Air travel in a post-COVID world
Reporter Josh Dye flies from Sydney to Melbourne to see how air travel has changed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Travellers flying interstate during the school holidays should prepare for full flights as struggling airlines fill their planes to the brim to maximise profitability on each route.
As Qantas and Virgin slowly ramp up their flight schedules ahead of the school holidays, more passengers will return to the skies.
On Monday, Traveller flew from Sydney to Melbourne and back to test out airports and see whether air travel has changed since coronavirus grounded airlines worldwide. We flew down to Melbourne with Jetstar ($155) and back to Sydney with Virgin ($225).
The most striking thing about flying in the post-COVID world is how it feels normal and bizarre at the same time. The full flights with minimal legroom and jostling for the armrests are just like old times. But it goes against everything we've been told about social distancing. If you're seated in the middle, forget 1.5 metres, you're lucky to have 1.5 centimetres between you and your fellow travel companions.
But airlines say the cabin air gets cleaned every few minutes with hospital-grade filters, making it as safe as possible. And medical experts have backed the policy to keep middle seats full.
The flight booking process hasn't changed, except there's far fewer flight options. Jetstar added a line in its terms and conditions advising against travel if unwell. Virgin made passengers complete a health declaration when checking in online.
Getting to Sydney Airport by public transport was easier than ever with just four people disembarking at a deserted Domestic Airport station.
Arriving at Terminal 3 was a surreal experience. There were just two Jetstar staff at the check-in counters and a smattering of passengers. With no luggage and having checked in online, there was no need to visit the service desk.
The queue for airport security was short, although it took a while as only one line was open. The food court was empty with just a handful of places open. Even McDonald's was shut. Wandering through the darkened empty terminal was eerie, but it was quite peaceful.
Arriving at the gate, people had already begun queuing. The gaps between passengers meant the line stretched further back than usual. Boarding took place in zones, although this wasn't enforced.
As the cabin crew scanned your boarding pass there were optional sanitary kits to collect. Each bag contained a mask and two hand wipes.
Walking onto the plane was quite jarring. After successfully keeping 1.5 metres away from everyone, suddenly the rule book was torn up with an almost full flight.
A fellow passenger on the Jetstar flight to Melbourne, Fiona, who declined to give her last name, said she's "feeling okay" about the prospect of flying again but concedes sitting right next to someone without any social distancing "feels a bit weird".
"You go from when you're coming through the airport [where] you have to be 1.5 metres away from everybody, then you literally get on the plane and you are right next to people," Fiona says.
"It does feel strange and a bit unnerving, but I guess there really isn't an option.
"I don't think I'm anxious but I'm much more conscious of the space around me and the people around me. I'm constantly watching people if they're sneezing or coughing or sniffing. And I'm really conscious of not putting my hands anywhere near my face or my mouth."
On the Jetstar flight to Melbourne about half the passengers wore masks but the cabin crew did not. No one dared cough or sneeze, lest they be thrown off the plane midair by other passengers on tenterhooks. Meal service is still suspended with no opportunity to purchase food or drinks, so my leftover mushroom risotto came in handy.
The flight itself was notable for being on time, something that can't always be said about the Sydney-Melbourne route. With no other aircraft competing for air traffic control's attention, we departed on time and landed a few minutes early. The rear stairs were not used so the plane emptied from the forward door.
Melbourne's budget Terminal 4 can be tedious at the best of times, with a lengthy walk from the gate to the food court and then to the carpark or taxi rank. But the complete silence and absence of other flights coming and going made the experience more bleak than usual.
The empty terminal felt like a shopping centre after hours. Shuttered shop fronts and stacked chairs in the food court gave the place a dreary feel.
Terminal 3 was slightly more lively, with a few more flights scheduled closer together. The Virgin flight back to Sydney was also quite full, but I had the window seat and no one sat in the middle seat.
Optional masks were again available but fewer passengers had them, and again no cabin crew wore them. Snacks and cups of water were handed out in lieu of a full meal and the in-flight entertainment was on whatever device you brought with you.
Overall, it felt great to fly again and the sunset above a blanket of clouds on the return flight was a real treat.
So as states begin opening their borders and air travel picks up, brace yourself for the bizarre experience of full flights. BYO snacks, wear a mask if you're uncomfortable, and get all your coughing out of the way before you board the plane.
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