Last Updated on March 1, 2021 by tripcentral
Our President, Richard Vanderlubbe shares his flying experience during the pandemic and how the airlines have adapted.
This article was not written to try and convince you to travel during the pandemic. Everyone makes their own risk decision. Its purpose is to describe the actions taken by Air Canada up to July 16th when I flew on their new Canadian built A220 aircraft from Toronto to Montreal. I’ve flown twice since: on an Airbus 321 from Toronto to Quebec City, and Northern Ontario on Q400 and Dash 8 aircraft.
Social distancing is not possible throughout the experience, so I was masked up. Be prepared to wear a mask from the time of arrival at the airport until leaving the terminal or your accommodations in the destination. Having worked from home for the last few months, I did find it tiresome on my ears to have a mask on for more than seven hours. If I were to do it again, I would find a mask that does not suspend behind the ears, but fully behind the head.
I was part of an industry and media flight and the flight was far from full. With five seats to a row, most rows had only two people, and a few three. For my own sense of safety, I would try and secure an N95 mask for a transatlantic flight. If I had someone right next to me, I would want the maximum protection. On my recent flights, the planes were fuller. My wife and I sat together with no one beside us, so again, I felt fine with the cloth mask. If I were right next to a stranger, then my N95 paranoia might kick in depending on the length of the flight – but this is very personal.
Scanning around the aircraft, I concluded that I would need to take up 12 seats for me to be almost (not quite) six feet away from the next passenger. That business model will never work for the airlines, never mind simply blocking the middle seat to 2/3 capacity. As a result, if you participate in air travel, you will need to take measures to protect yourself. On one turboprop flight we had more than six feet distance to the nearest passengers, and one another we got the warning email disclosing a full flight and the option to change if we wanted. We took the full flight as it was short and a 2 by 2 seat configuration meant we were not sitting right next to a stranger.
Arrival & Check In
Security at the airport would ensure that there are no extra people and well-wishers dropping off friends and family. The fewer people the better. On this day, the airport seemed to be a bit of a ghost town. There was no issue social distancing on my day at the airport. I could envision that an increase in demand could allow people to be reasonably distant from each other during this process. If the airport authorities and airlines spread their flights out to take advantage of the middle of the night hours into a 24hr operation, social distancing could be that much more possible with higher levels of demand.
I had an unusual ticket and therefore did not check-in online, but the check-in agent, wearing a face mask and gloves scanned my bar code from under the plexiglass and issued me a boarding pass. No issues. But you should check-in online and print your boarding pass or have it on your phone if you are so inclined. There is no need to have contact when dropping your bag as well – scan the pass and put your own tag on.
It was the area before security that I was temperature checked. It was not invasive at all. I passed, but thoughts raced through my head of times where I was rushing to get through the process due to a late departure or traffic. Would that be enough to raise my temperature and fail the check? Luckily, this was not the case and it was only a fleeting thought. Give yourself extra time to prevent a rushed arrival and relieve yourself of that worry.
Security, Lounge, Boarding
I saw the markers on the floor for social distancing and rope for snaking lines throughout the hallway. Knowing what this hallway normally looks like at peak times, I could picture the extension of the line well into the normally empty hallways after check-in. The security itself requires no touching, so this was no issue. If lineups existed, you would be less than six feet from other passengers while loading your tray. If you are masked, there should be little risk, and if you were even more concerned, you could wear gloves at this juncture. I felt fine given the lack of people.
The trick to security will be if the airport authorities and Government ensure there is ample staff for screening. Normally this is the bottleneck. If volume comes back, it will be incumbent on Government to ensure that there is adequate staff to keep the lines flowing and I think this is something travellers would be willing to pay a bit more for in their ticket prices.
The Maple Leaf Lounge normally crowds at the elevator, the check-in, and the coffee machines. Stair access to the Pearson Maple Leaf Lounge would help, but I had no issues this day. Plexiglass protects the check-in area. They pulled a lot of seats out of the Maple Leaf Lounge – looks like more than 2/3 of them, anticipating lower demand for a while. No more crowding at the coffee machines because you can wave your phone over a sensor (or scan a QR code) and service comes to your seat for delivered food and beverage. All food is boxed and wrapped for your safety.
Every other chair was blocked at the boarding gate – again, not six feet apart, but not right on top of each other. Less demand will mean less crowded gates, and fewer flights mean more spread out between gates. Boarding takes longer, so check-in will close earlier than it used to. Arriving at the airport early will be key. When you think of it, everyone normally wants to get on quickly and the crowd forms in the jetway. This doesn’t make the boarding process go any faster, other than perhaps, the constant reminder of a line up behind you. That said, my experience is that this does not deter many people from taking their sweet time messing around with the overhead bin and disobeying the boarding zone order. Hopefully, this is more rigorously enforced, and more zones used to eliminate bunch ups in boarding.
In Flight / Staying Safe
I was handed a plastic bag containing a “Clean Care+” kit. It contained a pair of disposable gloves, a bottle of water, hand wipes, and a good size bottle of hand sanitizer.
The aircraft was crystal clean, although it was only two weeks old which I’m sure made a visual difference. It was great being on a brand-new aircraft, but I almost wish I had seen a decade old plane to really compare the cleanliness. I have heard from many recent travellers that they’ve never seen airplanes so clean. The rigour and investment in cleaning are evident. Seat belts and buckles are all cleaned with disinfectant, as are armrests, tray tables and screens. The aircraft are fogged after trans-ocean and transcontinental flights, and electrostatic disinfectant is used on the overhead bins, seats, walls, and windows. I used to comment that airplanes smelled like the inside of my mom’s Kenmore vacuum cleaner bag mixed with coffee – no more. It wasn’t quite a spa or a hospital, but it was clean and fresh.
I tried to imagine strangers sitting next to me in every direction, even coughing and sneezing. This is where – in my mind, it would be worth upgrading the mask to an N95. Personally, I would bring six or so pairs of gloves as well. I think one pair provided was fine for my Toronto-Montreal with the next passenger two seats and an aisle away to my right, and directly in front and behind me. I used the gloves to work the screen in front of me. It worked fine. But after touching the screen, the germophobe in me wanted to take the gloves off – especially if I was going to touch food.
There is no inflight magazines on board so you’ll need to bring your own reading material too. I was pleasantly surprised to receive Air Canada’s En Route Magazine tucked in my home delivered morning Globe and Mail last week, although I was saddened by the route maps and how sparse they look right now.
On the short flight, thankfully I did not have to use the washroom. I did check out the washroom at the airport on arrival in Montreal, and to be frank, nothing much changed. It was reasonably clean as normal, and in the end, you don’t need to touch anything to wash and dry your hands. If I were to use a washroom on board an aircraft, I would use a clean pair of gloves, touch the door handles with tissue, and dispose of the gloves outside the washroom. Followed by hand sanitizer. Having a good supply of disposable gloves along with the mask, I feel, could work.
The hand sanitizer provided was probably the best I have ever used. It was mixed with a moisturizer that made a repeated rubbing of the hands until it vanished not an unpleasant experience. This stuff was nothing like the hand sanitizer provided at my grocery store. It caused me to think back to the crazy shortages at the beginning of the pandemic when Purell was like gold. Sanitizer was everywhere in the airports.
Meal & Beverage Service
In the early days, meal and beverage service was simply suspended and only bottled water was provided. It has now been adapted to be a contactless delivery. Check meal ordering options when you check-in online – some airlines permit you to pre-order. Drinks will be delivered in bottles and plastic cups only.
We were served a business-class meal on our short hop to Montreal as a demo of the whole experience. It was a bit overkill for a short flight, but it was a great demo. The meal components are individually wrapped and sealed by the caterer. My smoked salmon was wrapped and sealed separately from the bread and separate from the salad. The cutlery and napkin were also wrapped and sealed separately. All were assembled into an attractive cardboard box with a lid. It looked like a giant box of Black Magic chocolates being delivered.
The flight attendant pulled a tray from the cart without touching the box at all. I was required to remove the box from the tray to put on my tray table. And when it was all said and done, the entire box went into a very large garbage bag.
After six flights (three trips) I have become an expert at inserting pretzels into my mouth from within my mask – from the chin up, and in.
The meal was a cold plate, yet tasty. The move away from hot food was taken to eliminate the handling by flight attendants, although, in fairness, there hasn’t been much hot food in economy seating other than long hauls. The cold meal was a reasonable compromise.
Arrival & Baggage
Since this domestic flight was less than half full, I did not experience a customs lineup or baggage claim. Canada Customs for one is no longer providing printed custom forms that were handed out onboard your return flight to Canada.
Travellers arriving in Canada must download the CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) app, available in English and French only. The name of the app is ArriveCAN. The app can be downloaded in airplane mode on-board if needed. You must complete your arrival info via the app or paper form prior to debarking the plane.
Reduced flight frequencies will help with social distancing on arrival to an extent, however, in many destinations, there are peak arrival times. Consider sun destinations where flights leave North America early and arrive late morning. There is often a number of arrivals within a few hour span. Likely we will find that line ups are spread out and winding, but the line should process at the same speed. It will be interesting to see how governments and airports around the world staff up and make customs and immigration more efficient.
While passenger loads are light, social distancing in a baggage claim area will not be difficult. As usual, everyone wearing masks will mitigate risk when near others. For those most concerned, it is best to stand back and allow the bags to come off, watching from a distance if possible. Making your bag stand out with ribbons, stickers or colourful straps will help identification from a distance. The more unique the colour or identifying marks, the better. Of course, if you can skip checking luggage entirely, packing only the essentials, this will eliminate the time in the baggage claim altogether. It takes strategic packing and the willingness to do laundry while away.
I have to say, I really don’t think Air Canada could do much more under the current circumstances. They have carefully mapped out each part of the customer journey and taken some mitigating steps. The actions taken at Pearson have also contributed, however, the real test will be if passenger volumes increase to even half of what they were. One could foresee a more even distribution of point to point flights into the off-peak times and middle of the night to spread travellers out as traffic returns.
The decision to partake in air travel currently is highly personal. There will be a minority that would fly un-masked if permitted to. There will be a minority that would not fly again until a high percentage of the population was vaccinated. A sizeable minority will be satisfied with mandatory masking for all passengers and crew. The slight germaphobe in me would take some vigilant precautions by using an N95 mask to help protect myself from those next to me coupled with a clean pair of gloves disposed of after any bathroom visit. Luckily the duration of my flights so far has meant no trip to the lavatory – not always the most fun experience in normal times. Airport washrooms mostly have no entry doors and have touchless soap, water flow, and hand drying. Having seen what is being done, I would not hesitate to take a long-haul flight at this time, provided there was a safe and worthwhile reason on the other end of it.
The four major airlines Health & Safety protocols: