It might have been the rakish 19th-century wit Oscar Wilde who quipped, “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect”, but no one living in this era of drones, robot service staff and 5G could have predicted the turmoil a novel coronavirus would wreak on the world in 2020.
The aviation and travel sectors have been particularly battered. The International Air Transport Association reckons that the airline industry’s total debt could well balloon by US$120 billion (RM511 billion) at the start of 2020 to US$550 billion by year-end — a frightening 28% increase. Several airlines have either filed or will be filing for bankruptcy, compounded by the general consensus that things might recover only in 2022 or 2023. In times of such unprecedented turmoil, the once-simple act of catching a flight no longer seems vanilla. What used to be routine is now an anomaly.
Having been stranded in Kuala Lumpur since March, it was time to return to Zurich, where my husband, Thomas, is. On May 31, I boarded a flight on Qatar Airways, one of the very few airlines still operating flights in and out of Kuala Lumpur. I had never even seen KLIA so dead. It appeared that my flight was one of only two departing that night. The other was a Japan Airlines flight to Narita, Tokyo. No shops were open for business and the once-bustling travel hub was dimly lit.
Four policemen were manning the entrance and checked my travel documents before allowing me to go through. Once in, I had to have my temperature taken. At the Qatar counter, the masked attendant checking me in told me there were not many people flying so I could at least be assured that the plane was not crowded. The aerotrain is not in operation for now, so all passengers departing for the C Gates had to take specially arranged buses that had seats marked off to ensure social distancing. As we trundled along, I could see many Malaysia Airlines planes grounded and I slowly began to understand the impact Covid-19 is having on businesses and operating costs.
Upon reaching the terminal, I made my way to Plaza Premium First, the only lounge available. Social distancing was stringently adhered to by all lounge guests and no longer could you browse the buffet looking for a drink or snack — everything had to be ordered via special QR codes. You basically scan the code and key in your table number to place a meal or drink order. At the bottom of the information plaque was a cute sign-off: “We care for your well-being.” I glanced at the flight departure screens and it was a long sea of orange, each bearing the word “Cancelled”. It was only my flight and the one to Narita that remained on schedule.
At the appointed time, I duly made my way to the gate but did not see another soul. It was like a ghost airport and the overall scene and mood positively Dystopian. I wish I had not thought of the word “ghost”, as the cabin crew that greeted me on board was dressed head to toe in white PPE suits. If you fell asleep on board and suddenly woke up, I wouldn’t blame you for getting a fright! But they were friendly and came up to talk to me after I had settled into my seat. There was no one on either side of me for the first leg of my journey to Doha.
Despite this strange newness, Qatar’s renowned hospitality and service remained firmly in place. We still had physical menus and the usual in-flight bells and whistles, including pyjamas by The White Company of London. Contrary to popular belief, we weren’t provided with masks or hand sanitisers. I guess it is expected that every passenger should and would come prepared. I could have my favourite bottle of San Pellegrino, though, and the full range of in-flight meals complemented by wines and champagnes was available as usual. Everything I requested was handed over safely sealed in plastic. So, I quickly began to feel at ease and could enjoy the journey.
Once I landed in Doha, I found out my midnight flight to Zurich had been cancelled, resulting in more than eight hours of transit time. Thankfully, the business lounge is open 24 hours with designated beds for those who want to nap. I took the opportunity to snooze for three hours and could even shower upon arrival and before catching my connecting flight. There are cleaners always on standby, so I felt very comfortable and secure using the facilities.
In comparison to KL, Doha’s Hamad International Airport appeared quite busy, with a number of flights headed out to all over Europe and the Americas, although I did not see scores of people milling about. Upon boarding my flight, however, I checked with the crew and found out there were only four of us in business class and not more than 60 in economy. I am guessing each flight is limited to a certain number of passengers to ensure secure social distancing.
Flying has become a surreal experience, but I hope to return to Asia soon, with plans being firmed up for October. My advice to those who need to travel would be to eat before boarding, in case you do not feel comfortable removing your mask in-flight. I also declined the use of drinking glasses, asking instead for the whole bottle to be given to me. If you are flying economy and your transit time is longer than three hours, I would advise you to buy access to the lounge so you can at least have a hot shower and a hot meal. When you feel fresh and clean, you immediately feel better!
Once we landed safely in Zurich, I was surprised to see all the immigration and customs officers not wearing masks. By now, I was used to not seeing a full human face. I was amused to see my fellow travellers quickly taking off their masks too. I guess they did not want to stick out like a sore thumb or perhaps, mentally, you just feel safer on home ground. Needless to say, I followed suit.
This story, which first appeared on June 15, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia, was told to Diana Khoo.