What’s It Like Flying Long-Haul in the Pandemic?

A Bali-based travel journalist recounts her journey back to Indonesia from the United Kingdom.

An Etihad Boeing 787-9 aircraft. (Photo: Etihad Airways)

Flying, especially long-haul, can be an intimidating experience during the Covid-19 pandemic. And that’s not only because of the health risks—one passenger who traveled from London to Hanoi infected a total of 15 people over the 10-hour flight. The sheer logistics are much more complex, as I found when returning to Bali from the U.K. recently.

For the U.K. to Jakarta leg of my journey, I opted for Etihad, less for their wellness ambassadors, who were not in evidence, but more for their practical offering: free-of-charge flight changes, fellow passengers who had tested Covid negative within the last few days, and, most importantly to me, pilots with recent flying hours handling well-maintained aircraft.

From Jakarta to Bali, Indonesia’s national carrier, Garuda, was a no-brainer. As the only testing required before flying domestically within Indonesia is the controversial rapid tests, some of which are less than 50 percent effective, I bid for an upgrade to business class, but was unsuccessful.

 

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The Testing Farrago

A Covid test was required both by the airline and Indonesia. Conveniently, Etihad operates its own secure PCR testing system, working with different partners in different countries—albeit generally only major cities, which meant a detour for me. Sadly, the platform is only partially integrated with its local partners, offering plenty of potential for confusion.

The rules vary between countries, but in the U.K. the guidance is to leave time for a second test if the first is inconclusive (up to 48 hours for the first set of results, then a further 48 for the retest) AND conduct the test within 96 hours of departure. (Indonesia requires a clean PCR test within seven days of arrival.)

Keen to leave time for a retest if required, I tested on the Saturday morning before a Wednesday lunchtime flight, a literally and metaphorically painless procedure. It was only after checking in online on Tuesday when I realized, to my horror, that my test would fall within 100 hours of departure, not 96. As it was too late to retest, I moved my booking forward, putting my test date safely within 94 hours of my flight.

 

The Inflight Experience

Check-in at Heathrow was smooth but rigorous. Staff checked the time stamp on my PCR test and double-checked all documentation with Jakarta. I would recommend arriving with over three hours to spare before your flight and filling in the eHAC app in advance.

After early accounts of flying long-haul during the pandemic, I was pleasantly surprised. Staff wore appropriate PPE, including gloves and masks. Fellow passengers followed the mask rules. Alcohol was served, there was a choice of main dishes at dinner, and many of the standard special meal options were also available. On both legs of my journey, I could spread out along an entire row, and I found my mask didn’t interfere with my sleep.

Cabin crew aboard all Etihad flights are required to wear PPE. (Photo: Etihad Airways)

A Bleak Layover

Airports are desolate places during Covid, and Abu Dhabi proved egregiously so. On arrival, we were lined up, then simultaneously fumigated and temperature checked in a booth with a sign warning of potentially toxic chemicals.

Most of the cafés and stores were shut, many appeared abandoned for good, and the food and beverages on offer seemed uniformly grim. Paired with icy air conditioning, the feel was more zombie apocalypse than vacation preparation. I would recommend paying the US$100 fee for five hours in the airport’s only open general-access lounge.

 

An Impressive Arrival

Indonesia has hardly won international plaudits for its handling of the pandemic, but health provisions at Soekarno-Hatta impressed, especially compared to my recent experiences of U.K. and Italian airports. Rather than line up for immigration and health checks, we were corralled into socially distanced chairs—a simple but effective measure. Elevators had been fitted with pedals, allowing users to avoid touching buttons.

Healthcare workers in full PPE checked my temperature, blood oxygen levels, and pulse rate. (The thermometer was remote but the pulse oximeter did not appear to be sanitized between every use.) All three measurements were added to a form I’d filled out in transit, and my PCR test result was stamped. It would be checked a total of five more times before I was free to board my fairly busy flight to Bali.

Despite having filled out the island’s online Health Alert Form and printed out the QR code it generated, the only checks on arrival were of my temperature and the eHAC app on my phone. No instructions were given about quarantine and a vacation spirit was in the air—which many travelers will have needed, simply to get over the flight.

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