepers looking longingly at the thinning numbers, hoping for some interest in their wares but sadly ignored by everyone.

I had arrived early, anticipating delays due to the new procedures. But as the entire process had been so very quick – and far more so than normal – I had some time on my hands. So I decided to have breakfast, to fill both the time and the tummy, and that too was completed in a jiffy, at the stipulated social distance and again with minimal interaction. So I sat back waiting for the boarding call and started reflecting on what I had experienced so far.

I realised that, after all, I was not the reluctant traveller I had thought I was, and that I might have been itching for some kind of escape from the monotony of lockdown and other restrictions. Perhaps, in some small way, I was even inclined to flirt with danger and had been looking for some basic adventure to write about. I was mulling that over when the call for boarding came.

I was still thinking about it all as I moved towards the gate, where everyone was given PPE and asked to wear it before proceeding to the aircraft. I donned the kit and the sense of safety was reinforced. There were of course other differences, too. Usually, boarding is chaotic anywhere in the world, with people rushing despite the clear sequence that has been given out. Here, for the first time ever, I saw everyone falling in line and keeping the required distance from those in front. Social distancing was clearly visible on the aircraft too, with all the centre seats kept vacant. At first glance, on entering the aircraft, it looked as if the flight was part of a vital mission, as in their PPE the passengers looked like commandos, but their disorderly behavior confirmed that it was just a normal flight in abnormal times.

I settled into my aisle seat and looked around. Usually I would close my eyes and shut out the surroundings, but the new normal had made me curious and I wanted to observe the scene. Across the aisle was a couple with two children, and a young woman sat in the window seat on my side. She had removed her face shield and placed it on the centre seat. My feeling of safety started to wane, but I could not quite muster the courage to ask her to put the shield back on. I was still pondering that when the cabin crew asked everyone to keep their face shield on during the flight. My neighbour immediately complied, and I started to feel safe again.

I turned my attention to the family across the aisle. The man in the aisle seat whipped out an aerosol can of sanitiser and began spraying liberally on the seats in front of him and on the backrests of the family’s own seats. Normally, carrying an aerosol can – let alone one containing alcohol-based sanitiser – onto any aircraft would have been strictly forbidden, but these are not normal times. However, I felt that the man was being overly cautious.

When he had finished his spraying, he took out a sanitiser bottle and wiped his hands and those of his wife and children. However, he was taking no care whatsoever with how he was wearing his mask, which covered only his mouth and left his nose exposed. His face shield was lifted up, too, with the same result. I wondered why he was wearing a mask at all, and moreover, his children were not wearing one. Perhaps he thought that the spray had created an invisible barrier between his family and the rest of the aircraft. Certainly, he had used it so liberally that I was starting to feel intoxicated from the air around me.

Several others nearby were not wearing their masks properly, either, so on landing, I was happy to escape from the confined space of the aircraft into the vast airport interior. The sense of safety returned again, and I quickly picked up my bags and left. That sense, however, evaporated completely when I reached my destination, a diagnostic centre where I was to have some routine medical checks and a Covid-19 test.

But that is a story for another day.

Chief Engineer Prasad Chennuri shares some thoughts on a recent flight from Hyderabad to Mumbai