Navigating the skies in a Covid world

Grounded Virgin Australia aircraft parked at Brisbane Airport, Tuesday, 7 April, 2020, due to the downturn in flying caused by Covid-19. Photo: Darren England/AAP Image.

The glamour of flying has taken multiple hits in recent years and decades – but Covid-19 is something else again. Sunny Grace, one of a relatively small number of people still flying regularly, paints a picture of air travel, Covid-style.

Remember when flying was a glamorous occasion? Being fed a meal in the air seemed the ultimate in luxury when I was a kid. Serviettes, real cutlery and little compartments for each meal. And that was just economy. A real treat for a hippy kid flying to see my grandparents.

How times have changed. Back then people would smoke on the plane. Then only up the back of the plane until being banned for good. After 9/11 so much changed. Gone was the real cutlery, replaced by single use plastics.  And now with Covid more changes. When people learn I have to fly frequently for work they often ask: “How is it different during Covid?” 

The first noticeable difference was the quiet airports. No queues to check in or bag drop or to go through security. Crosses mark the seats in lounges and on the ground to remind travellers to spatially distance while they wait to board their planes. Shops were closed and running on minimal food supplies. 

Sydney Domestic Airport’s Virgin and Jetstar terminal is pictured almost deserted on Tuesday, 22 December, 2020. Photo: Dean Lewins/AAP Image.

But it is the contradictory rules I notice the most. Wear a mask unless you are eating and drinking on planes and in airports. Stay 1.5 metres apart even though it is impossible and human nature still means passengers crowd together trying to get off the plane quickly. Every airport seems to have different rules. 

Last November, I travelled to Melbourne to do a filming location scout for a client just as they were coming out of second lockdown. Sydney Airport was rather blasé about face masks and temperature checks. The flight itself was full. People desperate to see family and friends. Despite all efforts, it is impossible to socially distance on a plane. We were packed in full rows as usual, no seats left between people, unlike the lounges. When getting off, people lined up as usual, jostling to get out first. Walking through Melbourne Airport to the baggage check, the tension was palpable. People furtively adjusting their masks and checking to see if others were complying with the Victorian laws. 

Waiting for our luggage was like a scene from Love Actually. People cried and hugged loved ones for the first time in months. Snippets of stories I overheard included parents whose children were on their way back from overseas and had to quarantine in Sydney only to be stranded for months as Melbourne went into lockdown. I felt my own eyes water watching these reunions. It really does prove connection and love are more important than we sometimes realise. 

In scenes repeated around the country as state borders open and close due to Covid lockdowns and restrictions, passengers are greeted by family members after arriving from Melbourne at Perth Domestic Airport on Tuesday, 8 December, 2020. Photo: Richard Wainwright/AAP Image.

My flight to Byron Bay last December came at the beginning of the Northern Beaches outbreak and there was a sense of panic in Sydney. Flights booked out fast with people trying to escape the threat of possible Greater Sydney lockdown over Christmas. The airport was busier and queues long. Once again flights were full, no masks required and no social distancing. In Ballina Byron Airport, a woman from a flight before me was being held separately from others by police officers and rumours abounded that she was a confirmed case – but nothing made the news and there have been no recorded cases in Byron despite the influx of tourist arriving on planes. 

It wasn’t long before I was back on a flight to Sydney for a shoot. Airport was quiet again. Most travellers avoiding Sydney and its hotspots. Our small Fokker Friendship plane held one passenger per two seats. For once we could distance in the air.  My son and I flew back a few days later and were fortunate enough to be upgraded to business where we discovered money can buy social distance.

In the business lounge, there were a handful of passengers. On the flight, I felt like I was back in the old days although I have to say the food left a little to be desired. Gone was the cutlery but the wine was served in real glasses. We had space and having boarded first and getting off first, I felt like we managed to avoid most other passengers. 

Last week I flew Ballina to Sydney return for work. At Sydney Airport it felt like the shops were gearing up for the new normal. The Camilla shop was already open, possibly because one of the busiest destinations in the state is Byron Bay, where a bejewelled chiffon kaftan is de riguer for tourists. Not so much for locals who prefer hemp or linen. Regional airports are still strict on all Covid protocols including temperature checks, distancing and check-ins. Unlike Sydney Airport where the only real distancing occurs solely thanks to lack of passengers.  

A passenger arriving at Melbourne Airport from Sydney is tested for Covid-19 on Sunday, 20 December, 2020. Photo: Tim Carrafa/Herald Sun/POOL via AAP Image.

One similarity I found at all airports is lack of staff. Each member of staff I asked to help me with bags, ticket issuing, etc. were rushing about fulfilling three roles from check-in help to gate lounge announcer to baggage queries.

One woman in particular was struggling with it. I encouraged her to complain to HR. After all, the airlines have been given government stimulus and access to JobKeeper. Something tells me this isn’t trickling down to staff, right? Sounds like the unions agree. I hope this doesn’t become the new normal when travel becomes more frequent again. 

Given Covid is continuing to come into the country via international travellers, flight attendants and quarantine, perhaps it is time to think about having quarantine in less populated cities.

As I write this, Australia has had no new community transmission for more than two weeks despite our arbitrary, haphazard rules. Contact tracing seems to be the thing. Yes, let’s wear masks and be cautious and keep crowds to a minimum but we are so lucky. This is a big country. We have space. Let’s share it kindly. On the ground and in the sky.

Oh, and let’s bring back some of the glamour. Starting with the cutlery. 

Sunny Grace is a Sydney writer, producer and director. Her website is located at sunnygrace.com.au.

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