The app on my phone tells me I haven’t been to the airport since February 2020. It feels like a lifetime ago. But I guess flying is like riding a bike; once you’re back at it, it’s just like every other time. Except that it’s worse.
Before my flight, I had to schedule a Covid test less than 48 hours prior to takeoff. My destination required a test 3 days ahead of time, but there was no clear information on government websites, airport, websites or the airline website about whether I needed to meet the testing requirement to enter the connecting city even though I would only be transiting through there. I could have called the airline to check since they’re the ones responsible for enforcing test or vaccination requirements for travel. But when I had to call them to change my flight, I spent three full weeks trying to get a response by phone or email. Instead I made sure I met the most stringent and inconvenient testing requirement of the connecting city to avoid being turned away at the airport.
So despite having bought my ticket months in advance, I was actually not sure if I could go on this trip until two days before I had to arrive at the airport. That’s a new fun travel anxiety, though one I hope not to have to repeat after I have the Pfizer vaccine coursing through my veins.
Where I could previously check in online and skip the hassle of an additional airport line, checking in at the counter is now mandatory because they have to verify that you have proof of vaccination or a negative test. While I appreciate the measures, I don’t care for how long I have to wait in line. Even though the check-in attendant has spent 20 minutes with one of the first customers queuing and the flight departs in an hour and a half, he still takes the time to weigh people’s backpacks to see if he can charge anybody $90 for an overweight bag because of course he still has time for that.
After successfully checking in, I take a quick detour outside so I can take off the mask and kiss my partner goodbye before running back inside to go through security. A weirdly melodramatic moment brought to us by this pandemic.
The rest of the flying process is almost the same as I remember it with only small differences that highlight our new reality. Border patrol officers ask you to take off your mask briefly so they can verify that your tired face under it is the same as the one in your passport. They bring out a sanitary wipe with the drink and food service onboard. Arguments at the gate have a new interesting flavor: being denied boarding for not having a negative Covid test. Oddly, the safety video doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that you’re already wearing a mask when they explain how to use the oxygen mask. But I guess if you need that one, you have far more pressing mortal dangers than a communicable disease.
In the before times, you sized up the people around you to determine whether they would be fussy or talkative during the flight. Whether they’re the kind of person that would shove their 60 lb rollerboard on top of your laptop. Of course, you still leer at other passengers for their lack of preparation at security or for lining up to board before the plane has even arrived at the gate. But now there are brand new pandemic reasons to hate the people you’re traveling with. Now you also have to wonder if they’re the kind of people who think the vaccine is designed to chip people so 5G towers can track them because a science teacher from Chucalissa, Mississippi told them so on YouTube.
During the flight, you’re asked to fill out a passenger locator form in the event that someone on your flight tests positive. Doesn’t seem like a necessary step considering all the same information is available to the airline and government authorities when you book a flight. But it’s a nice reminder that the sweet lady with the cat under her seat next to you might transmit a deadly disease while you enjoy the complimentary refreshments. Although more likely than not, it would be one of the two dozen people wearing the mask under their nose or not at all. While I’ve grown to expect that some people give zero fucks about protecting anybody from their germs, I at least expected the flight crew to enforce the rules. Not only are they not doing that, they’re also not wearing the FFP2 masks required across Europe for any indoor activity including travel. And occasionally they pull down the surgical mask they are wearing so people can understand when they’re speaking.
I was torn about how to handle eating and drinking on the flight. But in the end, I decided that not eating or drinking anything for at least 18 hours (not including potential delays) would make me sick for reasons entirely unrelated to Covid. So I put my mask on while I chew, and I drink all my water in one gulp hoping that the kid coughing in the row in front of me with his mask around his chin didn’t bring an unwanted passenger onboard. Twelve hours into my journey, I’m eating hungrily with my mask hooked around my arm. It’s hard to stay disciplined when you’re a dehydrated zombie.
As distressing as it is to potentially be exposed to a sick person, I also understand the mask frustration. Do you know how bad your breath smells after 8 hours of wearing a mask, about half of which were spent in a state between sleep and waking? Almost bad enough to risk it with Covid. I recognize that I’m extremely privileged to not have to wear a mask on a daily basis for work, but it doesn’t make the tugging at the back of my ears for these 18 hours any more comfortable. At least it hides my sleeping face from other passengers so I can take a prescription muscle relaxer and drool all over myself in private.
In the end, flying nowadays is an even bigger act of blind trust than it used to be. You have to trust, without any evidence that you should, that the people not wearing masks are vaccinated, or that they didn’t take an antigen test 3 days ago and spent the ensuing 72 hours partying all over town. In the same way, I suppose, that you have to trust your pilot not to fly you into the Alps because he had a bad day. Like many travel-related hassles, flying is a necessary evil that always has at least some possibility of getting you killed. Despite all the annoying new restrictions, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t grinning from ear to ear as we take off – my first time in 16 months. Flying may be just as bad as I remember it but it’s just as good, too.