In this short review, we will take a domestic flight from Bucharest to Timișoara on TAROM to see what flying is like in the age of the corona virus.
Getting to the airport
Already on my way to Bucharest Otopeni Airport I could instantly notice the ongoing impact of the corona virus. It has been quite a long time ago that I’ve seen the Uber fare from the city centre of Bucharest to the airport as cheap as this.
The fare of 28 RON (5.8 EUR) surely must be connected to a decrease in demand in the city. It’s not only the number of people needing to go to the airport which has vastly decreased, but also the number of people heading to their office given that most companies still have strict work-at-home policies in place.
At the airport it was no different, as the entire driveway leading to the terminal doors has been blocked off. Instead, the Uber driver had to stop some 500 feet (150 metres) from the departure terminal at the access road.
Entering the terminal
Once I got out of the car I instantly noticed how eerily quiet the whole area around me was. Normally, all parking lots are completely packed and the driveway to the terminal is clogged with taxis, Ubers and other cars dropping off people.
This time around, everything seemed to be empty.
I walked the 500 feet to the terminal entrance, with only one set of doors being opened to let in people. This door was manned by some rather brusque security guards who immediately started to question me why I was taking pictures, then demanding that I deleted everything if I still wanted to get inside.
It seemed these idiots were on some kind of power play. Normally I would have outright refused to delete the pictures since I was standing on a public road and only made some pictures of the airport exterior and the empty parking lots, but given the fact that they did indeed hold the power I caved in and deleted a single picture for the show, keeping the two others which I took.
One of the security guards measured my temperature with the nowadays so customary infrared thermometers. Fortunately, I did not have any fever and I was finally let into the terminal building.
Bucharest Otopeni Airport consists of two adjacent check-in halls. During the corona crisis, the older one has been closed off and only the more modern annex is open.
Although airlines recommend everyone to check-in online, there were several desks open. On this morning, TAROM only operated two domestic flights to Cluj-Napoca and Timișoara. For these flights, there were three check-in desks available.
Unsurprisingly, there were no queues as only one of the three check-in agents was occupied with another passenger. Weirdly, one of the check-in agents did not wear his mask properly, leaving his nose uncovered.
Officially, everyone is obliged to cover their nose and mouth with a face mask at all times at the airport during the corona crisis – a message which is repeated on the speaker system every two minutes. This was certainly a bit odd and surprisingly one of the many times I saw people – both airport and airline employees as well as passengers – flout the official rules without anyone seeming to care.
Anyhow, within seconds I had my boarding pass printed and was able to make my way to security.
At security, there was only one channel and X-ray machine operating, which was perfectly adequate for the two domestic flights and sole international flight (Wizz Air to Oslo Torp) operating at this hour of morning.
On the floor, spots were demarcated to point out where you had to wait in order to keep the prescribed one-and-a-half metres distance. The two passengers waiting behind me seemed to adhere to this perfectly.
This however changed when I passed through the scanning machine and had to wait for a bit for a slow woman in front of me to collect her luggage from the belt.
Even though my scanned luggage had already arrived on the belt, I didn’t want to jump right to it as it would mean I would stand right next to her.
When the woman had finally packed her stuff and left security control, the passengers behind me were however not as patient as they instantly jumped right next to me to collect their luggage. Although I couldn’t care less personally, it seemed again a bit odd, especially as the officers clearly didn’t seem to care about it.
The domestic departure area of Bucharest Otopeni Airport was eerily quiet and dark despite the fact that two flights were set to depart and several people were already waiting on the benches. At this point, the whole experience really started to feel a bit dystopian.
That said, the COVID-19 measures have been implemented well, as every second seat was blocked off and stickers on the floor indicated how far apart people had to queue. In general, passengers did abide to this, even when the gate agent announced that boarding would start.
The only weird aspect about the entire experience was that perhaps 10 percent of the people queuing for my flight did not seem to know how to properly wear a face mask as they only used it to cover their mouth, leaving their nose uncovered. Not a single airline or airport employee seemed to care, neither did two cops who patrolled through the waiting area at a certain moment.
The domestic terminal of Bucharest Airport only has bus gates, which obviously creates more challenges than boarding by jet bridge. The passenger load for my flight to Timișoara was however light.
The flight would be operated by a 72-seat ATR 72-700 turboprop. My best estimate is that at most 50 percent of the seats were occupied. The 36 or so passengers who boarded the flight all were let into a single bus.
Although on the bus the distance between passengers did surpass the 1.5 metres benchmark, it did not seem like a big problem. Compared to how insanely crowded most boarding buses are, this time it felt like I had a lot of personal space.
At the aircraft
The actual boarding of an ATR 72-600 is always done through the rear door. A flight attendant at the top of the embarkation stairs oversaw the entire procedure, although my gut feeling says that all passengers were well aware to keep a bit of space in between each other and not to crowd the stairs and cabin.
Instead of a massive all-out assault of the plane which is oh so common in the age of normal flying, in the abnormal age of corona people did not seem to care to be on board before the others, which is definitely a good thing. The whole boarding experience definitely felt more humane and not like the mad dash it sometimes can be.
On board I was warmly welcomed by one of the two flight attendants. Wearing a sort of protective surgical gown and a huge visor in front of their faces, they looked more like doctors or butchers than flight attendants. TAROM definitely takes no chances when it comes to protecting their crew.
Upon entering the aircraft each passenger was given a sanitary wipe, which in its square packaging looked almost like a condom. Just like most other airline companies, TAROM emptied the seat pockets by taking out all non-essential items such as the in-flight magazine. However, the safety card and a puke bag still remained in the seat pocket.
After a quick safety briefing and check, the pilots taxied to the runway. With no planes in front of us, the half-empty ATR 72-600 took to the skies within seconds. It was surely one of the fastest and smoothest take-offs I’ve witnessed of late.
When it comes to food and beverage service mid-flight, it depends on the airline what you can expect. Some airlines, most notably the Middle Eastern ones and surprisingly enough most US carriers as well as Lufthansa, try to keep the service levels to the usual level the best they can even though obviously there will always be some minor changes.
Then there are airlines who basically try to keep service to an absolute minimum. Although they cite COVID-19 as the main reason, it is clear that this is foremost done to cut costs in what is a difficult time for the entire airline industry.
It is one thing that you might want to reduce service and contact moments, but it is an entirely different matter that you serve people flying in business class the same meal as in economy class or a cheap meal box. Airlines belonging to this category are Turkish Airlines and KLM among others.
Where does TAROM rank? Well, on this flight definitely more like the latter category. Normally, you can expect a snack and a drink of choice on the shortest TAROM flights, including domestic hops. This time, there was just a crew member handing out glasses of water. Handing out is a big word, as you had to take a cup from the stack of plastic glasses yourself, hold it, after which the flight attendant will finally fill your glass from a large plastic bottle.
Maybe there is a logic behind it, but it seemed a bit odd to me as this way you will have a few dozen hands touching the stack of plastic cups instead of just the gloves of the flight attendant? That said, I did appreciate the glass of water – as I’ve heard enough stories of other airlines which completely slashed all services on short flights like this.
Of course, you are temporarily allowed to lower your mask when drinking the water. 😉
After some 45 minutes, the flight attendant came back with a large rubbish sack to collect all plastic cups. After a final check through the cabin, we set in our descent into Timișoara airport, with gloomy dark clouds being visible in all directions.
We landed safely – and a good 20 minutes before schedule due to an earlier departure – in Timișoara. Once we reached our remote stand on the tarmac right in front of the terminal building, we were told by the flight attendant to please remain seated.
It turned out that disembarkation was done in smaller groups to prevent people crowding together in the aisle, although I felt that most passengers were not in a hurry anyway and were smart enough to take it easy and to wait a bit before getting up.
As we had a spot right in front of the terminal, no buses were used and we could just walk the few feet to the domestic arrivals hall.
I have mixed feelings of flying in the age of corona after this TAROM flight, which I think paints a pretty good picture what you can expect at other airports or flying other airlines.
I really enjoyed being back in the air again. Small things like the excitement of embarking on a new trip or the view from the window never die.
On the other hand, the whole ‘fun’ vibe of flying has pretty much gone. It’s not that I felt nervous or am particularly afraid to contract the corona virus. It’s more that some measures, service cut-backs are just too obvious to ignore.
Although this TAROM crew was absolutely great (a huge contrast to some previous flights on TAROM) and made the new measures look like the most normal thing in the world, you can definitely see this is not the case on the ground. Especially among check-in and security staff and among passengers in the waiting area, there was a palpable tension and smell of uncertainty.
Overall I felt safe and secure, and I do think that many measures make sense. Other aspects – such as the downgraded in-flight service – make a lot less sense from an epidemiological point of view. If it’s safe to hand out a glass of water, surely you can do a normal drinks service and hand out a sandwich too?
It is clear that many airlines across the world use COVID-19 as an excuse to cut costs – something which I do understand from the airline’s point of view, but which is sad to see from the view of a frequent flyer. I can only hope that these measures are temporarily.
My biggest pet peeve was the huge discrepancy between some measures and the fact that so many rules seemed so blatantly disregarded. Take alone the face masks part. Many airline and airport employees, as well as passengers, did not wear a mask or put them on improperly – rendering them completely useless.
I don’t say this because I am such a strong proponent of the whole mask wearing thing (that’s an entirely different discussion) but more from the basic premises that if you make rules, you must enforce them and stand by them. Making rules and letting everyone disregard them only adds to the confusion and can potentially set up groups of people against each other.
Will I fly again while this corona crisis goes on? Sure, if I need to go somewhere I would gladly do so. There are some minor inconveniences, but it wasn’t all as bad as I thought it would be. But I’m not enjoying flying as much as I did in the pre-corona days.
I surely wouldn’t book an expensive (business class) ticket and suck up the huge service cuts while still paying full buck. I would properly not fly long-haul either, as the prospect of sitting for 10+ hours with a face mask on is not something that appeals to me.
And I definitely will look at other alternatives for flying. On my return journey back to Bucharest, I booked a private sleeper compartment on a train. I can bring my own picnic of some tasty snacks and a beer or two, sleep well and arrive fresh, and still pay roughly the same as I did for my domestic flight. And that all without wearing a mask the entire time. Besides the train, there is also the attractive option of making a good-old road trip.
There is certainly more in the world than just the aeroplane, although I can’t wait for life in the skies to resume back to normal and take a normal flight again like in the old days, which still seems such a short time ago but feels like it was a completely different era.