Expect Challenges when Flying Internationally in the COVID-Era

As a journalist who for many years has written on all things travel around the world, I’m an avid flyer and unabashed aviation geek. Of course the pandemic grounded even the most die-hard among us. When I was fully vaccinated in early April, I started flying regularly again. At first, I recommenced flying domestically, then feeling more comfortable, I started flying internationally again. Given the line of work I’m in and that I love planes, aviation and almost all things travel, to say that I was thrilled to be in the air again would be a truly vast understatement.

International travel is of course far more complicated now with the myriad of everchanging rules and regulations in place. Federal laws mandate mask wearing while in all U.S. airports and continuously while on board airplanes. Just this morning I called British Airlines to confirm that COVID tests were not needed to board a flight in a few days transiting in London for vaccinated passengers. After waiting on hold for 30 minutes, I was told no. Four hours later, I received a call from British Airlines that no one would be permitted to board without a negative COVID PCR or Antigen test.

Additionally, federal law requires a negative COVID test taken within 72-hours from arrival into the U.S. As the rules, regulations and everchanging personal and business circumstances are very fluid, travelers are urged to purchase tickets that can be changed without penalty and fees and to constantly check airline websites, customer service and government sites for updates.

Without a doubt, excepting perhaps the health care industry, few industries have suffered as much during this pandemic and its fall out than aviation and travel. That said, the aviation industry has made heroic efforts to step up and meet the challenges travel in the COVID-era has presented, including enhanced cleaning, updated, hospital-grade air filtration systems that remove the vast majority of airborne particles and top-down air flow minimizing particle movement.

On my second international trip two weeks ago, I boarded an Alaska Airlines flight to Mexico. In fairness, Alaska Airlines is one of my favorite airlines and I’ve generally found they do a really great job, and often under extremely trying circumstances. Mostly they do so complete with good natured smiles. While smiles were abundant on that flight, it was otherwise an epic fail.

First, the flight attendant in charge of the public address system repeatedly made incredibly lame comments about COVID such as “it’s just about over folks.” This is so despite that many health officials have reported that the Delta variant is twice as transmissible as COVID-19 and is now in every state with rapidly rising numbers. The Delta variant is in populous states such as California and in relatively isolated states such as Hawaii. This flight attendant was clearly the most senior one on board and his comments were manifestly absurd.

Additionally, even prior to the second and current indoor mask mandate in L.A. County where the Delta variant numbers are rapidly climbing, county officials urged residents, even immunized ones, to wear masks indoors. To make matters worse, physicians and health officials are now seeing rising numbers in “breakthrough” cases – COVID infections amongst those who have been fully vaccinated. Yet for some reason this flight attendant, who was clearly in the highest risk group for infection, had either been residing under a rock or was a science disbeliever.

I was not amused. We mortals have been and are subject to misinformation, disinformation and ignorance seemingly everywhere and at nearly at all times. On social media at least, one can click away from the bombardment. In a retail outlet, one can leave and take their wallets and business elsewhere and a television can be turned off. On an aircraft however, we are in a word, stuck.

This particular Alaska Airlines flight was already 45-minutes late in departing as the first officer was late in arriving to LAX from another flight. Okay. No problem. Delays happen. Once he arrived and all passengers had finally boarded, we taxied to what I’m pretty sure was the LAX’s southernmost and furthest runway from the passenger terminal.

Later when we were finally almost wheels up, the captain then announced that “several passengers would not be completing the journey and that the plane would be immediately returning to the gate.” While I have heard many things uttered on airplane public address systems, that was a first. Seemingly, it was code either for non-compliance with the onboard mask mandate in effect or some other bad behavior. From breakneck speed nearly fast enough to take off, the airplane abruptly slowed down, turned around and made the long trek from that faraway runway back once again to the terminal.

After about 15-minutes on the ground, eight mask donning passengers including a couple of children that were seated in the very rear of the aircraft deplaned from the forward exit door with their carry-on bags. After another 20-minutes or so, we ventured back out to the runway, this time to one not quite so far away and finally took off. All in, we were nearly two hours late in departing for a three-hour flight.

Those remaining on board were never informed as to why those passengers had to deplane. Though I was seated far from them, their departure seemed calm, collected and strange. As no physicians were requested onboard and none boarded the aircraft when we returned to the gate, likewise no federal agents or authorities boarded, it was just downright odd. It was as if someone – either one of those eight passengers, or a member of the flight crew – had simply decided once the aircraft had reached 150 miles per hour, “Nope, not going to Mexico today.”

While passengers remaining on the long-delayed flight may not have had a legal right to receive any information for this unusual turn of events, in this COVID-era, anything to relieve passenger anxiety would have been welcome especially in light of the long delay and inconvenience. And that flight attendant? He should be required to keep his disinformation to himself and if that proves impossible, he should find another line of work.

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