Already, for several years before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’d become disenchanted with our long-haul flying experiences.
As aircraft companies expanded their fleets with planes adapted to cram in more passengers, the cost of flight tickets came down and the surge of new travelers increased. This was predictably accompanied by a drop in standards and services, resulting in a vastly inferior inflight experience.
And then from early 2020 – and in the space of just 6 months – the travel boom imploded, and we all had to adapt to a new-normal.
Following an initial shutdown of recreational travel in Europe and Asia, some of the more resilient airlines started to re-introduce flights, albeit with new health standards of practice.
But how will your future flight experiences be impacted as this pandemic runs its course?… and should you even consider flying?
What happens when they cancel your flight?
In our case, the decision to fly wasn’t one we took lightly.
We were spending time in Malaysia when travel restrictions were initially imposed. Shortly after this Emirates canceled our return flights back to Europe. We needed to wait another 2 and a half months before they offered us a new return date.
Then just 4 days before our re-scheduled departure they canceled that one too.
Luckily for us, we’d booked our original tickets directly with Emirates, so changing the dates in these circumstances wasn’t an issue. If we’d opted to pay less by booking our flights through a travel agent we wouldn’t have been so fortunate.
Nevertheless, Emirates hadn’t bothered to inform us about the 2nd cancellation. It was only when I tried to check in online 4 days before departure that I understood we no longer had a valid booking.
When I called Emirates, they confirmed the cancellation, and added that the next available return flight to our original destination would not be for at least another 2 months. We could however get a trip to Rome leaving on the same day (in 4 days time).
We agreed to the Rome flight, even though it involved a horrendous 12-hour layover in Dubai and a further 9-hour layover in Rome before we could get a connecting flight home.
You’ll likely need proof of a negative COVID-19 test
To complicate things further, Emirates announced that only passengers who had obtained a negative COVID-19 PCR test within the previous 96 hours would be allowed to board.
We had already booked an AirAsia flight to take us to Kuala Lumpur 2 days before departure. However, even if we could find a private clinic that could test us and give the result within 24 hours, this 2-day window wouldn’t give us enough time to guarantee catching our flight.
So we had to book another AirAsia flight leaving 1 day earlier. Of course at this late stage it was too late to recoup the cost of the original AirAsia flight.
Hopefully this extra day in Kuala Lumpur would give us enough time to get our test results and still board our flight …but it would be tight.
This was all starting to become expensive, not to mention stressful.
AirAsia’s excellent social distancing procedures
Our first taste of the COVID-19 new-normal flying experience was with the popular AirAsia airline. It was a short 50-minute flight, but we were impressed by the way they handled boarding and – especially – disembarkation.
Boarding was by zones like most carriers. When we arrived at our destination, the plane taxied to the terminal and stopped. At this point – on most plane journeys – there is usually a scrum of passengers already on their feet rummaging around in the luggage racks and turning on their phones. This is still the case with Emirates and Air Malta (see below) where we watched people disregarding all social distancing rules in their effort to be first off the plane.
Not so with AirAsia. As the plane stopped, not a single person stood up.
When the doors were finally opened, the stewardess moved down the aisle 3 rows at a time, then turned and indicated that these rows were cleared to leave. No fuss, no hurry, and we actually disembarked more quickly than with the usual free-for-all.
All other airlines please take note.
Getting the COVID-19 test in less than 24 hours
COVID-19 PCR test results typically take 2 to 7 days to process.
Before arriving in Kuala Lumpur we had contacted a private clinic who assured us they could perform an urgent turnaround in 24 hours.
The Sunway Medical Centre Velocity is located in the southern area of the city. They were offering COVID-19 tests everyday up until around lunchtime. We arrived early in the morning at their Drive-Thru testing centre and explained that our flight would be leaving the following day.
After completing the necessary paperwork, we paid RM 300 (€60) each and were placed on the ‘Urgent’ list.
After this we were ushered into an outdoor tent where the test was performed quickly and efficiently. It was slightly uncomfortable as a long thin sampler was inserted way up into the nasal cavity.
But after that we were done for the day.
We returned the next morning around the same time for our test results, which to our relief came in negative.
We were given the all-important laboratory test certificates, and were all clear for our Emirates flight that evening.
With our paperwork in order, all that remained was to get home.
To do this, we would need to take a total of 4 flights passing through immigration in 4 countries: Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Italy and Malta.
What could go wrong?
The Emirates ‘ghost’ plane
To check in with Emirates, in addition to providing our COVID-19 test results, we needed to complete a lengthy declaration for Immigration in Dubai (our next stop).
Unlike AirAsia, there was no intelligent boarding system in place. Just a division of passengers by zones (as usual), then a free-for-all while boarding, and again later when disembarking.
Fortunately our flight was only 10% full, which was a unique experience for us on an Emirates flight. We had even been able to book one of the rows with just 2 seats – at no extra cost (although, with a nearly empty flight this hardly matters).
The staff were all kitted out in full protection suits and masks. For ourselves, we would be experiencing our (37-hour total) journey behind masks. At least there would be some decent Emirates food and drink to look forward to… ?
Emirates has had to massively reduce costs for staff and planes, and catering has been no exception to the cost-cutting. So the big downer was the food, which I can only describe as flavoured slop. And because the flight staff understandably wanted as little contact as possible, drinks were few and far between.
The main point was they were getting us home, at a time when travel options were very few.
Arrival in Dubai involved more paperwork and a gruelling 12-hour layover (described in our related article). The onward Emirates flight to Rome was more of the same, with around 40% of the seats filled.
Arrival in Italy and onward to Malta
There were yet more forms to fill in on arrival in Italy (my bag was by now bulging with them) and plenty more queues to slow us down.
At least they hadn’t changed the rules in the meantime, and we were allowed to enter the country with our negative (and reasonably fresh) COVID-19 test results.
During our 9-hour wait for our final flight to Malta I took the time to fill in yet another declaration form for the Maltese Immigration… and discovered they’d once again shifted the goalposts. For entry to Malta, passengers on flights from Italy needed to have spent at least the previous 14 days in Italy.
Well, we’ll have spent just 9 hours in Italy, having actually traveled from Malaysia one day previously.
We’d just have to bluff it through. We were too close to home to quit before the finish line. We’d already picked up our luggage ready to check in when the gate opened, so I removed the compromising Emirates labels.
We were allowed to board the Air Malta flight with no questions asked.
Apart from obligatory mask-wearing, our one-hour flight experience with Air Malta was remarkable only by the lack of any other social distancing precautions. It was business as usual, with people pushing around each other to board and disembark.
Little wonder COVID-19 cases spiked throughout Malta in the following weeks.
We arrived in Malta early in the morning, and noticed the Immigration officials were questioning passengers from our flight. But when our turn came they just passed us through (…Phew!).
It was lucky they didn’t check our baggage either, since it was crammed full of goodies from Malaysia.
After a total of 37 hours we finally arrived home, completing our marathon journey – and most of it while wearing a mask.
So with COVID-19 restrictions is it all worth the hassle?
Travel is rarely a necessity.
Sometimes however you can have important personal reasons to get somewhere. In this case – if you have the patience to jump through all the administrative hoops and the COVID-19 health care checks (on top of the pseudo-security checks already associated with air travel) then break a leg… go join the herd.
But it won’t be fun. There’ll be plenty of stress and discomfort, extra costs, longer queues, fewer luxuries, the added risk of contracting or spreading infection, …and the possibility of being stranded in some god-forsaken location.
So do the planet a favour and stay at home.
If you enjoyed COVID-19 – The New-Normal Flying Experience, check out our other Inflight Experiences. You may also like: