A woman snaps a selfie as we buckle in for our flight. She may be smiling though it's hard to tell, seeing she, like about half a dozen passengers including myself, is wearing a mask.
I'm flying from Sydney to Brisbane enroute to Far North Queensland and the usual frisson of tension that's present on any flight is amplified a hundredfold as we wait for the doors to close. The Virgin Australia plane is full and I'm relieved to find my economy seat is the first row behind a screen marking the end of the business section. I'm in a middle seat, but I was prepared for this after following the recommendation to check-in online in order to limit time and interaction at the airport. Even so, I'm relieved to see the man and the boy on either side of me are also wearing masks.
Flying 2020-style is not for the faint-hearted. Central to this tension is the question: should we be doing this and if so, how can we do it with the least chance of infection?
Virgin was quick and eager to allay fears. As well as being advised to check-in online, all passengers were sent a list of health questions, including if they had had any known contact with COVID-19 and if they were feeling ill.
Passengers scanned their own boarding passes to avoid unnecessary contact, and face masks and sanitiser were available from flight crew on request, though I didn't hear or see anyone ask for a mask. It seemed those who were most concerned had brought their own.
Soon after takeoff an attendant reassured everyone that seats, head and arm rests and tray tables had been thoroughly cleaned, though that didn't stop some people wiping them down with disinfectant wipes. A mention of the use of High Efficiency Particulate Air filters which, we are told, are effective at removing more than 99.9 per cent of microbes from the air was reassuring – if somewhat sobering.
No meals were served on board – another COVID-19 policy – but water and individually wrapped biscuit bars were offered as a snack. I declined both – mainly because I didn't want to remove my mask, but also because I noticed the crew were not wearing gloves when they poured the water into plastic glasses. Paranoid? Possibly.
After about 30 minutes my mask started to become annoying but I concentrated on my book and knowledge that wearing it was worth it – for peace of mind if nothing else.
As we began our descent 90 minutes later, it was announced that we would be exiting row-by-row to ensure social distancing. But despite pleas that no-one stand up until the first rows disembarked, the plane emptied in pretty much the same way as in any other flight. Those too impatient to sit a few extra minutes began unloading overhead lockers and moving forward, and there was no push-back by cabin staff, though a few passengers were heard to complain.
Once at Brisbane Airport any resemblance to normal times disappeared as we were greeted by rows of soldiers clad in fatigues who asked us politely but firmly to carry our Queensland Border Declaration in front of us as we walked past them - mugshot style.
The next morning I head to Brisbane Airport for my flight to Cairns and I immediately register that the facemask to bare-face ratio has increased slightly. Once on board the crew is again at pains to point out Virgin's COVID-19 precautions, but there is no self-scanning of boarding passes.
This flight was a special one celebrating the opening of a new runway at Brisbane Airport and the mood is buoyant. And the travelling-in-a-pandemic tension is punctured further when a flight attendant announces: 'First a shout out to our super professional, super smart and super good-looking cabin crew – even though they won't be the ones looking after you today – they all called in sick.' Judging by the laughs, the admittedly captive audience was impressed, but it turns out the attendant was just warming up. As we land in Cairns and people brace themselves to exit he follows up with: 'Welcome to Townsville'. Three seconds pass then: 'Just kidding.'
This elicits an even warmer laugh from passengers, who may have not only appreciated the joke but also the fact that we landed intact.
Two days later and I'm returning to Sydney – and the face mask ratio this time? About 70 per cent of passengers are now sporting them, which may have something to do with the news of a concerning growth of COVID cases in Melbourne,
While I found flying less confronting than expected, it was mainly due to the crew's professionalism and good humour which helped settle the nerves.
Fellow passengers not only appreciated this, but were also full of admiration. After all, this was a Virgin flight and it was likely that many of the crew who helped put us at ease were facing uncertain futures.
And there's also, undeniably, an upside to flying in a pandemic: traffic around Sydney airport was non-existent and the check-in lines? Well, there were none.
The writer travelled as a guest of Virgin Australia.