Travel diary: Flying to London from Kuala Lumpur amid the pandemic

Datuk Oh Chong Peng recounts his experience travelling long-haul.

KLIA was sadly rather deserted (Photo: Shahrill Basri/The Edge)

Our long-awaited trip to London was finally happening. After much deliberating, hemming and hawing and filling up a million forms before even leaving the house for the airport, it was already proving to be an adventure. For those among you who are thinking of a carefree holiday, do know that travelling in the new normal requires military-level planning and precision.

As my wife Siew Kee and I both possess Right of Abode in the UK (as Commonwealth Citizens born before Malaysia obtained her independence, this essentially means we do not need a visa to enter the country and can stay for any length of time), we were spared the need to obtain permission from the Malaysian government to exit the country. If not, you most certainly would have to apply for a My Travel Pass issued by Jabatan Imigresen Malaysia.

Even purchasing flight tickets is no longer a straightforward matter; gone are the days of leisurely browsing airline websites, whipping out the credit card and clicking on the pay button. This time, to get the tickets issued, we had to show proof of our permanent residency in the UK. Our regular travel agent consulted a friend who works in the immigration department and even he had never heard of Right of Abode. Thankfully, another friend intervened and a senior officer stepped in to say Right of Abode is perfectly fine. Said tickets were then duly purchased.

We were also counselled and advised by well-meaning and well-travelled friends against flying with certain airlines notorious for delays and last-minute changes (we shall not name and shame them here) to their flight schedules. Should the dreaded delay happen, we were warned extra costs would be incurred — not to mention time and trouble — to retake the PCR test for Covid-19, which needs to be done three days or 72 hours before the flight.


Upon arrival at our London home (Photo: Oh Chong Peng)

Two days before

Before arriving in London, you would need to complete a Passenger Locator Form for UK Health and this can only be done 48 hours before landing, with PCR test results scanned in. You would also need to pre-purchase PCR tests for Day Two and Eight of your mandatory 10-day self-quarantine upon arriving in the UK. We also decided to pay for an extra Covid-19 test on Day Five, which falls under the Test to Release scheme, enabling you to end your period of quarantine on Day Six if the results come back negative. The kit requires you to swab the inside of your mouth and up your nose, after which you pack and mail off the swab in a test tube. You should get the results back within a day or two.

After purchasing all these test kits, you are then given a unique number which goes onto your Passenger Locator Form. You will not be allowed to enter the UK without purchasing the kits. All the aforementioned kits cost us £190 per person and we had them sent to our home in London prior to our arrival.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, off we trooped to Sunway Medical Centre to get our PCR tests done. The service was extremely efficient although the nasal swab hurt a bit. Never mind, we thought, as we now had a good idea how to swab ourselves in London. Once home, we duly completed the Passenger Locator Forms online and, lo and behold, it took just 10 minutes for UK Health to email us that everything was hunky-dory and approved. All we had to do now was print out a copy, all four pages of it. We also made sure to print out the necessary attachments, including our vaccination certificates and proof of test kit purchase.


Travelling day

On the morning of the flight, we were all packed and raring to go. We decided to leave for the airport slightly earlier than usual. Our driver had already obtained a police letter of permission so we were confident the ride would be hassle-free. There was no traffic on the roads from Damansara to Sepang, with just one police checkpoint right before the KLIA toll.

We left home at 1.15pm and reached KLIA at 2pm, almost four hours before our Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong was due to depart. We were initially told to arrive at the airport more than three hours ahead and so were unpleasantly surprised to find that the check-in counter still only opens exactly three hours before take-off. That said, it was a small matter.


With a tinge of dismay, we found the satellite terminal to be quite empty (Photo: Shahrill Basri/The Edge)

Prior to entering the airport, you would need to scan your MySejahtera app as usual and show your PCR test certificate to security. We were informed that those without a negative PCR test result taken less than three days beforehand had to go home, which is the correct procedure.

We were the first in line at check-in and the process was exceedingly thorough. The counter clerk knew about the UK’s Right of Abode, which was a relief and saved us from having to explain ourselves over and over. Our travel agent had made a remark in our flight booking that I had a lung condition. So, complete with a letter from my doctor, it was neatly arranged that I be wheeled in style from check-in to departure gate. Lovely!

It was at the Immigration Counter that the Right of Abode matter cropped up again. The officer in charge had never seen or heard of it and only after his supervisor said it was no problem were we allowed to proceed. With a sigh of relief, we began making our way to Gate 35 of the satellite terminal. The regular aerotrain was not operating, so we had to take the shuttle bus.

With a tinge of dismay, we found the satellite terminal to be quite empty. It felt almost surreal being pushed in a wheelchair around an almost empty airport. We took the circular lift and headed towards the Plaza Premium Lounge only to be told by the person manning the reception desk that, although food was served, we were not allowed to eat or drink inside. How peculiar.

Thankfully, being in a wheelchair has its advantages. Despite being relieved of it for the time being and deposited at a table, I was mercifully allowed to enjoy our refreshments while seated inside the lounge, and so could Siew Kee. This is what I call companionship privileges. Food had to be ordered using your smart phone scanner and we had no complaints. Everything arrived nicely prepared and piping hot, including my café latte.

At 5pm, the airport attendant turned up once again — this time to push me to Gate 35, where we boarded our flight to Hong Kong at last. Once in the cabin, we noted the CX aircraft was a spanking new Airbus 350, with very well-designed Marco Polo class seats. The only fly in the proverbial ointment was that it was Hobson’s choice when it came to in-flight dining.

Without too much fuss, we were served a tray bearing a starter, chicken stew, bread roll and a bowl of rice. The little touches, like tablecloth setting et al, remain, but do forget about toasting the start of your journey with a nice glass of champagne. The lovely, lengthy drinks menu of yesteryear is but a memory now. Thankfully, Cathay still offered wine and whisky, so I contented myself with a Chivas — again, the only choice of dram.


Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok was nowhere near its usual bustling self

It was a smooth flight to Chek Lap Kok and, as per our earlier mobility assistance requirement, we were once again met by my “Rolls-Royce” — the wheelchair — before being transferred to a narrow three-seater buggy whose driver sat at the rear of the vehicle. I hadn’t seen anything like it before! We were taken straight to Gate 43 as the airport lounge was closed.

Hong Kong airport was quiet, although not as quiet as KLIA. Most shops remained closed although some cafés and restaurants were open for business. Once at the gate, all our papers and passports were taken for checking, with the Passenger Locator Form and all other documents declared to be in order. It was a huge relief, I can tell you.

At 10.40pm, we finally boarded BA 32 bound for London-Heathrow, the second and final leg of our journey. At 11.40pm and half an hour behind schedule, as the plane began taxiing out of the terminal we were told there was a technical problem with one of the engines, resulting in the aircraft pulling back. At 12.15am, the captain updated all of us that they still didn’t know what the problem was, resulting in more waiting.

In the wee hours of the morning, at 2.20am, we learnt that the fuel pump problem still could not be rectified. In order to depart, the aircraft had to be lightened. And how, you may ask? By removing all the checked-in baggage, which will then be sent on a later flight. There was no further information apart from this.

Almost miraculously, a mere 10 minutes later, the captain chirpily announces that “the engineers have finally solved the fuel pump problem”. He adds, “Ladies and gentlemen, you can now ignore the earlier announcement. We leave in 30 minutes.” At which point, the plane erupted in applause. Well, from the passengers who remained awake, at least. I myself bellowed out a loud “yay”, if you must know.

At 3.31am, we finally took off, after a four-hour delay. Although elated, a slight worry began to niggle at the back of my mind. What if the officials at Heathrow declared our Passenger Locator Forms null and void, as it would, by then, have been prepared over 48 hours before arrival? But first, blessed sleep.


In comparison to the two Asian airports, Heathrow was positively heaving (Photo: Reuters)

Arrival day

After all the drama and excitement, the flight to London proved most uneventful. I enjoyed two double shots of 12YO Singleton. British Airways, in a time of pandemic, finally decides to serve a decent single malt. We landed at 9am, four and a half hours late, at Heathrow Terminal 5. In contrast to Asia’s airports, London’s duty-free shops looked as if they were doing a roaring business! The airport was bustling and it really didn’t feel as if the city had just emerged from a global lockdown.

UK immigration, however, proved to be a real anti-climax. Almost all the airport staff, immigration officers included, were not even wearing masks. There was no health check or screening despite being forewarned it could be a sticky process. In fact, the officer merely looked at our Right of Abode and waved us through. Just like pre-pandemic times. We were not reminded or warned to adhere to strict quarantine rules, which then left us mischievously wondering whether or not we should.

We called for an Uber and it came promptly. Everything in London seemed business as usual. Upon arriving at the house, we were greeted by the sight of the batch of pre-ordered test kits waiting ominously and, of course, we decided there and then, we had better behave ourselves.

Postscript: We earned our right of early release after testing negative yet again on Day 5. For those unaware of the reason behind our journey, Siew Kee and I are pleased and proud to report, after 364 long days and with only WhatsApp calls and Zoom videos as consolation, we finally got to meet and hold our precious grandson in our arms. For real. At long last. The journey, with its tiresome preparation, endless documentation and unexpected hiccups, was far from a walk in the park. But was it worth it? You bet.


This article first appeared on Sept 6, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.


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