The current state of international flying became personal for me last week, as I flew back to the U.S. from Paris. My 90-day Schengen visa was about to expire and an extension was not an option. After 10-weeks sheltering with a dear friend in Paris, after watching the scary and dangerous U.S. airport Arrivals Hall chaos in March and April, after nearby non-Schengen countries failed to re-open their borders, after dealing with airline refund and rescheduling shenanigans, and with a heavy heart, I was finally headed “home”.
My lockdown location in the 15th Arrondissment in Paris is in a wonderful little neighborhood, with plenty of food and wine stores and interesting places to go on short walks. Paris, one of the European epicenters for the Coronavirus, implemented a very strict lockdown policy and has come through the current phase of the pandemic in relatively good shape. Leaving it for the “Wild West” scene in the U.S. was risky and may yet have repercussions for me, but I couldn’t legally stay in France.
With many countries and airlines debating how and when to emerge from their own restrictions and cut-backs, here’s what I experienced flying back to the U.S.:
I prepared for my flight by wearing a mask called the Nano Mask, developed in 2005 for the SARS/Bird Flu outbreak. It’s no longer made but my Parisian hostess gave me her unused spare. The mask uses electrically-charged nano materials to filter and destroy bacteria and virus particles and is 99% effective for 48 hours (in comparison, the N-95 mask used in many hospitals is only 95% effective). It protects against inhaling airborne virus particles, whereas regular surgical or cloth masks only trap particles exhaled by the mask wearer.
I was not excited at the prospect of wearing a mask for 18+ hours, but I felt safe with the Nano Mask. I also wore eye protection: over-sized plastic safety glasses that fit over my regular glasses, and I came armed with disposable gloves, and sanitizing wipes and gel. Too much? Maybe, but I was taking no chances and, at 68 years old, make no apology for my precautions.
My comfortable Mercedes C-Class Uber ride to the airport had a flimsy, poorly-attached plastic shield along the back of the front seats, the windows were up, and the driver wore no mask or other protective gear (all contrary to Uber’s published coronavirus policies). The driver left it to me to load and unload my bags in the trunk.
Paris Orly airport is temporarily closed and all flights have been consolidated into Charles de Gaulle airport, Terminal 2, and the eerie emptiness started at the drop-off point. There were just a few cars discharging passengers, no curb-side staff, many terminal doors were blocked off, and trash blew along the sidewalk. I would not have been surprised to see a tumbleweed go by.
Inside, the staff and security officers outnumbered the passengers. My Delta flight check-in was handled from the Terminal 2E desks of Air France. This was the scene at the counter, which opened just two hours before boarding. There were only 10 people in line with me and no one at all after me, at least while I was there.
The border and security areas included big halls of empty snaking stanchions and belts, and I went straight through them to be processed. Carry-on screening was slightly modified: belts and shoes stayed on and cell phones went into carry-on bags for scanning.
Once past security and into the “airside” of the airport there were no duty-free stores, souvenir shops, or restaurants open. Off to my right, a cordon of police officers, EMTs, and officials showed up and herded a group of 30 people through the security area, while ordering the the rest of us to remain where we were. They may have been deportees or possibly a national group being repatriated. They were not restrained in any way, except for the law enforcement cordon.
No airline lounges were open but I didn’t have that long to wait for our 12:50 boarding. My navigation through the airport was direct and without any mystery. I counted 40 people waiting with me at gate K51. Our Airbus A330-300 seats 290 and I was told later the final passenger count was 62.
When boarding started, we used a new “contactless” process where we scanned our own boarding passes. Everyone had a mask on and maintained good distancing down the jet way, right into the plane. Delta One seats have shoulder-high walls between them and the seats adjacent to me were occupied. So not a lot of social distancing and I was very happy to have my Nano Mask and safety glasses. Delta’s new Covid-19 Cleaning process notwithstanding, as is my usual practice, I wiped down everything I might touch with sanitizing wipes, turned on the air nozzle above, buckled up, and settled in.
As we boarded we were given a Health Declaration Form, to be filled out before we landed. It inquired about where we’d been overseas, if we had any symptoms, and where we would be staying in the U.S.
Before we took off, the cabin crew made an announcement concerning seating changes. I guess there were so many empty seats, a few folks had already relocated themselves. However, when you have so few passengers, their onboard weight distribution is significant and so we were advised to talk to the cabin crew before changing seats.
Speaking of which, apparently when a big plane has few passengers and therefore weighs less, a really steep take-off angle is required. We certainly climbed out of CDG at quite an angle, which was kind of exciting.
The Delta cabin crew was welcoming and the flight itself was uneventful. The nine cabin attendants were from Minneapolis and all wore masks and gloves. The other passengers wore simple surgical or cloth masks and no one else wore eye protection. No, no one was in one of those white Tyvek hazard suits we’ve seen online.
Main Cabin (Economy) passengers got very little served to them beyond a snack bag and water and had been advised to BYO food; in Delta One class we were served a full hot meal from a slightly reduced menu, along with wine, beer, and booze. China plates and metal utensils were provided with my meal, but my red wine was served in a plastic baseball-park cup. We also received a light snack plate and beverages near the end of the flight.
When we landed in Atlanta, we were kept in our seats even after we were parked and the engines were shut down. We remained seated as a masked CDC team boarded and interviewed us, reviewing our Health Declaration Forms and taking our temperatures. No one was coughing or gasping for air, so we weren’t treated to the sight of anyone being escorted away and we were allowed to deplane in due course.
The huge Atlanta airport was scary empty. My fellow passengers and I walked down empty corridors and rode empty escalators. At customs, the path was again clear straight through acres of stanchions and belts (I used a Global Entry kiosk and skipped around all that).
When we entered the Baggage Reclaim hall, I asked a staffer which carousel our bags would coming up on and he laughed and said “the only one running”, out of 12 carousels. Bags in hand, I exited and went to the Delta connection bag drop area (many more empty stanchions) and startled the sole agent there.
After depositing my bags, I had to go through security again and I was all alone, not another passenger in sight. The TSA folks were practically snoozing and I had to wait while they fired up the scanner for my carry-on. They said they’d seen just three passengers in the last several hours!
I proceeded downstairs to the famous Plane Train shuttle to go to my domestic flight terminal. This is a system of slick, four-car trains and there was no one else on the platform. When the train arrived, I had it completely to myself; no one else in any of the cars.
I alighted at the deserted Terminal D platform and by now I was half expecting Rod Serling (of “Twilight Zone” fame) to emerge from a side door. He did not, and I went upstairs to the D gates and, happily, saw some other passengers. I actually found an open Delta Sky Club nearby, where I cooled my heels and enjoyed their very limited offerings for 45 minutes.
Back out in the terminal, a “crowd” of 20 people was on hand at the Gate D14 where I boarded my flight to D.C. and had a First Class row to myself. My mask was starting to rub a bruised notch in the top of my nose and my safety glasses were irritating my ears, but I knew I was almost home. I was glad to have my eye protection and noted that no other passengers I saw anywhere, and only one or two airport workers, wore goggles or a face shield. Everyone onboard, of course, had to wear a mask.
After our reception in Atlanta, getting out of our seats once we parked at the gate in D.C. and gathering our stuff right away to deplane was a welcome return to normality. Reagan National was, of course, deserted at 9:30 PM and I had no trouble getting my bags, going up to the the third level, and going outside to find my Uber ride. My driver wore a mask this time. Door-to-door travel time: 18-1/2 hours.
In summary, the masks alone made these flights unusual and all the other safety measures were ever-present in mind. However, it was not a bad experience generally and I arrived on time, along with my bags, at my desired destination, which is not always the case. The absence of hordes of other travelers, while spooky at times, was also kind of nice. It remains to be seen if I caught anything from my fellow passengers, but I never felt crowded or endangered. The shake-up of the airline industry continues, but I’ll be ready to fly again when international tourism begins to recover. Evaluate your own risk tolerance and join me, if you’re comfortable doing so.
This story is not complete without mentioning that I’m now in a federally-required self-quarantine for 14 days. Using a CDC-provided log, I’m taking my temperature twice a day and noting any symptoms. So far, so good.