'On edge': What it's like flying in Canada during the pandemic
TORONTO -- Before the coronavirus, 2020 was already a banner year for Montreal-based travel blogger Ricky Zhang.
By mid-March, the self-described “Prince of Travel,” who runs a website under that regal brand, had been around the world a few times. In less than three months, he visited Switzerland, Japan, China, Qatar, the Maldives and Vancouver.
When the COVID-19 lockdown grounded the entrepreneur—and many others like Zhang who make a living globetrotting—his travel prospects came to an end. But he and his fiancee, who had been self-isolating with family in Toronto, needed to get back to Montreal where their lease was coming to an end.
So they redeemed 20,000 Aeroplan miles for a flight on Jetz, Air Canada’s celebrity and athlete charter service, and on June 1 they took what he called the “eeriest” visit to the airport and flight of their lives.
“I travel pretty often, so even though I was expecting to see very few people it was still a pretty big shock,” he told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Monday.
“It was so quiet that you could hear the birds in the distance, which is kind of crazy at an airport… There was almost an air of ‘being on edge’ among everyone. It’s a very different airport and flying experience than I’m accustomed to, which is almost like everyone is excited to travel. There’s really none of that now.”
The majority of entrances were blocked off, hand sanitizers were set up inside, physical distancing stickers lined the floors. Plexiglass barriers were installed at at check-in counters, but staff encouraged the use of self-serve kiosks to print boarding passes and bag tags.
The protocols are part of the new normal for the airline industry, which has taken a major hit during the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 502,000 people worldwide and infected more than 10 million. In May, Air Canada announced that it would lay off 20,000 workers, more than 50 per cent of the airline's workforce. WestJet has trimmed its payroll by nearly 10,000 since just before the pandemic.
Airlines everywhere have been forced to impose new protocols at airports and on flights, including physical distancing, meaning fewer tickets are sold and profits have nosedived. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Air Canada has received more customer complaints about refunds than any other foreign airline operating in the country.
It was Monday around 8 a.m., but Zhang estimates they saw no more than 30 other travellers that morning.
Boarding the flight, they had to lower their masks and present their passports, but unlike pre-pandemic protocol, airline staff did not insist on holding a passport to inspect it themselves, he said.
In the cabin, there were only five crew members, including the pilot, and only three other passengers. Everyone was fully masked. Flight attendants were still conversational, but there was no regular service. Each passenger received a "CleanCare+" kit, including water, sanitizer, a mask, gloves and a pair of disinfectant wipes.
FLIGHT SURPRISINGLY FULL
It’s taken some time for airlines to adapt to the pandemic. In April, when travel blogger Alina McLeod flew from Calgary to Saskatoon to stay with her parents before flying home to Toronto, masks weren’t mandated yet. Since there were so few people, McLeod decided against wearing one. She was given a Lysol wipe and a water bottle on the small WestJet plane, which had about 10 passengers. She says about half of them were not wearing face coverings.
After about a month of lockdown, McLeod was excited to be on the move.
“Just to be able to be on a plane and be out was nice,” she told CTVNews.ca. “They were sanitizing the whole airport the whole time, so I felt fairly safe.”
But her next flight a few weeks later felt different. In early May she returned to Toronto on Air Canada. Masks were now mandated for all passengers and the small flight was close to three-quarters full. With more people in the cabin, there was more unease, she said.
Though she expected to have an empty seat beside her on the small plane, someone sat down with a ticket for the neighbouring seat. For their safety and comfort, a flight attendant was able to move that person to a new spot before takeoff. Air Canada wasn’t selling side-by-seats at the time, so she’s not sure how the mix-up happened.
“I think everybody was surprised how full the flight was. At that time, people were still a little bit more on edge,” she said. “But I felt like they had much more knowledge about how they were going to do everything [than the first time I flew].”
These days, flying within Canada looks much different than McLeod’s first flight in April. There are signs that the industry could soon take off again as both Air Canada and WestJet announced last week they would end physical distancing on flights and again offer middle seats for sale.
The move comes as travel restrictions lift in some provinces and daily official COVID-19 cases in most of the country are hitting new lows. Quebec and Ontario, the two hardest hit provinces, have been recording fewer than 200 cases a day for much of June after highs in May of over 700 and 400, respectively.
The drop in cases and airline protocols has McLeod confident enough that she hopes to fly to Greece and some surrounding countries later this summer into the fall, and China, Japan and Southeast Asia during the winter.
Zhang has noticed interest and confidence in travel increasing, but he has no immediate plans to fly anywhere himself. He won’t be booking any international flights until the 14-day mandatory quarantine rules are relaxed. In the meantime, he says, domestic travel is appealing enough.
Zhang’s key to flying during the new normal when everyone is “on edge and cautious”? “Remembering not to let that caution transform into paranoia,” he said.