In the wake of the pandemic, travel has taken on an almost surreal, apocalyptic feel: eerily empty airports, testy passengers, fellow travellers donning everything from masks to protective suits. As if travelling weren’t already anxiety-inducing, post-coronavirus travel comes with new rules and new anxieties — social distancing, mask-wearing, and sterilising every nook and cranny of your seat with alcohol wipes.
Tooba Sohail, who travelled in mid-March on a commercial PIA flight from Karachi to Toronto, wasn’t too eager to board her plane when she found out the reason for her flight’s 6-hour delay — a coronavirus positive passenger had disembarked from the incoming flight to Jinnah International Airport.
“We were definitely nervous,” says Sohail. “The flight was delayed initially for four hours and then again for two hours because they wanted to properly disinfect the plane. We wouldn’t have known about the Covid-19 passenger but they announced the reason for the delay by mistake. Later in the flight, however, the stewards and the pilot were open about it.” Needless to say, Sohail and her husband used the sanitisers and alcohol wipes they had brought along “time and again.”
Sohail is not alone. Fatimeh Patel, who travelled on March 19 from Houston to Karachi, describes how she was constantly wiping down and sterilising everything. “I was sanitising my hands all the time, says Patel. “At the airport, it was very stressful and I kept sanitising anything that I’d touch, even my own phone. I even sanitised the pens they gave us to fill out the health forms in Karachi.”
Patel, who transited through Doha, Qatar, points out that travelling during the pandemic is a surreal experience: “On the plane most passengers were wearing a mask,” says Patel. “I was wearing one the entire time. I also wore gloves but, in the middle, my gloves got dirty so I threw them away. Mostly everyone at the Hammad International airport, including the passengers, was in masks and social distancing.”
Commercial air travel has always carried its own stringent rules and anxieties. But if you dreaded it before, wait till you hear what it will entail now
In Karachi, in March, masks were still not so popular. According to Sohail “about 20 percent” of her fellow travellers were wearing masks on her flight and while she and her husband had brought some along to use, they hit an unexpected snag: “We couldn’t wear the masks because our 10-month-old daughter kept tugging at them,” she adds.
Wearing masks while travelling, it seems however, is here to stay. While most passengers wear them voluntarily, many airlines and governments are now making them mandatory. Airlines such as Emirates and Qatar Airways now require passengers to don masks and gloves for the entirety of the flight. You can’t enter airports in Pakistan without wearing a mask, for instance. Social distancing rules are also enforced at the airports for the check-in lines and at the gates.
Raina Salman, who flew in early April from Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport to Toronto on a special flight chartered by the High Commission of Canada to Pakistan, saw these rules come into effect first hand. “There was no social distancing on the plane but they did implement it at the airport — everyone had to leave seats empty and sit apart at the gate.” she points out. “The arrangements were very good — they had hand sanitisers everywhere and you couldn’t enter the airport without a mask.”
The new rules may seem extreme to some people, but travelling on a crowded plane does carry risks. According to the US-based Centre for Disease Control’s travel guidelines, “germs do not spread easily on flights” because of the way air is filtered and circulated on planes, but you can contract the coronavirus from fellow passengers “on crowded flights if there are other travellers on board with Covid-19.”
Salman, who had travelled to Lahore in January for a family wedding, was lucky to even get seats for her and her daughter. After Pakistan banned all international flights on March 21, most expatriates were stuck in the country while Pakistanis who were visiting, working or studying abroad had no means to reach home. Only special or chartered PIA international flights have operated since then.
Seats on the chartered flights are not only harder to book than commercial ones but come with a steeper price tag. Salman, for instance, had to cough up 325,000 rupees for her one-way ticket. There are limited options for those who need to travel internationally — even if they are willing to fork out for such expensive tickets, there are few flights available. For instance, only 12 special PIA flights can operate to the US over a period of 12 months — permission for these flights will expire on April 29, 2021.
If you need to travel internationally from Pakistan for work or a family emergency, you’re in tough luck, as Amna Qadir*, one of atleast 194 medical school graduates who plan to fly to the US for their residency, soon found out. “Initially we had pinned our hopes on Turkish Airlines,” she says. “They were offering flexible tickets if you booked before May 31, so everyone I know booked their seats on Turkish.” While the airline plans to resume flights on June 1, international commercial flights are still currently banned in Pakistan. That leaves people such as Amna in a quandary. “We really don’t know what to do now as my [residency] orientation is on June 15 and my employers really want me to join by then. My hospital rounds start on July 1.”
Amna and her fellow graduates are now exploring the option of arranging their own flight but she emphasises it would be a logistical nightmare: “For chartered flights, it’s been hard to figure out logistically, as everyone is in different cities. I don’t know how this will pan out.”
As lockdowns ease and commercial flights resume, they provide a glimpse into future travel in the midst of a pandemic. For instance, everyone travelling on domestic flights in Pakistan, which resumed on May 16, must wear masks. Under the new government rules, airlines have to leave one seat empty between passengers, provide hand sanitisers and can no longer have a food and beverage service.
Some airlines are going even further than that. Qatar Airways, for instance, has announced that its air crew and stewards will start wearing protective suits in addition to masks and gloves. Emirates has banned all carry-on luggage with exceptions made for handbags and laptops etc. It has also begun conducting rapid testing for coronavirus on in-transit travellers before they board planes — the results are available in 10 minutes. In mid-April, for example, the airline conducted its first tests on passengers travelling to Tunisia from Dubai.
With increasing security at airports, shrinking seats and ever-changing rules, flying had already become the epitome of dread. It seems pandemic or no pandemic, one thing about travelling will not change: it’ll be a pain to fly.
**Names changed for privacy The writer is a former member of staff*
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 31st, 2020