TRAVELING IN THE AGE OF THE PANDEMIC IS NOT FOR THE FAINT AT HEART
(Posted 22nd November 2020)
(Departure lounge Entebbe and arrivals in Brussels)
Time flies indeed and in a week I will also fly again, home to Uganda. That trip will then result in Part 3 of my travel experiences, experiences of a year during which I probably took the least flights since I went to school and university.
But first things first of course.
Following the publication of Part 1 in the series did I have a ton of messages and mails to elaborate some more on my pre-travel preparations and logistics before leaving Uganda.
Having successfully tested #COVID19 negative was shopping for tea, coffee and spices to be ticked off the list, before completing my packing and then, on the 11th of October, leave the house around 5 pm.
The highway from Munyonyo to Entebbe was literally empty and when reaching the airport perimeter security there was only one other car at the checkpoint.
It therefore only took a few minutes from having the car checked to the drop off area, where NAS / Pearl Assist staff Robert and shift leader Christine were ready to provide the assistance I had booked through https://pearlassist.com/entebbe-ebb-entebbe-uganda.
It was immediately clear just how beneficial that move was, as Robert – Christine had reached the end of her shift and bid me farewell already – knew his ways through the new airport set up, created to provide for extra health and safety checks of departing passengers.
First was my #COVID19 test result checked, and thoroughly, and the QR icon on the document – which I presented on my phone screen – scanned to ascertain its authenticity.
I subsequently learned that already several wannabe passengers had been caught trying to present non authentic printed documents and were subsequently denied entry into the terminal and arrested to face charges.
This, dear readers, is not something to joke about as fake documents can have serious consequences for other travelers and the Entebbe health and safety team is absolutely right to exercise extreme caution. The check is done in a very public setting, in my case by two staff clothed in protective gear, so trying to reach an ‘accommodation’ is very likely to fail – with predictable consequences.
Entry into the terminal proper came next, where passports are checked and the ticket asked for, though in my case did Robert from Pearl Assist wave his magic wand and I did not need to pull out my phone and look for it.
The terminal entrance security check was what I remembered from my last flight earlier in the year, when the Corona pandemic had not yet reached our shores, laptop out and scanned separately, cap off and pockets emptied.
Notably are leading European airports already using the latest scanning technologies where one’s laptop can remain in the bag – same incidentally with shoes which one can leave on, sparing the sight of worn out socks on display by passengers in front.
Before being able to proceed to the check in counter proper – now staffed as early as 4 hours before flight departure – comes the precheck where again passport and ticket needed to be presented. The new additional part is the contact form which a traveler is handed and which MUST be filled in. This Passenger Locator Form is eventually collected on arrival – in my case Brussels – by immigration officials. One’s seat number must be given too and moving around the cabin to take up another empty seat is no longer permitted.
The form filled in was proper check in then next and as fast as ever – and as friendly as ever – did the Brussels Airlines staff hand me my boarding pass, preferred seat of course allocated, my suitcases went on the luggage band and soon disappeared from sight and the staff wished me a good journey.
Immigration was the penultimate stop and there, like at the check in, were protective screens installed, to build a barrier between traveler and staff.
Pictures, sadly, were not permitted so none to show. Processing, I was the only traveler at the time, was prompt and friendly, like with all other staff I encountered from the perimeter security check along the way.
Next then came a surprise though. Immediately after the first two duty free shops – one turns right after immigration for those familiar with Entebbe – awaited a newly established single access security checkpoint. The previous departure gate checkpoints were consolidated into just two, one for regular travelers as described and a second one at the entrance of the Government VIP lounge, effectively covering both access points into the main departure lounge area and bringing Entebbe finally into the 21st century as far as such checkpoints are concerned. One no longer faces the long queues in order to get into the boarding lounges, especially important in this day and age of the pandemic when physical distancing is required. Seating too is now ‘distanced’, indicated by tapes strung over the seats meant to remain empty.
I spent my time until boarding at the Karibuni Lounge, where just like in the public waiting areas seats were marked to be left empty so that distancing between passengers can be ensured.
Self service from the buffet, food and drink offerings is also no longer possible but enough staff are on site to serve guests who can point out what they would like to have and it is then served at their seat.
Brussels Airlines flight SN468 arrived 25 minutes early from Kigali and as a result was boarding also called half an hour early. That resulted in pushback too being early, having taken passengers, their luggage and the quintessential cargo on board – flowers, fish and vegetables for the EU markets and beyond.
The crew, though masked and gloved, extended the same warm hospitality when I stepped on board and I was shown to my pre booked seat.
I opted for water instead of a glass of bubbly, mindful of the night ahead.
It became quickly apparent what the ‘new age‘ changes were all about, through announcements about staying in the seats and wearing masks throughout except for dinner and breakfast in the morning, or when, in my case, sipping from my cup of tea which was replenished throughout the night.
The inflight magazine had gone, as did the buffet set up in front of the business class cabin, where in the past fruits, chocolates and other snacks were available – #COVID19 swept all those amenities and little luxuries away and in the interest of passenger health and safety one must grudgingly agree.
No magazines or newspapers either I noticed BUT, the crew did pull out all stops to make me and the other handful of guests in the front cabin feel welcome and at home in the skies.
Purserette Mme Custers and her team did go the extra ‘S’mile Brussels Airlines is known for and, we come to that a bit later, was ready to share her own pandemic era flight experience with me.
But first came dinner, and that was quite the same in terms of quality and variety as I was used to from dozens of past flights with my favourite airline when traveling to Europe.
For starters, a choice of two was available, I opted for the Salad of Rice Noodles with Coriander and Sweet Chillies while for my main course – three choices were offered – I chose Cod. The other options were Mushroom Polenta and Belgian Beef Stew.
To get into the mood for Europe I also afforded myself two Westmalle Tripel, alcohol content 9.5 percent and then enjoyed a few hours of sleep before the crew came around ahead of a light breakfast.
It was while I enjoyed sipping my beer that Mme Custers stopped by and we did talk, from behind our masks, about the ‘new normal‘, something we both agreed was rather abnormal for regular fliers and crews.
For health and safety reasons did the airlines around the world remove service elements which required ‘touching‘ of items by passengers and moved to the served concept, to minimise risks of infections on board, even though passengers must be tested before their flights and crews too undergo regular health checks.
The great age of ‘Savoir Vivre‘ appears to have gone, for now, though as said before, the crew was friendly, accommodating and pulled out all stops to deliver a service package which is vastly different from the pre-pandemic days.
Arrival in Brussels, due to favourable winds and having left almost half an hour early, was a whopping 1 1/2 hours early which made it easy to catch my connection – by train – to my final destination in Germany.
The way to immigration was eerily empty at a time when in the past flights from Africa would come in from all over the continent – not this time.
Immigration did ask for the contact form, checked it out, asked for my stay information for the quarantine period and then, learning I was in transit to Germany, asked for the train ticket as evidence of onward journey.
That presented was I cleared for entry into the EU and even wished a safe onward trip and a good day.
Again, the way to the baggage carousel was empty and it appeared we were the only flight arriving within a half hour time slot, enough to collect my bags, proceed through an empty customs checkpoint and out I was in the public area.
EMPTY like I have never seen before, no limo drivers with their boards, no waiting friends and relatives, the cafes were closed and the only people in evidence were two cleaning staff and a security patrol.
Entrance to the terminal is now only possible for travelers and therefore is no one allowed into the arrivals hall either.
Oh well I thought, no pushing through crowds this time on the way to the elevators which then took me to the train station from where my rail trip started.
And lo and behold, this time, unlike the past, were both connections on time, the trains – on a Monday morning for that matter, far from full and my prebooked single window seat gave me privacy and facilitated to keep my two bags with me under my watchful eyes.
I had a one train change itinerary, with a switch only in Frankfurt, and having booked early I enjoyed the upgrade to First Class for a mere 10 Euros each direction.
Even the train stations in Germany were for all intent and purpose rather empty, not that I did mind.
This completes Part 2 of the series of 3, with the final narrative, my journey from Germany to Belgium and then with Brussels Airlines back to Uganda, following next week.
It will focus on the transit experience and most important the #COVID19 testing experience in Brussels, cover check in, lounge experience if at all the lounges at Brussels Airport are open – the hard lockdown in Belgium right now makes that uncertain – and of course the challenges experienced during my stay in Europe with various levels of lockdowns.
Still, travel I had to and travel I did and by the look of it will again. The next journey is already booked, destination Toulouse and the story which goes along with that will be a very exciting one.
For now, stay safe and stay well, all of you!