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Flying during a pandemic

End of May 2020

 

The day has arrived! We had to do the unthinkable: take a transatlantic flight during a world wide pandemic. Wohoo!!! 

Why? 

I had to leave the country due to visa reasons. 

During the Covid-related turmoil my original flight got canceled, so I just waited for things to calm down and wound up rebooking it for a later date.

 

I knew if we had to fly, we would have to be extremely flexible. Honestly I was a bit afraid too. What if one of us wound up catching the virus and we in turn wound up infecting someone else? I reassured myself that it will be fine since we would be sitting on a half empty plane with empty seats in between passengers. I mean, how many people would choose to fly under these conditions and would do so voluntarily! 

 

When I had the date in mind I called the airline and rebooked my flight. The process was relatively smooth but they charged me $199 for the change. I found the extra charge to be odd, as the original flight was canceled by the airline. I reminded myself to stay calm and flexible. I was actually glad it wasn’t more, since a new ticket for my husband was shockingly high.

My father-in-law drove us to Newark Airport. There were no cars, no traffic, it was eerily quiet.

Expecting a ghost town we entered the terminal and couldn’t believe our eyes: a very long line of masked passengers, snaked along the way, all were waiting to check in. Why the hell were there so many people who wanted to fly?

 

We warily joined the line and waited like our ancestors from long ago. I felt like a passenger waiting to board the Titanic. No online check-in on the app, nor a check in kiosk at the airport.

This was not a good start.

There were families, a few elderly ladies (Why? They are the high risk group!), and one family that rushed by us all, going to the front, First Class check in with their entire apartment in tow.

After what felt like an eternity, when it finally was our turn, the woman at the desk processed our reservations, blankly stared at us and said unapologetically: „Sorry, I don’t have an active ticket for you.“

WTF! A burning flame rushed from my head all the way down to my toes. 

I laughed it off and calmly rebutted: „Here is my printed booking confirmation (how ancient), I changed the flight on the phone weeks ago and was issued a new ticket.“

The lady replied: „Yes, but it didn’t get activated internally.“

 

Within the next few seconds I went through several scenarios in my head of where this would lead. She explained that we would have to call the customer service helpline and try to fix it, she didn’t have the bandwidth to help us, and her supervisor is busy with other issues.

I looked over and saw a member of the First Class family waiting at the supervisors desk. Looking as if they were trying to check in their entire kitchen. We Germans love our kitchens and take them wherever we go, it’s a German thing.

 

We joined the line for problematic cases and I called the hotline. My husband, a bit frantic, also dialed the helpline and at the same time jabbed his fingers into my phone trying to see the booking. And just like that he accidentally deleted the email along with the booking info.

Another fire rushed through me. The email was on my German phone, I didn’t have mobile internet, so how could I get it back in a short time? 

 

After waiting helplessly on the helpline for 45 minutes, I started saying prayers to the universe to please resolve this. I also felt red flashes on my neck developing. I call these my chameleon flashes of high emotional distress and my friends know this well. It doesn’t look pretty, I even got these during my wedding speech. 

 

The First class family member was still at the counter and I realized we were really running out of time. We couldn’t get through to the helpline which made me increasingly angry. We finally made it to the supervisor’s desk. I told my husband to stay calm, don’t touch anymore phones, and that we need this ladies help. Luckily she went into full speed problem solving mode. She made the right calls, and after a few minutes (it felt like another hour) she said: „We found your ticket.“

„Thank you universe“, I replied.

„But we can’t activate it.“ 

Shit!

With the clock ticking we sucked it up and wound up paying the difference of $600 for a new ticket, so I could get a spot on the plane.

 

Emotionally exhausted we reached the gate, being the last passengers through security. Our mouths were dry as the Sahara dessert, but there was no water to buy anywhere. Not even a vending machine. What the hell! We have a virus not a drought. I saw a water fountain in the distance and it was not a mirage. My German knack for preparedness ensured that I had  a reusable bottle to fill up. We gulped it down immediately. 

 

After some socially distanced boarding protocols we got on the plane and I couldn’t believe my eyes again. The plane was full. And I mean full. 

What about leaving a seat empty in between people? What about social distancing?

Lesson learned: As soon as it’s about economic survival for the airline, every seat but not every person matters. 

 

We all sat there with our masks on, some people even wore Ghostbusters style 3M hazard suits, goggles and not one but two masks: one N95 and another one on top to protect it. How can these people breathe? I felt like a total fool with my colorful hand made cloth mask from my aunt.

I started observing a father and his daughter. They seemed in total control of the situation and knew exactly what to do. They wore professional looking masks, while sanitizing everything regularly with little cotton balls that he pulled out of a jar of rubbing alcohol. I was in awe. 

 

I decided to watch the movie „Judy“, I cried in the end, and with those tears some sadness about the world (Weltschmerz) left my soul. 

 

The service was very minimal. We were given a large water bottle in the beginning, a smaller one later, and only one food option was available. When the food arrived, I was left to wonder: how do we all eat now? Do we take off our masks? I waited and observed my fellow passengers and saw the people with hazard suits staring with concern at the daunting task ahead of them, while the rest took off their masks and ate ambivalently.

 

After a few hours of being airborne I started to feel fidgety. I hadn’t been that close to people in weeks, months. I was basically in lockdown in Brooklyn for almost 3 months. I got this  suffocating feeling that fresh air wasn’t flowing through my mask. People fell asleep, and I secretly decided to loosen my mask a bit to calm down. It worked. 

 

I learned the biggest lesson about discipline on that trip. The father and daughter next to me, didn’t drink, eat or use the bathroom for 7.5 hours. They never took off their masks. I couldn’t believe it. I promised myself if I ever felt like I couldn’t do something I should remind myself of those two warriors.

 

We touched down and we were all eager to finally get off. But the staff kept us waiting. After 10 minutes there was an announcement: Please excuse the delay in disembarking the aircraft, we have to let you out in small groups due to social distancing rules.

„Ha, are you kidding me? We just sat like sardines for 7.5 hours, get me off that damn plane“ I yelled in my imagination while I laughed loudly. People stared at me with fatigue and boredom. 

 

The crew seemed stressed during the whole flight. They weren’t saying much when they served us, and when a person rose from their seat during the descent a crew member yelled through the speakers. 

„What don’t you understand lady, when I say you need to sit down!“

Uuhhh, I thought not handled professionally.

 

Passport control was straightforward, but that was to be expected as I was returning to my home country. 

There we were, finally in Frankfurt, getting on the ICE train to Bavaria. We made it. If we wound up getting infected, we wouldn’t know for some time. We did our best to stay safe. In my backpack was the sole paper slip we received on the plane. The one where it states that you need to call your local health department by law and quarantine for 14 days. 

Those were the rules, and in Germany they are to be followed. That’s what we intended to do, but that’s another story for another time. 

Being in NYC during a pandemic was shocking and sad.

You can read more about how I felt and how I experienced it here:

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