What it’s really like to fly amid COVID-19 pandemic

I know the Qantas hold music off by heart. I ought to – I’ve spent enough time on the phone to them during the past week.

Ever since the introduction of the mandatory isolation period for travellers I had been maniacally checking information about an upcoming flight returning me from London, where I’ve been living for the past two years, to Sydney.

Would this quarantine impact my travel plans? Should I try and move my flight? Maybe it would all be over by the time I was due to leave?

Well, as I soon came to realise, pandemics happen like the fall of Rome: slowly and then all at once.

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On March 17, Australia’s borders closed and DFAT urged those overseas to return home immediately. The next day Qantas grounded the majority of its fleet and announced that no international flights would take place after the end of March. If I wanted to get home I would have to do it soon. Really soon.

After a frantic call from my family, I got on the phone to Qantas and spent hours trying to move my flight. Almost all of the earlier planes going through Perth were sold out, and seats on that weekend were almost a thousand dollars more than the next available option on Monday, March 23.

So I bought a one-way ticket on QF2, flying London to Singapore and then Sydney on March 23. That left me five days to pack up my entire life in London and say goodbye to my friends over zoom conference calls, on account of everyone in the city already being in self-isolation.

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March 23 dawned with the arrival of an ominous text message from Qantas: “We’re sorry we had to cancel your flight QF2 from London at 20.35 on Mon March 23.” And then: “We’re trying to update your new flight details but you need to contact us”.

So I got back on the phone for three hours on my last day in London, listening to more of that hold music – “I still call Australia home,” etc – and found out that, due to last-minute border restrictions in Singapore, the flight was being re-routed through to Darwin and then onto Sydney, leaving London at ten that evening. Before you ask, no, Qantas does not normally fly non-stop from London to Darwin, but the times are truly desperate.

After the morning’s dramas, I got to Heathrow Airport four hours early. I wasn’t taking any chances. When I arrived there were queues of passengers snaking around the check-in desk.

I went to join the back of the line, but when I told a staff member that I was booked on QF2 they directed me to a separate, much shorter line. The people waiting, they explained, were trying to get on QF2.

Their Emirates flight through Dubai had been cancelled that day; many of the passengers only found out when they turned up to the airport to check in.

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The departures board was full of cancelled flights: planes to New York and Chicago that would never leave. QF2, along with two flights to South Africa, was one of the only jets departing Heathrow that evening.

The world’s busiest airport, which usually shunts 78 million passengers a year, was eerily empty. All the lounges were closed. Every non-essential business was shut: if you wanted to get something to eat, you had to buy a pre-packaged sandwich and a bag of chips from WH Smith.

The people at the airport were a study in contrasts. There were some passengers wearing full hazmat body suits, protective goggles, gloves and hairnets, while others lounged around in shorts and thongs.

One woman, clad in chic cashmere, wore a Louis Vuitton-branded face mask. At 8.30 all activity seemed to stop as the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson broadcast a national address in which he ordered the country into lockdown, effective immediately.

The mood among the passengers waiting to fly home to Australia was that we were all leaving London in the nick of time.

The flight was packed. Everyone had a story: people who had managed to get themselves and their families to London from all around the world – everywhere from Israel to Canada – in order to be on that plane.

On-board it was a cocktail of exhaustion and heightened emotions, but more relaxed than I anticipated. I was the only person wearing a mask in the seats around me, and I was also the only person who did the full Naomi Campbell and wiped down my arm rests, tray table, television and window.

When that was done, I sat down and burst into what I hoped were quiet, dignified tears.

The first leg of the flight felt like being on any other plane. I watched Knives Out and read a book and tried (and failed) to sleep.

Something shifted when we landed in Darwin, shortly after midnight, though. We had been told it would be a quick transit in the Northern Territory as the crew changed over. (The flight attendants from London-Darwin were a UK crew, all of whom had volunteered to do the service. They were staying one night in Darwin before returning to the UK.)

But the quarantine process in Darwin took longer than anticipated and we sat on the tarmac for more than two hours. We were not permitted to leave the plane. People started getting restless and jittery; the adrenaline had worn off.

Finally, the UK crew were cleared to leave and an Australian crew boarded. Unlike their predecessors, the local flight attendants arrived on the plane wearing masks and gloves. The final three and a half hours down to Sydney passed pretty sombrely.

An announcement asked passengers who were feeling unwell to make themselves known to the crew. Every time somebody coughed or sneezed, which happened alarmingly regularly, you could feel everyone around them tense up.

We landed just after 8am and were shepherded off the plane by airport staff in hazmat suits.

First, they handed us information sheets about mandatory isolation. Then we were sent to biosecurity screening. Every passenger was given a hospital-grade mask and those already wearing masks, like me, were asked to wear it over the one we already had on to protect staff.

The queues for biosecurity were long, but nobody was practising social distancing and staying 1.5 metres away from each other. Everyone was lining up as if this were any old queue, and not one for a coronavirus-related health check.

After taking my temperature, I handed over a form consenting to 14 days of isolation with my address, phone and passport number on it – failure to comply will result in an $11,000 fine. I went through customs and immigration and out into the empty arrivals hall. The whole process, from leaving the plane to getting into the car home, took less than half an hour.

And then it was straight into isolation – no physical contact with my family, no grocery shopping, do not pass go, do not collect $200, for the next two weeks. It doesn’t bother me, though. After the last week, I know how lucky I am to be home.

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