Skies are far from clear as pandemic restrictions ease

Pandemic restrictions may have been eased but expect turbulent skies ahead if you are looking forward to air travel in the near future. What follows is a cautionary tale.

This past March, my partner, Sam, fell ill and tested positive for COVID-19 in Monrovia, capital of the west African country of Liberia. A year earlier, he had planned to join me in Toronto. But, as coronavirus swept the globe, our plans – like everyone else’s – were upended.

Nonetheless, I was determined to support him and to be reunited after a year of uncertainties. Although I was nervous about my own safety and despite warnings that travel restrictions could change at any time, I was resolute in my decision. Armed with my negative COVID test, multiple face masks, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes, I headed to Pearson International airport on April 11.

Being an avid traveler, I thought I knew what to expect. But I quickly discovered that all bets are off during a pandemic.

Global air travel plummeted by more than 60 per cent in 2020. Previously vibrant airports were now desolate. “It was eerie,” Peta Gaye Bookall, an international development worker who lives in Suva, the capital of Fiji, said of the silence at Hong Kong’s usually bustling international airport.

“There was no one walking around. Everything was empty. Nothing was open. No restaurants. Nothing. I was waiting for the zombies to come eat me,” she recalled with a laugh.

After the Pearson ghost town, I was not prepared for the flurry of activity at gate K30 at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, where a crowd lined up to board the flight to Monrovia. The orange-and-red airport seats plastered with “Keep This Seat Unoccupied” posters were all taken. Social distancing was impossible, mocking the multiple signs and announcements cautioning passengers to remain at least one metre apart.   

The packed flight to Monrovia was a stark contrast to the nearly empty flight from Toronto and a reminder of the uneven progress of the pandemic across the globe. While Canada was struggling with yet another lockdown, and India faced a deadly surge fueled by variants, life in Monrovia had largely returned to normal aside from face masks and hand-sanitizer stations outside shopping malls.

A month later, I was on my way back to Toronto – spouse in tow. Canada was in the midst of a brutal spike, reporting record numbers of new cases. At every turn, security, immigration and airline officials asked us how we expected to get back into Canada. My response was a binder of documents that confirmed my status as an international graduate student in Canada and verified my spouse’s identity as we do not share the same last name.

It was just such a security check of our many documents at Charles de Gaulle that caused us to miss our Air France flight to Toronto. The officials gave us the all-clear 10 minutes after the plane had pulled away from the gate.  

Finding another Toronto-bound flight was not easy. With airlines having cut back sharply on their schedules, the next flight was in three days. By then, our negative COVID-19 tests would be invalid.

Luckily, a quick-thinking Air France travel agent re-routed us through Vancouver. That was the good news. The bad? As well as the long detour, we would need to spend another 21 hours hanging around the airport. Many airport hotels had shut down due to the pandemic and the only one open was fully booked. Neither airline lounges nor restaurants were open.  

An airport worker eventually directed us to a Pret a Manger located in a different terminal building. A shuttle and security clearance later, we found the sandwich shop and grabbed some water, coffee and sandwiches – and found that food and snacks bring weary travelers together. A previously empty mezzanine floor fitted with colorful loungers soon filled. A Lavazza machine sold hot drinks; snacks and candy were on offer in an adjacent vending machine. The open lounge turned into a magnet for socializing. A young man had a tip: “You can get hot water from the vending machine for free,” he said, offering me a bag of bagels and assuring me that it hadn’t been opened.

We struck up several conversations: a Chinese engineer waiting for a third COVID-PCR test before he could board his flight  home to Shanghai; a son with a West African father in need of a charger to power his phone and speak to his family in New York. We were all in this together, finding camaraderie in an otherwise miserable situation.  

The author, right, at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France.

Thirty hours after arriving in Paris, we landed in Vancouver to news of yet more changes in the rules. We would have to quarantine at a government-mandated hotel in Vancouver before flying on to Toronto. For $1,700, we secured the coveted room at a Four Points hotel in Vancouver and isolated from the world for the next three days. In spite of reports of poor oversight, bad food and outbreaks in hotels, we had a pleasant stay. The room was clean, the food mundane but adequate and the staff kind enough to run multiple errands for necessities –feminine products, drinks, and so on.  

These simple acts of kindness are the most powerful. On the final haul to Toronto, there was one last hurdle. Air Canada had rescheduled us on different flights. I was scheduled to leave at 7:30 a.m. and my partner at 1:15 p.m. Not realizing we were on different flights due to a series of misunderstood alert messages, I missed my flight – again. This time there was no back and forth. At no cost, an Air Canada ticketing agent placed us on the same flight with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. Canadian kindness, I explained to Sam.

Finally, we were Toronto-bound. Five days and four hours after checking in at Monrovia, we walked into my apartment. Mission accomplished.

Looking back at my adventure, I have a few tips for other intrepid COVID-era travelers:

  1. Research the rules and regulations. COVID testing, quarantining and vaccination requirements vary by country. While Canadian borders remain firmly closed to vacationers for now, parts of the EU have begun to issue COVID-19 travel certificates. Some countries require supervised quarantine, others do not. Sowjanya Somisetty, a travel agent at Just Travel Deals in Brampton, Ont., notes that “every country has different COVID-19 rules, regulations and guidelines that have to be considered when booking your ticket.”
  2. Expect the unexpected, and plan accordingly. During a pandemic, arrangements can fall apart quickly and all bets are off. Fortunately, many airlines are still offering flexible reservations. There is a level of risk travelers must accept, says Somisetty. “Ultimately, the traveler is the decision-maker. You are taking a risk if you decide to travel.”  
  3. Confirm any special requirements in advance. Options such as dietary requests must be carefully planned. Bookall, who has chicken and gluten allergies, did not consider how COVID-19 would limit food options on a 14-hour flight from Hong Kong to Toronto. “I was so hungry I cried,” she laughs sheepishly. The best the flight attendant could do to accommodate her was Cup-o-Noodles.
  4. Keep your emotions in check. The pandemic and resulting delays are not the fault of airlines, border agents or the hospitality industry. Do not take out your frustrations on their employees. Rather, try to make their jobs a bit easier.

Even with travel restrictions lifting, COVID-19 isn’t going away. If you decide to travel, plan for a bumpy ride.