Please keep in mind what the governments are recommending about travel. I flew between Chicago USA and London UK during the ‘non essential’ travel period. Non essential obviously means different things to different people. I had decided to repatriate back to the UK so considered my travel to be essential…even if it was an awkward time to be moving. But the flight was booked before everything started happening and my work contract was up at the end of May, so I decided to go through with it. It was a very strange experience. I felt safe and comfortable, but for the sake of the industry I hope it’s something that I won’t experience again.
Long Haul Air Travel in 2020
Getting To The Airport
I rented a car from Enterprise to get to Chicago O’Hare. All the Interstate tolls around Chicago are currently I-Pass or pay online only, no cash. Usually I use an I-Pass and was planning on using cash for this journey. As they were no longer accepting cash, it was nice to not have to stop at the booth and just keep driving. However I did have to make sure that I paid for them once I arrived at the airport (you get 7 days to pay).
The roads around the airport were fairly quiet and for a while I was the only person returning a car. I desperately needed help with my cases, but there was no one around. Thankfully once I found someone, they were willing to help me out. I was worried that I’d be treated as if I had the plague or something!
I was the only person on the shuttle bus from the ‘transportation centre’ to the terminal. Some of the seats were ‘blanked’ out for social distancing. Every terminal had its own shuttle bus which was nice. Again, the driver was more than happy to help me, which I really appreciated.
Check In & Security
When travelling through Chicago O’Hare, passengers are required to wear a mask/face covering. I saw a range of cloth masks, the ‘medical’ masks and buff scarves being used.
The International Terminal 5 check in area was busier than I was expecting. There were 9 flights leaving between 6.50pm and 2.30am. The flight to Pakistan was PACKED out. Both the check in line and at the gate was very busy (with not really enough room to social distance). However, there were only around 22 people travelling on my British Airways Flight to London Heathrow. Floor stickers marked out 6ft spaces in the check in line.
Even though I had printed my boarding pass in advance, there was no ‘contactless’ check in. The desks had perspex screens with a little hole to slide your passport through but the luggage scales were all open. I was asked if I had filled in the Public Health Passenger Locator Form in advance, for my arrival into the UK. I think if you said no, they were giving you a slip of paper with the URL of the website written on it.
Terminal 5 is a bit rubbish anyway, there’s not really any seating if you are too early to check in, but ‘The Goddess and Grocer’ was open for snacks and drinks and was REALLY busy.
The Business and First Class security line was shut, but there were only 2 people in front of me in the regular line. The security officer asked me to take my mask off so he could check it against my passport, this was the first time I was asked to remove it. Currently the TSA are allowed bottles of hand sanitiser larger than 100ml/3oz through security (check if this is still in place before you fly), so I was asked if I had any of this in my hand luggage. I only had the small bottles so liquids remained in my bag but I was still asked to take out all of my electronics and take off my shoes.
My bag got pulled up for a second screening (I’m not surprised, because I was repatriating I was carrying some ‘weird’ stuff). I was asked to open my own bag and show the items that they wanted to check out, limiting how much of my luggage they touched.
The only things open air-side were Hudson News and Burger King…however Burger King shut at 6.30pm, even though on the website it said 10pm. I had checked in advance what was going to be open and most had ‘TEMPORARILY CLOSED’ written next to them. A few places said they were ‘open’ and had the times but I found this not to be very accurate. People were turned away after me in the Burger King line.
All of the Lounges were shut too, as well as the majority of shops. Souvenirs were available in Hudson News but I think it was open mainly for the snacks and to buy bottles of drink. The seating areas didn’t have any seats blocked off, so you could have sat wherever you wanted, but for the most part people were trying to spread out. With only 22 people on my flight, this wasn’t exactly hard to do.
We taxied straight to the runway and took off almost straight away, no waiting for other planes.
I did write a whole review about the Business Class/Club World experience, I’ll leave the link to the post at the bottom of this one. Just like the airport, British Airways are requiring all passengers (and crew) to wear face masks on board. They advise you that a face mask will last around 4 hours. I didn’t see any being handed out, but most people seemed prepared.
Many flights are being boarded by row, starting at the back…unless you are First or Business Class (or need extra help), then you still board first. I was the only person in Business Class. My seat was the only one that had a pillow and a duvet set out on it (mattress topper and blanket aren’t provided at the moment). It was also really obvious that my seat had been disinfected/wiped down, you could see the streaks on the TV etc. I was still allowed all of my hand luggage in the over head bins, but then I was the only one in the cabin so there was obviously plenty of room.
The food and drink service had changed massively. I’ve heard that some airlines have kept their Business and First meal service, but BA give you the same as Economy. I wasn’t given a hot meal, it was a cardboard lunch box with a pre wrapped croissant, a mini Twix, 2 Oreos and a bottle of water. There is no alcohol on board and no dietary requirements are catered for. In Business I was offered tea and coffee and a can of fizz (Coke or Sprite), from what I’ve heard from other people only water is being offered in Economy. The breakfast service didn’t really exist on my overnight flight. I was offered another hot drink during this time and was brought out a little pack of shortbread and a single chocolate with it, that was it. Masks could be removed to eat and drink.
I paid for my flight using air miles + cash. Usually the Chicago to London direct ‘costs’ more air miles. Originally I was booked onto a connection flight, but after everything that has happened this year, I was able to transfer onto the direct for the same price.
Landing at Heathrow was crazy, because it was daytime you could see all of the planes parked up by the hangers. There were 2 other planes waiting to take off as we came into land, but that was the only movement that could be seen.
Walking to immigration was like entering a ghost town. I was the first off my plane and when I reached the shuttle train, there were a handful of people already waiting on it. As far as I’m aware they came off the other flight from America that had landed around the same time. But again, there must have been about the same amount as what there was on my flight.
When I reached the immigration hall (completely empty), all the e-gates were shut. A lady asked if I had filled out the quarantine arrival form and after saying yes, I was sent ‘to the left’. The officer asked me to remove my mask again, looked at my quarantine form that I had printed off and asked me a couple of questions…a little like the questions you sometimes get asked as a tourist, where are you staying etc etc.
The baggage hall was EMPTY. There were floor stickers saying to stand back from the belt and 6ft away from others, but I was the only one waiting. I don’t know if the people behind me got held up, but even after loading up my 4 suitcases onto a cart, there was still NO ONE but me. It was so weird!
Going through International arrivals there was no one waiting at the barrier. There are normally traveller’s family and friends, people with name boards and yet there was no one! All the cafe’s were closed, some of the seats were blocked off for social distancing and it was completely silent. Considering I hadn’t been home in almost a year, it was a very strange welcome back!
The short stay parking machines were ‘closed’. Instead all parking was to be paid from at the exit barriers. I’ve never seen the roads around Heathrow so empty. There was nothing on the roads. Regardless of the time of day there’s usually some other vehicles on the road!
I felt completely fine during all steps of my journey. My flight might have been emptier because the 14 day quarantine on arrival into the UK had just come into place. I never felt like people were in my 6ft bubble. Everything seemed well cleaned. Everyone wore masks. Maybe I had a false sense of security because everywhere was so empty, but it didn’t look like some of the horror stories you see in the media.
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