Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Flying in corona times

Mr. 4 woke up at 7AM and bounced out from his room and right into our bed. “Daddy! Today’s the day, right!?”

“It sure is, kiddo!”

He’s been looking forward to this day for a long time. It’s the first time since the corona crisis started that we’ve gone on a trip outside of Germany, and it’s the first time we’ve had the chance to see any family that hasn’t involved a two-dimensional screen.

Frankly, I was a bit nervous about this trip. It was a serious stretch outside my current comfort zone. If it were just up to me, I’d have stayed happily in Berlin all summer long. So, we thought long and hard about how to make it work while minimizing variables and risk. As part of our risk mitigation, for example, we took a COVID-19 PCR swab test on Monday, as did the family on the other side we were meeting, and got the results yesterday.

Good news, the results were negative all around.

By 9AM, we were in the taxi van to the airport. Luggage in the back. Masks on. A decent plastic sneeze screen between the driver and us. Traffic in general around Berlin is still lighter than it used to be before the crisis, and getting to the airport in decent time wasn’t a problem at all. At the airport, traffic was lighter still.

The taxi driver was confused when I paid him, thinking I’d given him way too many bills. I had, by German standards. Instead of just rounding up to an even number, I had tipped well by American standards. It’s corona times. Every bit counts for service workers, and I wanted to give him a surprise to help put a smile on his face for the rest of the day.

At the terminal entrance, there was a small queue gathered. At first, I thought we were going to have to join them and wait a bit. The people there, however, had arrived so early that check-in wasn’t yet available for their flight. While we had put extra time into getting to the airport, we hadn’t put in that much buffer time. So, we went right in and were greeted by a mostly empty terminal full of empty check-in desks with one longish queue leading to our airline’s counter.

One of the things we did to help make things easier was to fly a carrier that we have status on. It’s an advantage in the best of times, and is even nicer right now. That meant we were able to go right up to the gold checkin counter and skip most of the line, minimizing the time we needed to be even in a spaced out queue with other people.

The check in counters were nicely fortified with plexiglass screens, but the clerks behind the counter weren’t wearing masks. That struck me as strange, and as putting way too much faith in the sneeze shields. Too much faith in my opinion. Otherwise, the check-in process was fairly normal, with the one addition that we had to prove that we had filled out an arrival Passenger Locator Form (PLF) online.

After check in, we moved onto the next hurdle: security. The staffers at Tegal were very serious about allowing only one carry-on. No personal items. Between Katerina, kiddo, and I, we had three primary carry-ons, but we also had a tiny kids backpack for kiddo that I hoped would pass as a “personal item”. Nope. No joy. We ended up stuffing it into one of our other bags. Good thing it was so small.

Once we met the letter of the limits, the process was easy enough. No lines. Just the usual drill. Katerina did have a rude surprise when one of the security people took her glasses off her face, then handed them back after asking if Katerina could see without them. Of course, the gloves protecting the security person would have put whatever they’d picked up from other passengers on her glasses. Needless to say, the glasses got extra attention with alcohol after we were done with security.

Next up: Duty free. The store was creepily empty. We’re not big duty free shoppers, and we didn’t stick around, but I felt a bit bad for the employees there. None of them were wearing masks, however, which struck me as really strange. I’m not sure if they would have put a mask on if somebody had approached them, but I had no interest in finding out.

The most chaotic part of the day was the boarding process. Less attention had been paid to boarding by both the airline and airport than almost every other step. People weren’t spacing out in the queue to board. Aegean used the usual process of elites board first and didn’t board from back to front of the jet like some airlines are.

Once on board and seated, I really didn’t like the feeling of people boarding past me. I really wish I had skipped the instinct —built up over years — to board in the usual group order and instead waited to board last. The carry-on limits for security pretty much meant that overhead bin space wasn’t at a premium.

Add the fact in that there were so many people wearing their masks with their noses hanging out, and ewww. I really want to make some stickers of an entirely inappropriate illustration I’ve seen online to hand to people who sport the look.

Up in the air, things settled back to something that felt reasonably ok. Food service was in prepared bags. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any accommodation for dietary needs. Given that I _do _have restrictions, I was pretty happy that I had brought my own food on the trip. I’m sure the provided food was fine, but just not for me.

At least, Aegean was still using the espresso machines they have on board. I definitely took advantage of that.

Once we landed in Athens, the arrival process was really well done. We had to wait for our row to be called to stand up, get our stuff, and deplane.

Then, after a bit of a walk, we went into a well spaced queue, presented our passenger forms, and some people were sent off to get tested. The algorithm decided that we didn’t need to be tested, so we went on our way to our connecting flight.

The only annoyance on arrival was that we had to exit out through baggage claim and then go back in through security again. I could have really done without the extra security check, but I think they were doing their best to keep the flow of arriving passengers as simple as possible. And, getting through security in Athens was even smoother than it was in Berlin.

Now that we’ve been through the process, I have to say that I’m a lot more comfortable with the idea of flying now than I have been through the crisis so far. That’s not to say that I’d recommend it.

Like I said above, we thought long and hard about the risks of this trip and how to minimize them. We used N95 masks with glasses on, and kiddo had a plastic face shield. We stopped frequently to clean up and disinfect our hands. We upgraded ourselves using miles to business class to ensure that we had more space around us on board the aircraft. And, I was really happy that the relative lack of travelers meant that it was possible to maintain social distancing in most of the situations we found ourselves in.

Really, the only part of the process that the airlines and airports really still need to do more work on is the boarding process.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t go out and do this again casually. The process of keeping your brain alert through every part of the travel process was tiring. And, even though I’m really happy with how we mitigated risks along the way, the risks are still there. Would I plan another trip if I really needed to? Say a family emergency? Sure. Not a problem, given what I experienced today.

On the other hand, I don’t see changing my attitude about doing my best to avoid very much travel over the year ahead, especially to countries that have been a lot less effective at controlling the spread of COVID-19. I’m looking at you America, especially for anything involving work. The payoff for the trip has to be worth the risk profile and the work it takes to mitigate those risks.