Thank you for travailing Air Pandemic Catching a flight while trying not to catch COVID-19 is a completely different, yet vaguely familiar experience, Free Press reporter Sarah Lawrynuik discovers

The getting from Point A to Point B part hasn't changed. But everything else has.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/05/2020 (866 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The getting from Point A to Point B part hasn’t changed. But everything else has.

Air travel in the age of COVID-19 is an experience that is both familiar and very strange.

The weirdness begins with the trip to the airport. Calling a cab in Winnipeg normally has to be done well in advance of the scheduled departure time, but there’s no waiting now; a Unicity taxi arrives within five minutes. The driver tells me this is his first trip to the airport in days. He took fares to and from Richardson International almost exclusively before the pandemic.

SARAH LAWRYNUIK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Walking through the terminal, it’s like a ghost town. Nearly every shop is shuttered.

The drop-off area is deserted, save for one RCMP vehicle.

Things are different inside the terminal in the departures area, too; there’s no sense of excitement about a coming vacation or change of scenery. Flying has become completely functional. For me, the need arose in the form of a family emergency — the frantic need to get back to loved ones before a death is still the same as it ever was, even if you have to keep your distance.

Through the fog of emotions, lack of sleep and general anxiety that’s accumulated over the past few weeks, I’m late checking in, but there’s still 40 minutes before takeoff, and it’s not like anyone is waiting in line.

Self-serve kiosks aren’t working, so I get a friendly security guard to track down a WestJet agent. When she arrives I’m told it’s too late to make my flight. She’ll book me on another.

I look around, dumbfounded. The terminal is virtually empty.

“Did the flight leave early?” I ask.

“No but WestJet requires you be here 45 minutes before the flight departs,” she responded flatly. “You’re far too late.”

SARAH LAWRYNUIK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Passengers waiting for one departing flight linger awkwardly, trying to keep their distance from one another.

Several more attempts are made to try to change her mind and print my boarding pass; pleading and tears fail to move her.

At any other time this might not have been a huge inconvenience. Another flight would leave in several hours, at most. But demand has dwindled, and there is only one direct flight to Calgary, my destination today. A quick Google search shows any alternatives would take me through Toronto or Vancouver with hours-long waits.

The situation means I’ve lost the chance to say goodbye to a loved one before they died, the chance to comfort my family as they grieved. It is a great personal loss, but ultimately one that barely registers in the grand scheme of horrific stories that have bombarded us all in the past weeks.

And I can hardly fault the agent for following the rules as they’ve been laid out to her. It feels these days like the rules are all that is holding the world together. Stay six feet apart. Don’t touch your face. Wash your hands. Be at the airport more than 45 minutes in advance. Got it.

The next morning, attempt No. 2. Mask on, no tears this time. And I’m early.

The regular luggage conveyor belts don’t run anymore for the dozens, rather than thousands of bags that are being checked over the course of the day. A handful of people queue to have their bags scanned at the usual oversized-luggage drop-off.

Heading to security, the ubiquitous floor markings remind you to stay six feet apart. The number of Canadian Border Security agents far out number the passengers waiting to be screened. I’m randomly selected for additional screening, and undergo the most thorough bag check I’ve ever seen, with every pocket opened, every flat surface swabbed.

SARAH LAWRYNUIK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Chairs are placed on tables at the usually-bustling Prairie Bistro restaurant inside the Winnipeg Richardson International Airport.

Everyone is masked. Keeping social distance in line and while processing is entirely possible because of how few travellers there are, but it seems as if this system will fall apart as soon as there is the additional strain of more people.

A monitor with a clipboard stands both at the entrance and exit of security, ensuring the new protocols are being followed. The security agent asks you to scan your own boarding pass. Everyone is masked. Keeping social distance in line and while processing is entirely possible because of how few travellers there are, but it seems as if this system will fall apart as soon as there is the additional strain of more people. For now, it’s an unusually relaxed process since there’s no impatient person behind you shooting daggers from their eyes if you move too slowly.

Walking through the terminal, it’s like a ghost town. Nearly every shop is shuttered, and chairs are placed on tables at the usually-bustling Prairie Bistro restaurant. Tim Hortons and Prairie News are your only options if you’re looking for food or coffee. The news stand has brought in a Keurig machine for the time being. They’ve even plastic-wrapped the end of each stir stick. How bizarre that would have seemed a few months ago.

The departures board shows every flight leaving today, and it’s not even half-full. Passengers for the one flight on its way out linger awkwardly trying to keep their distance from one another. Not everyone got the memo that masks were a requirement to fly now. One man uses his reflective work vest and fashions a face covering. Another man buys a kids’ T-shirt from the Prairie News kiosk and he ties it across his face. Ironically, the T-shirt, and his face now read, “Free bear hugs” with a picture of an animated polar bear looking for a show of affection that is prohibited.

People squirm awkwardly as they accept that all the effort to maintain a distance of six feet to this point was for naught, as you sit and sanitize your seating area, you’re now within an arm’s length of a handful of people, anyway.

The desk attendant says the number of travellers has already begun to pick up — there’s nearly 50 people on the 737 flight. As the number of travellers is expected to continue rising, WestJet will begin taking temperatures of passengers starting next week. For now, she has abandoned use of the intercom system and speaks loudly, announcing boarding information. You’re asked a few questions about COVID-19 risk factors and asked to remove your face covering for the first time since entering the airport, to confirm your identity.

SARAH LAWRYNUIK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The half-full departure board shows all flights leaving the airport that day.

As you board the plane, instead of a friendly welcome, a sanitizing wipe is thrust into your hand. “This is for your seat,” the flight attendant says.

People squirm awkwardly as they accept that all the effort to maintain a distance of six feet to this point was for naught, as you sit and sanitize your seating area, you’re now within an arm’s length of a handful of people, anyway. No one is seated in the middle seat in the rows of three anymore. The departure process is largely the same as always, except you’re handed a bottle of water and package of cookies, and warned there will be no food or drink service on the flight. The flight attendant asks people to keep their face coverings on at all times, but reminds passengers to remove it should the cabin depressurize and oxygen masks are needed.

The plane is quiet; no one talks or engages in the usual pleasantries with seat mates. Flying — like many other activities — seems much more clinical now. There is also a noticeable absence of children. No families, just adults getting where they have to go.

To protect the safety of flight crew, one washroom is designated for them; passengers use the other at the back of the plane. A container of sanitizing wipes wait outside the door for you to wipe down any surface you have to touch.

The kilometres still pass by the same as they always did. That part is unchanged.

Landing in Calgary, we find much of the same as what was seen in Winnipeg’s airport but more stores are open and there are more people, since it’s a travel hub. The jostling for position to grab luggage from the carousel has ceased, replaced by awkward loitering that spreads into the hallway.

A friend picks me up, but there’s no hug. A smile from a friendly face and an awkward wave, but no physical show of support in a difficult time.

SARAH LAWRYNUIK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS As you board the plane, instead of a friendly welcome, a sanitizing wipe is thrust into your hand.

It’s all a jarring change emblematic of our new reality of living during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

sarah.lawrynuik@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @SarahLawrynuik

History

Updated on Friday, May 15, 2020 7:25 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

Updated on Saturday, May 16, 2020 12:34 PM CDT: Turns off comments.

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