Pandemic Times and Flying Experience

(Narration of a personal experience by Mr CSRK Prasad, a Senior Merchant Navy Professional)

At best of times I am a reluctant traveler. Leaving the comfort and warmth of home for something unknown and uncertain is a proposition best avoided, if possible, I feel. During times like this when the pandemic is bulldozing its way ahead, leave travel alone, the thought of travelling too should be avoided at all costs. But, for some banishing the thought may be much easier than avoiding any sort of travel. I did happen to be one of the few who always needed to travel against their own volition. The pandemic times have certainly had a multiplier effect on my reluctance. Yet, I could not avoid the trip.

After much debate with my wife and children I decided I would undertake the journey. After setting out I had done some soul searching and experienced an epiphany in regard to my not so reluctant inclination. I will address that issue later.

After the decision is made, I have sought out information on safe travel during pandemic from know-all Mr. Google or Ms. Google for feminists. There is so much information available on internet that it is impossible for someone like me with average mental abilities to remember any of it. The task becomes even more so when some of it contradicts what you have learnt thus far. I felt none the wiser after my interaction with M(s)r. Google. Armed with half baked and confusing information I started out on the journey.

The scene at airport was not much different from what I imagined it would be. It wore an almost deserted look. The hustle and bustle I have known is missing altogether. The few people, who chose to travel, seemed to be weary of the pandemic and as reluctant to travel as I am. Most of the passengers appeared to be as confused as I am about the new check-in procedures that are put in place because of the pandemic. I must admit that these new procedures have made things easier for everyone in general. And as a result of this I felt much safer in the airport than on the streets of the city. The first inkling of change, in a very positive sense, I noticed was at the entrance to the airport lounge. The overbearing demeanor of the airport security personnel is replaced by a sense of apprehension and weariness. Normally a security guard at any airport entrance would scrutinize your ticket/boarding pass with the seriousness of an overzealous auditor. Then he would take your identification document compare the face with the photograph on the document and the name on the ticket. And he would repeat the whole process again with a suspicious look fixed on you all the time. This exercise, I always felt, is very demoralizing. That certainly had changed. The security personnel had looked at my boarding pass from a distance of 3 feet and had asked for my identity proof, which he examined cursorily, again from that safe distance, and waved me on. He did not even once try to reach for the documents I showed to gain entry. I thought the characteristic overbearing suspicious look had given way to a sympathetically weary one.

The check-in process was a breeze. Since I had already checked in, I only needed to drop my bags in. This was accomplished without much ado. Again the interaction was very brief and the mandatory safe distance was adhered to. With baggage taken care of, I proceeded for a security check. Here too the task was accomplished without much delay. The departure lounge was always abuzz with people milling around. This time it wore a relatively desolate look. There were hardly any people. The shopkeepers in the lounge were longingly looking at the thin number of passengers to take interest in their wares. The hopeful look on their faces is ignored completely by everyone. Keeping in view the strange circumstances forced on mankind by COVID-19, I arrived at the airport early anticipating delays due to new procedures. But, the entire process thus far was a breeze. Hence, I had some time on my hands. To fill the time and my tummy I decided to have breakfast in one of the outlets in the departure lounge. This too was completed in a jiffy, again, minimum interaction with stipulated social distancing in place. I sat back waiting for the boarding call and started reflecting on the developments thus far. I realized that I wasn’t the reluctant traveler I claim to be. It seemed to me that I may have been itching for some change or escape from the monotony induced by COVID-19 related restrictions. Perhaps I was even inclined to flirt with danger. Maybe, I was looking for some misadventure to write about. I was still mulling over the decision I made when the announcement for boarding was made.

Still thinking, I moved towards boarding gates. There everyone one is given PPE and asked to wear it before proceeding to the aircraft. I complied with the requirement and felt the sense of safety being reinforced all over again. Usually boarding is chaotic anywhere in the world. The moment the flight is announced people rush to departure gates despite the boarding sequence given by the airline staff. First time ever in my entire flying, I have noticed passengers falling in line and keeping distance from the person in front of them. Social distancing was clearly visible in the aircraft too. The center seats in every row were kept vacant. Upon entering the aircraft I felt that the flight is for carrying out an important mission. Passengers in their PPE looked like commandos. However, the disorderly behavior of the people on board indicated that it is a normal commercial flight during abnormal times.

I settled in my aisle seat and looked around. Normally I would settle in, close my eyes and shut the surroundings out. But, the new normal made me curious and I began observing the scene around me. Across the aisle a family with two children was seated. One young lady was sitting in the window seat on my side. The lady had removed her face shield and kept it on the center seat separating my aisle seat from her window seat. Perhaps she felt that the shield was messing up her hair. My sense of safety started melting. I couldn’t muster the courage to ask her to put the shield back on. I was still contemplating whether to tell her or not when the departure announcement was made on the flight’s PA system. The cabin crew asked the passenger to keep the face shield on during flight and the lady immediately obliged. I started feeling safe again.

The issue with the lady and face shield addressed, I turned my attention to the family sitting across the aisle. The man sitting in the aisle seat across whipped out an aerosol can of sanitizer and started spraying liberally on the seats in front of him and the backrests of the seats they were sitting in. During normal times carrying an aerosol can, let alone alcohol based sanitizer, into any aircraft would have been a strict NO. But, these are not normal times and even that safety measure was waived. The man, I felt, was overly cautious. After he completed spraying the seats he pulled out a sanitizer bottle from his pocket, wiped his hands and the hands of his wife and children. Ironically, this same man did not pay any attention to the way he was wearing his mask. He covered only his mouth and left the nose exposed. Even the face shield was lifted up to uncover his nose. I wondered why he was wearing the mask at all. To add to his indiscretion his children were not wearing any mask. He must be assuming that the spray has erected an invisible barrier between his family and rest of the aircraft, I thought. He used the spray so generously that I started feeling intoxicated breathing in the air around me.

The man across the aisle was not the only one who was wearing the mask improperly. To my chagrin, I found a handful of people around me doing the same thing. When the aircraft landed at the destination I was very happy to escape into the vast interiors of the airport from the confined space inside the aircraft.

The sense of safety returned again. I quickly picked up my baggage and left the airport. The sense of safety I felt upon leaving the airport evaporated completely when I reached the diagnostic center, where I was to get a routine medical examination and COVID-19 test done. That is another story for another day.