What it’s like to travel on a plane in the era of COVID-19

The one small pleasure of flying during the ‘Time of COVID’ is immediately evident just after checking in.

Gone is the Bataan Death March that normally snakes around the dividers at security screening. One simply walks directly up to the bored Canadian Air Transport Security Authority screeners for inspection. Hand sanitizer was scanned with a machine, then approved to take onto the flight

On my WestJet trip from Ottawa to Calgary via Toronto, there was only a handful of passengers, all masked, in the pre-boarding area. When the flight was called, they lumbered up to the gate and were subject to a new layer of questioning. A young woman with a clipboard ran through a list of questions: Any symptoms, any international travel, any provincial quarantines? No one I saw answered affirmatively and none was denied boarding.

At the door of the aircraft, a flight attendant handed out disinfectant wipes with a pair of tongs. The plane was so empty that the flight attendant had to ask me to move to the back of the plane to ensure proper weight distribution.

Arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport’s Terminal Three, a different story: The gate area for the connecting flight to Calgary was crowded by those trying to hold distance while searching for a power supply for their phones. Once aboard the Boeing 737-600, it was soon apparent this would not be a near-empty flight.

While the middle seats were not sold, nearly every row of three-plus-three seating was occupied. My head was not far from the nose and mouth of the guy one row ahead. My seat was next to a window, with a stranger in the aisle seat. He soon moved to sit three abreast with people he knew.

By federal government order, all passengers wore masks and the flight attendants also had gloves. Ahead of me, a sea of heads poked up over the seat backs, many four in each row of six. Some were obviously couples; some strangers, who sat with a vacant seat between them.

On an aircraft with space for 134, the flight attendant said, there were 77 passengers aboard. Some of them appeared to be deadheading airline employees.

Once airborne, snacks of pretzels and a dry cookie were served with bottles of water — challenging to consume while wearing a mask.

Queuing for the lavatories after take-off was observed with a fair distance between the passengers, but less successful were attempts to stay two metres apart in the awkward dance to open the doors and get out of the bathroom.

By the second hour of the flight, the elastic straps on my surgical mask were beginning to irritate the backs of my ears. I looped them around the earpieces of a pair of headphones for relief.

When we landed in Calgary and parked at the gate, the usual chaos to retrieve luggage ensued. Physical distancing was disregarded in the frenzy to yank carry-on down from the bins and establish position in the aisle for deplaning.

Later, when I asked about the number of passengers on the flight, WestJet referred me to its COVID-19 statement. It listed measures taken — the masking, the sanitization of aircraft, the HEPA filters that clean the air.

“The effects of COVID-19 on the airline industry have been swift and devastating,” it read.

“Our commitment remains and is unwavering — we will continue to hold safety as sacrosanct.”

The International Airline Transport Association maintains the chance of contracting the virus aboard an aircraft is small.

“IATA does not recommend restricting the use of the ‘middle seat’ to create social distancing while onboard,” the industry lobby group said.

“Evidence, although limited, suggests that, the risk of virus transmission on board aircraft is low even without special measures.”

Unfamiliar new measures were also in place at the major chain hotel I had booked in downtown Calgary. The front doors were all locked. Admission required a call to the front desk.

The clerk advised that there would be no maid service in the room and that all the “touch objects” — coffee makers, glassware, ice buckets — had been removed to curb transmission. In a hotel with 395 rooms, he told me, I was one of only three guests.

In the room, I washed my hands and the plastic key card.

Four days after the flight, I remain symptom free. But there’s still the return trip to come.

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