The risk on airplanes is probably lower than in many confined spaces because modern airplanes have cabin air filtration systems equipped with HEPA filters. - IATA
From Mallorca to Dusseldorf During Lockdown #
When I flew out of Mallorca three weeks ago, the Balearics were still in Phase 3 and the border between Spain and my destination, Germany, closed. I had to rely on my German passport to be admitted to my country of birth. I must admit I was a wee bit nervous about the whole trip, the big question being: will it be safe?
When arriving at the Park & Fly at Palma Airport, it felt like entering an ‘end-of-the-world’ scenario; the place was so empty. The young woman who checked me in was the only person wide and far. In an act of kindness never seen in pre-COVID times, she carried my luggage down the steps to the minibus before taking me to the terminal.
I seemed to be the only traveler left on earth … No less than four Guardias checked me into the building and smiled at me through their masks. I had a feeling they were glad to meet a fellow human being. This feeling of being extra-special held all the way to the gate. At security control, someone shouted my name and, as if in awe, said, 'She is on the plane to Dusseldorf.' I almost expected the woman doing the body check to curtsy.
Was it possible to keep my distance? Did I feel safe? Yes. A total of fifteen passengers were booked on the flight, and we were guided across the airfield on foot to board our plane like in the 1970s. Everyone wore masks. And, we were seated rows apart.
Now, three weeks later, as I am sitting at the gate at Frankfurt airport, I feel the situation is much changed. The borders are open, it's holiday time and the plane seems fully booked.
The New Normal of Traveling #
True, in all my years of traveling, I have never seen Frankfurt airport as empty as when arriving early this July morning. The check-in and security staff have plenty of time for a chat, and I learn that major parts of the airport are still shut down due to the pandemic. All flights are still being handled via the small terminal that was reserved for the national Lufthansa before COVID-19 hit. The place is big enough, however, to make you feel lost due to the still limited number of flights leaving #FRA.
As I'm seated at the gate watching the gathering crowd, I think "This is no problem at all." It's so easy to keep my distance. But then, about five minutes ago, our flight was called and boarding started. This was the moment when impatience took over and everybody seemed to rush to queue at the same time. People who seemed so relaxed a moment ago are now trying to push their way through to the front of the line, and a shouting match flares up between two middle-aged men about who got too close to whom. The staff has a hard time calming them down.
About 20 minutes later, boarding is completed and I have time to look back. The best strategy to stay safe? Take your time and hang back. There seems to be two kinds of passengers: edgy and mindful. Let the former finish boarding before you get up. Among the easy-going lot, you can queue in peace, keeping your distance is no problem and nobody will be stepping on your toes or ramming their on-board trolleys into your heels.
The plane is fully booked. Only in business class middle seats are free. From fellow passengers I find out that most of us share the same fate: we had all initially been booked on other flights that were cancelled and re-scheduled (sometimes more than once) for the airline to fill this one plane to the brim.
Also, the assigned seats seem to have been shuffled around like a deck of cards so nobody sits in the place they thought they would. Parents have been separated from their children, and couples are torn from each other's sides. Some take it more graciously than others, but fortunately, with a bit of goodwill, we find ways of swapping places and moving around until everybody is happy and settles down. While cleaning my hands with the disinfectant wipe distributed by the staff, I realize how glad I am for the high-quality mask my good friend John gave me as a farewell present before leaving Palma.
The air-conditioning system on the plane runs full blast before take-off. Bring a sweater and/or wrap to keep yourself warm is my advice. Now, it is a known fact that the longer you stay in a crowd of people in an indoor space, the higher the risk of contagion. Also, the combination of air conditioning and cold temperatures was reported to have caused more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases in a meat factory in Germany. My seat neighbour is on the bulky side, and I feel his upper arm pressing against mine. How safe am I in a crowded place like this?
Fortunately (and this I researched before booking my flight), most modern commercial airplanes are fitted with so-called High Efficiency Particulate Filters (HEPF) that are able to trap microscopic particles as small as bacteria and viruses. The air being blown into the cabin is practically sterile, claims IATA, the International Air Transport Association, in their brief on cabin air quality. The performance of these filters, they say, is ‘similar to those used in hospital operating rooms and industrial clean rooms.’ So, a green light on safety here.
A Bit of Paperwork #
As decreed by the Spanish government, all passengers traveling to the country from abroad have to fill in a form and give the address of where they can be reached, confirm they were not tested positive for COVID-19 and have no symptoms. To tell you the truth, I'm a bit shocked to read the last sentence on the sheet. "I am committed to carry out home quarantine during the 14 days following entry into Spain, carrying out self-monitoring of symptoms of the coronavirus, especially symptoms of acute respiratory infection (fever, cough or respiratory difficulty) and if I present any of them I will contact the competent health authorities by telephone." Can this be true? Will I really have to quarantine myself? I ask my seat neighbours, and the general guess is that the form is out of date.
I can't find out while I'm on board. I'm glad I have a wonderful garden on the island and good friends who, I'm sure, would do my shopping for me as they have done during lockdown. I weathered it once, I will weather it again if I have to… But fortunately, no need to worry! I ask one of the women handing out extra forms to those passengers who thought they'd be able to sneak by the counter set up by the public health authorities at the entrance to the baggage claim area without one. She puts my mind at rest: "It's only if someone on your flight turns out to have the coronavirus, then you'll have to stay in quarantine for two weeks." Why don't they write this on the form? She rolls her eyes and shrugs and we share a moment of we-know-better companionship.
By the way, you can save yourself some of the trouble by filling in the form online before you fly. Go to COVID Commitment Online Form and do as directed and you will receive a QR code that you can show at the desk.
To avoid the usual hustle and bustle of people grabbing their luggage from the overhead compartments and trying to get off the plane as quickly as possible, passengers are instructed to stay seated until their row is called. This works (relatively) well, and what is interesting – it seems to be quicker, too. So, other than the fact that the passengers in my row have been way too close during flight and it takes a little while to build up distance when leaving the plane, thumbs up here, too.
First of all, let's get this straight: I'm happy that I could actually book a flight back to the island and be admitted to the country. It would have been really sad to be locked out from my paradise. To the question of whether I felt safe throughout the flight, my answer is yes and no. The airline staff did everything they could to manage the crowd and remind them of the rules.
The problem is some people don't seem to listen. However, I found that if you yourself take your time and wait until the rush is over, nobody will enter your 1.5 metre safe bubble for more than brief moments at a time. Though this wasn't true during the shuffling around of seats before takeoff, but that was a situation that should not normally occur.
At this moment, I am more concerned about others than about myself. To be on the safe side, now that I am here, I decided to stay home for the next two weeks as much as possible in order not to pass on anything nasty to the people around me. And, if I have to meet anybody, I will insist on it to be outside. And, of course, I will wear my mask.
Wherever you are and whatever you do – please stay healthy and safe!
Cabin Air Quality Brief / www.iata.org
By Ulla Rahn-Huber
13 July, 2020