25 August 2020

Flying in a Time of Covid - British Airways London Heathrow to Venice

 After being grounded for six months, it felt wonderful to get back in the air yesterday, and back to Italy. Things aren't quite the same now, and the situation is obviously far from settled, but in what is either the start of a return to 'normality' and the opening up of travel, or a window of opportunity before the shutters close again, I booked British Airways flights three days ago and travelled from London to Venice yesterday.

British Airways still has very few flights between London and Venice - two a day on the dates I checked - and their operations have been switched from Gatwick to Heathrow. There are a few good-value tickets to be had, especially for the off-peak period from 7th September, but demand is high in the short term and some of the popular flights are full or nearly so, with very high prices. BA don't leave seats empty for social distancing, and I was uncomfortable at the thought of sitting at close quarters with strangers, so I opted for business class: Club Europe, with the guarantee of an empty middle seat. I booked Reward Flights with a lot of my saved Avios frequent flyer points, plus £1 cash. This can be a good way to secure short-notice flights with big-ticket prices. I was glad I'd made this choice: my flight was full but in Club Europe I had plenty of space and far fewer travellers in my immediate vicinity. 

In addition to the fact I was flying from Heathrow rather than my preferred Gatwick, a couple more reminders of the changed times popped up when I checked in online. An unusual message popped up informing me that my passport or visa must be checked at the airport. It turned out that this is because  a couple of requirements imposed by the Italian government, described below, mean you can't just download a boarding pass and head through departures. And I had a momentary panic when the BA app informed me in red text that my flight was re-routed - again it turned out this was a routine message due to the fact the flight was originally scheduled to originate from Gatwick.

Travel at the moment is only really advisable if you can consider the risks and situations it might expose you to, and feel confident that you can deal with them. For those of us who've obeyed lockdown regulations, avoided crowds, people, restaurants, public transport, touching things, unwashed surfaces and so on, it is a big adjustment to find yourself expected to sit several inches from a stranger, and be at the mercy of the other people's hygiene standards. Aeroplane toilets, hotel bedspreads that aren't washed between guests, the decorative cushions that migrate daily from pillow to floor, door handles... exposure to potential germs is inescapable when you travel and every potential traveller will have  a different limit to what they accept. Italy currently has a relatively low rate of Covid-19 infections, though it is rising, reportedly due to Italian holiday-makers returning from hot-spots elsewhere in Europe. I'd advise anyone considering travel to read up on the latest reports and statistics, research travel restrictions and work out what risks they can minimise, and what they can live with.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advices against travel to a number of European countries, including France and Spain, and imposes a 14-day quarantine on travellers arriving in the UK from those countries. The travel warning invalidates most travel insurance, and may result in cancellation or reduction of holidays and flights. Other destinations may be added to the FCO list at any time, based on their 7-day infection rate and other factors. Italy is still in a 'travel corridor' and a permitted destination at the time of writing; this is an important factor to keep an eye on, and it may be best not to book too far ahead this autumn - or at least to make sure you have comprehensive insurance and the option to cancel without penalty.

Face coverings are obligatory in many situations in both the UK and Italy, including on public transport. The Underground journey to Heathrow is incredibly long and slow, and offered a chance to experience in advance some of the attitudes I'd encounter throughout the day: the family maskless for selfies, mum pulling her mask off to mop her fevered sweating face, the woman who removed her mask for selfies (a common theme)  and to sponge on a full face of make up (she told another passenger she'd 'stop breathing' if she wore her mask, but as soon as she got off the train she popped it back on in case she passed a guard), so many of those people whose selfishness and/or stupidity are so frustrating for the law-abiding or anxious.

A couple of the lifts up from the Piccadilly line to Departures at Heathrow were very crowded, but I found an empty one. Terminal 5 was fairly busy, but manageable, with information signs and sanitising gel dispensers dotted around the building. Club Europe and BA Executive Club members with status can use check in desks in Zones H and J, depending on their status. In H there were no queues for check in. I had my temperature checked as I entered the check-in area, and was informed of the need to fill in a pre-landing 'self-declaration form' before arriving in Italy. Because of these two requirements passengers must go to the check-in desks at the airport (though this will be a mutating situation). Copies of the form were handed out by staff, but I'd already downloaded and completed the document in advance. Staff were extremely welcoming and friendly, as though passengers were much-missed friends of  the family. At the automated passport gates, I had to briefly remove my mask for the cameras.

The first clusters of passengers  I encountered were at the baggage screening, where social distancing became unachievable. There were delays due to disorganised travellers, and the fact that everyone now has to remove their shoes. You can't avoid handling the grey trays, and a few more sanitising gel pumps around the area would have been useful. There were very few seats available after the baggage check, which caused problems for all the passengers needing to replace their shoes, especially those with limited mobility.

BA lounges at Gatwick are now open. In the South Lounge I found plenty of space. As I haven't been into pubs or restaurants for months, it was disconcerting to see people indoors without masks - of course these have to be removed to eat, and in the UK they are not required in indoor eating establishments.

The buffet food is sadly departed, and to order food guests have to scan a QR code displayed at their table, or visit the website with a browser. This leads to a basic menu of food and drink, which you add to your basket and order. The drinks and food appear very quickly, brought by friendly staff in protective masks. There isn't a big choice and although the system is simple it's not suited to people with dietary requirements or the fussy - although there are 'vegetarian' options there is no description of the contents of dishes, no details of the 'soup of the day' or the contents of sandwiches. I had to turn away one dish as it was brought in error (chicken instead of chickpea) and decline the correct alternative when it contained an allergen, only discovered when the staff member went away to ask someone else. The vegetarian sandwiches were all egg, which may please someone but certainly not me. I enjoyed a simple salad and a slice of cake, however, along with a glass of champagne.

Back in the busier public areas of Terminal 5, where most of the high-end shops are now open, I found the gate area crowded. There weren't enough seats or space for really comfortable social distancing, and I found a woman sitting down next to me with her mask pulled down; she leaned forward to ask me about the gate situation and eye-rolled at my suggestion she replace her mask before approaching strangers. She subsequently engaged with a member of staff by stepping up close to him and putting her hand on his shoulder, so I was left to wonder at the varying senses of personal space felt by different people. Several passengers in transit through Heathrow and changing planes were called forward at this point for their temperature checks, and there were further announcements about the need to complete a 'self-declaration form' per passenger.

There is no priority boarding at the moment; the flight was boarded in groups of rows, starting with the back of the plane. I was in the last group to board, being greeted again by very friendly staff - another quick removal of my mask for the passport check - and there were more reminders to fill in our Italian forms.

Despite being offered these and informed of them at three points along the airport journey, many passengers hadn't completed the forms when the cabin crew came by, early on in the flight, to collect them. The passengers behind me had somehow remained in total ignorance of the requirement and failed to receive forms. They, and others like them, were handed a form that was apparently different, and which they were told to hand in at Venice airport on arrival.

On boarding we were all given a little plastic pouch, a 'personal protection pack' containing a sanitising wipe and a sachet of sanitising gel. Having brought my own wipes I gave my seat area a clean. BA say that planes are thoroughly cleaned between each flight, but the crumbs I found on my seat put that claim in some doubt. I was lucky and was the only person in my row, so I had plenty of space and no particular grounds for concern or discomfort during the flight. Mask wearing in the 8-row Club Europe cabin was dutiful, until food and drink were served - this, and the generous drinks offering meant that mask-wearing was patchy from that point on, though most passengers did seem to replace their masks once they'd stopped eating and drinking.

The cabin crew, like the ground staff, seemed happy to be working and genuinely warm and friendly. In addition to the usual safety warnings we were reminded to take off our face coverings before using an oxygen mask in an emergency, and told the new on-board protocol: don't walk around, stay in your seat until the toilet lights are green before making your way there, wear your mask, don't form queues.

The food offering was a box containing a light lunch; I asked for a vegetarian option and was quite pleased with the tomato, aubergine and mozzarella sandwiches, and chocolate mousse dessert. The box also included mineral water and a small salad pot. Wine, champagne, spirits, soft drinks were all offered, and the crew were remarkably keen to offload little wine bottles onto passengers, suggesting we take extras with us. As I was in the Club Europe cabin, I don't know what the food and drink offering was in Euro Traveller.

It was a good day for flying, with excellent views over the Heathrow area and later over Lake Geneva, the Alps, Lake Garda, Padua and then the Venetian lagoon; a slightly different route to the familiar one, crossing the Alps further west. A comfortable flight, and the first in which I've had the opportunity of charging my phone during the journey.

We landed at Venice Marco Polo Airport fifteen minutes early, and left the plane a few rows at a time, called by the cabin crew, starting at the front of the plane. This was a very good development (not just because I was in the first group off) and one I'd like to see retained afterwards. Once inside the airport the routine was just the same as pre-Covid; no extra formalities to complete, just a walk through the electronic passport gates, a trip to the toilets (reasonably clean but not spotless), and a wait for luggage: our flight's baggage came very quickly but mine was of course among the last cases out. As we're now hyper-aware of contact and infection risks, I found myself noticing that a couple of ten-year-olds standing by the luggage belt running their hands over every single piece of baggage as it passed, and remembering the limits to what we can control in our surroundings.

In the main arrivals area landside there was a rather ghostly feel. The usual transport ticket desks were closed, with just a couple of booths open directly opposite the gate from baggage reclaim. Having bought my ticket for the Alilaguna boat service,  I had to trek along the outside of the building to the ferry dock. There is a recently-installed moving walkway on an upper level of the airport, but this has been closed since May and passengers now need to follow an improvised and not-very-adequate route around the exterior of the buildings, over rough surfaces that fight with suitcase wheels, and along a pavement too narrow to comfortably pass passsengers heading in the other direction. 

Finally I got to the ferries. These are running normally, though the timetable may be reduced in comparison to normal summers. The Alilaguna Blu line is hourly, and was quite full (the Arancio route is generallly faster for most Venetian locations). After witnessing a French couple queue-jumping past  25 waiting passengers, I ended up with them seated opposite me. Monsieur le Covid had textbook virus symptoms and a resistance to mask-wearing. His stained-yellow mask was worn under the nose or occasionally pulled right off, even as he engaged in bouts of coughing and forehead-mopping. He wiped his nose on his hand, and stood up grasping several of the hand rails with the dirty hand. He blew his nose while standing over another passenger, and then chucked the tissue into the lagoon waters. He closed a window to reduce air flow. I googled the infection rate in France - much higher than Italy or the UK; in the UK he'd have to go into quarantine (though he'd still be allowed on public transport to get there) and I couldn't but think that would be the best place for him.

The lengthy cough-punctuated boat journey across the lagoon neared its end with the classic views of San Marco and Punta della Dogana from the Basin of St Mark. The air was warm, the sky moody and Venice as beautiful as ever. Only time will tell how safe this trip has been but right now I feel delighted to be back in one of my favourite and most familiar places in the world. The key elements of the journey were smooth and manageable; the main problems I encountered were connected to my current reduced mobility and to the irritating behaviour of fellow-travellers. It wasn't particularly comfortable wearing a mask for such a long time, with only brief breaks to eat and drink, and my thick fabric mask was rather hot in Venice, but this is the new normal and it's a compromise plenty of us were prepared to make in order to get back in the air.

Key advice:
- Check the background of infection rates nationally and be prepared for changes in the rules
- Think hard about what control you can relinquish comfortably, and if you want to travel enough to take the chance
- Be forewarned by reading the small print of your travel insurance
- Read up on the latest requirements from your origin country and Italy, check for any forms to complete
- Read the online advice and updates from your airline, the airports you'll use, and any other public transport or service you'll need along the way
- Wear a face-covering and pack a spare for the journey as well as others for the duration of your stay.  (or buy locally: 5 euros for a pack of 10 in the Coop in Venice). Take your own sanitising hand gel or hand wipes, and, if you are cautious, a pack of cleaning wipes to clean your seat area, tray table, arm rests, belt fastenings, and your luggage handles after it's been touched by strangers. And maybe key spots in your acccommodation too.
- Food supply along the way may be more patchy (though mine was fine); take emergency rations for the journey just in case.

Nothing to do with Covid, but if you're travelling to Venice at this time of year, don't forget insect repellent in your hand luggage; the airport is right on the lagoon.

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