Back in the Skies – My First International Flight in the Age of Corona

Having puzzled together an itinerary for my summer trip, it was finally time to hit the skies again for my first international flight in the age of corona.

COVID-19

Although I had taken a domestic flight in Romania during the pandemic shortly after the strict lockdown in the country ended in June, and it was a reassuring experience altogether, I was still slightly nervous about flying internationally.

Writing this now in November, having logged around 20 international flights more since returning from the summer trip, those early summer days seem like a completely different era as I found flying to be perhaps even safer than many activities on the ground due to all the measures implemented by airlines and effective HEPA filters on board aircraft.

Yet at the start of my summer holiday to Greece in July, I still had a few worries about flying internationally. Perhaps not so much related to the actual flying itself knowing very well that it would be safe, but more about the extra scrutiny during check-in and immigration upon arrival in Greece.

PLF

Back in July, passengers coming from Romania were still exempt from the need to show a negative PCR test – one major reason why I opted for a holiday Greece in the first place as back then getting such test results back in time was still rather difficult.

Instead, the Greek government came up with the requirement that each passenger has to fill in a PLF (Passenger Locator Form) before flying to the country.

After filling in the online form, you would then receive a QR code by email, which you have to show to an immigration officer on arrival. Based on the unique number written below the QR code, you then either had to take a complimentary on-the-spot PCR test at the airport, or could go straight to passport control and baggage reclaim.

PCR test

The percentage of people who need to undergo sample corona testing is mostly based on risk assessment, such as whether or not you might have visited other countries in the weeks before and the exact COVID-19 infection rate in your home area.

Local media reported that this could mean that from a flight out of a low-risk country perhaps only a handful of people might be sample tested for statistical purposes, while from a flight out of a country with a higher rate of corona infections perhaps half the plane would be directed to the on-site testing lab.

To me, this seemed like a logical procedure. Although I was hesitant to travel to a destination where you need a PCR test before your flight (given the uncertainty whether or not I would have the test results in time and thus be allowed to check in!) I was completely fine with the possibility of an on-the-spot test.

In the unlikely situation of getting a positive test result (and thus being infected with the corona virus) it would of course mean an abrupt end to the holiday, but at least the Greek government would take care of me in that case.

I would of course have to go in quarantine in a specially appropriated hotel, but all meals and health care would be paid for by the Greek government in a generous gesture meant to boost tourism to the country and to reassure tourists.

At the airport

Although I still had some worries, I was in full holiday mood when I took an Uber to Bucharest Otopeni Airport.

During the summer, the airport authorities had set up open tents outside of the departures terminal, one each for one or several airline companies. Airport employees were only letting a handful of passengers through to the actual terminal at each time.

Given how overcrowded Bucharest Airport can be in high summer (it is way above its original planned capacity!) this seemed like a sensible move to prevent huge scrums of passengers forming at the check-in desks and security check points.

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Open tents were set up outside at the parking lot of Bucharest Otopeni Airport and used as holding pens to prevent the check-in desks at the terminal from overcrowding. ©Paliparan

Check-in

At the check-in desk, everything seemed to be the same as always. The only change from the normal pre-corona situation was the requirement to present the QR code from the submitted PLF.

Without it, you would not be allowed to board the plane to Greece, which seemed to be the case for several passengers judging by the heated arguing at the check-in desk next to me!

With my boarding pass in hand, I was through security and passport control within minutes due to the complete absence of crowds, slowly making my way to the TAROM business lounge.

bucharest otopeni airport
Although it was the start of the summer holiday season, Bucharest Airport still was eerily quiet on this early morning in July. ©Paliparan
bucharest otopeni airport
Bucharest Otopeni Airport (OTP). ©Paliparan

Lounge experience

Flying Aegean Airlines to Athens, I could access the business lounge at Bucharest Otopeni Airport courtesy of my Star Alliance gold status.

Corona has surely left its mark on airport lounges across the world, although the TAROM business lounge seemed to have adapted to it well.

Sure, the TAROM lounge might never have ranked among Europe’s best lounges (on the contrary!) but at least it did not offer a scaled back experience, something which is the case at so many other airport lounges across the world.

Food and beverage options were still the same as before, with the sole difference that instead of self service, you had to ask one of the attendants to hand over your choice of food and your preferred drink.

After all the intensive last months with the initial uncertainty how dangerous and deadly corona actually is, as well as the strict lockdown imposed in Romania from March until May, it felt so liberating to sit again in an airport lounge enjoying a pre-flight drink.

For a minute, I forgot all about corona and a slow return to normalcy. I never knew that visiting the subpar TAROM lounge would be such a highlight!

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Weirdly enough, I missed you too, Bucharest Airport! ©Paliparan
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Enjoying a drink and a bite in the TAROM lounge before my flight to Athens. ©Paliparan

Flight

The actual Aegean flight from Bucharest to Athens was a completely unremarkable experience. Boarding was done from back to front, although business class passengers and Star Alliance gold members could board at will.

Having a window seat in one of the first rows of the economy cabin, I opted to board as one of the first in order to secure storage space for my bag in the overhead bin.

During the flight, there was no service whatsoever, which was a minor disappointment given that Aegean Airlines has a great economy class product during normal times.

A surprise it was however not, as I knew that many airlines were still trying to find the fine line between offering a bit of the normal on-board service and minimising contact between crew and passengers. (Note: Aegean Airlines has since restored some form of food and beverage service, but it’s still a far cry from the pre-COVID19 service in both economy and business class).

Although I do now consider such a scaled back service an act of sheer folly and a pure cost-cutting measure instead of a sensible health and safety measure, I didn’t care about it at all during the flight.

Heck, I was going on holiday and would soon be setting foot again in one of my favourite countries in the world. That was the only thing which counted – and my mood was only amplified by the great views from the window of the deep blue Aegean Sea.

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The inbound Aegean flight from Athens arriving at Bucharest Otopeni Airport. ©Paliparan
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The Aegean Airlines Airbus A320-200 which would fly me from Bucharest to Athens. ©Paliparan
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I really missed views like these during the corona lockdown! ©Paliparan
athens suburbs
Flying high above the Athens suburbs. ©Paliparan

Arrival in Greece

We landed on time at Athens International Airport after a pleasant but unremarkable flight. Deplaning was strictly done per 4 or 5 rows at a time only, with the flight attendants keeping a close look at the process.

In small groups of around 20 to 30 people, we were bussed from the plane to the airport terminal.

Just before passport control, border guards were stationed to inspect our PLF form. Looking at the code written below the actual QR code, they were either sending people to the PCR test street set up in an airport corridor, or on towards passport control and the baggage reclaim area.

Fortunately, I was one of the lucky few of our flight who wasn’t picked out for sample testing. While waiting a good 15 minutes at the conveyor belt for my checked bag, I saw only five (!) other passengers from my flight, which must have meant that a huge number of passengers were sent for corona testing on arrival.

Of course, I felt relieved that I was not picked out of the queue. It did not only mean that I could now start to enjoy my Greek summer holiday without having to worry about possibly testing positive, but not having to go for sample testing also meant that I didn’t have to self isolate for a day until the test results would be in.

I could therefore go straight to my hotel and was free to explore Athens and meet up with some old Greek friends.

athens airport metro
Waiting for the metro from the airport to the city centre of Athens. ©Paliparan

In short

I think that flying is about as a low-risk of activity as you can get during the current corona pandemic. Due to HEPA filters on board aircraft and (sensible and nonsensical) measures taken by the airlines, there is a very low risk of infection.

It is quite telling that even in more autocratic or disciplined countries with effective track-and-trace programs, there have been only a handful to zero corona cases linked to air transport. Personally, I feel much more secure flying than doing everyday activities such as grocery shopping in often badly ventilated buildings.

Of course, it is important to wear a proper face mask and to socially distance where possible and to follow up on crew instructions at all times. Flying in these times is unfortunately still not a straightforward affair, which you can clearly see by the continuously changing government travel restrictions, flight availability and on-board service.

Hitting the skies again was however such a reassuring experience that since this flight in early July I have flown around 20 or so international flights more in the following months.

If you take proper precautions and make sure you are aware of all the latest restrictions and rules, I don’t see a reason why you shouldn’t take a flight if you want to go on a holiday, visit family or friends or have to go on a business trip.

Trip report index

This article is part of the ‘A Dodecanese Dream: Summer Island Hopping in Greece‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:

1. Back in the Skies – My First International Flight in the Age of Corona (current chapter)

** rest of the chapters to follow soon **

Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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