If you’ve wondered what it must feel like to take a long-haul flight these days, look no further. My friend Colette recently flew from Montreal to Paris (a 6.5-hour flight) and I interviewed her to learn about her experience of flying Air Canada during COVID-19.

Unlike journalistic reports where the traveller is obviously being hosted by the airline (in exchange for a favourable review), my friend was flying economy with Air Canada and booked the flight herself. So here is an honest account of what it was like to fly on AC 870 on the night of July 12, 2020, in the middle of a pandemic.

Pre-departure preparations

Big Travel Nut: What made you decide to go to France in July, despite the risks and inconveniences?

Colette: I met a Frenchman last fall. I saw him again in January in France and he was supposed to visit me in Montreal at the end of march. And that’s when the troubles began. Border closures kept us apart for almost six months; for new lovers, that’s very hard! What made it ever harder for me was the fact that I couldn’t even go to the US to see my daughter and grandson (another story!)

Colette headshot

Week after week, I kept up to date with the news, trying to figure out if I could go to France during the summer. At the end of May, it looked like Europe might reopen its borders to certain countries by July, but the decision only came in on June 29, to take effect on July 1. I immediately bought a plane ticket for Paris, departing on July 12 (only CA$830, a steal for this time of year).

COVID-19 did not make me hesitate for one second. Yet, I’m aware of the risks, given my age (67), especially since travel insurance doesn’t cover COVID. I prefer not to think about what would happen if I had to be hospitalized… The worst is that I don’t have ANY medical coverage (for COVID-19 or anything else) because a government directive advises against all foreign travel. I only learned this “detail” on my departure day and didn’t have time to find an alternative. Love makes you reckless!

I think some travel insurance companies cover health risks other than COVID-19. You have to shop around.

BTN: Did you make any special preparation or packed differently for this trip?

Colette: No, nothing special except packing hand sanitizer and masks.

The airport situation

BTN: You left from Montreal (YUL). What was different at the airport?

Colette: I expected the worst: endless lineups, waits, all kinds of constraints. There was none of that! I was pleasantly surprised.

There was only one door to enter the airport, and almost no wait. People entered one at a time and had to disinfect their hands under close supervision. Then they asked some screening questions about symptoms and took your temperature. All this happened in less than a minute. Of course everyone had to wear a mask everywhere in the airport.

There wasn’t any wait to get your boarding pass at the machines either. (These are not disinfected after each use.)

About to board Air Canada flight

Waiting time at security was very short, making this normally tedious step almost a pleasure. Have you ever experienced those endless lines where people crowd you, and push their suitcases into your legs? All this has disappeared! Travellers must keep two metres apart and this changes everything.

Of course right now airport traffic is a fraction of what it normally is. When more people start flying, lineups and waiting times will increase. But right now, airport conditions are ideal.

During the flight

BTN: What was it like inside the plane?
Inside Air Canada flight during COVID-19

On plane, flight attendant distributes CleanCare kits.

Colette: Everything was pretty much as usual, except for the fact that everyone wore a mask. Despite having become used to masks, It still felt a little strange… Some people were asked to adjust the position of their masks. They gave us a “CleanCare” kit containing sanitizer gel, a mask and plastic gloves.

The flight was almost full, I’d say 90%, but I was lucky to be able to change seats so I had nobody beside me.

However, I found it difficult to have to wear a mask for over 15 hours straight, from the time I entered the airport to when I exited in Paris. And when I asked for a blanket because I was cold, they told me they were not distributing them anymore, because of COVID. Good to know.

I also noticed that very few people (maybe 20%, much less than normal) used the plane washrooms during the flight.

BTN: Did they serve meals? Was the entertainment system working?

Colette: We were not served actual “meals”, just lunch boxes with (not very good) sandwiches. There was no drink service either, but they were generous with water bottles.

The entertainment system was working normally, and the gloves let you use it safely and confidently.

After landing

BTN: How was the airport in Paris (CDG) regarding COVID-19 safety measures?

Colette: I got the impression that CDG was a little less strict, despite the fact that masks are also compulsory in French airports.

I exited very quickly since I had no checked luggage and there was little wait at passport control. There weren’t many people in the arrival hall. Perfect! This will probably change when flights increase.

Air Canada plane

Image by Nel Botha from Pixabay.

BTN: How did you feel during this experience?

Colette: I have to say it was one of my best airport experiences, with the exception of the mask!

BTN: Well, this is great information! Thank you Colette.

It’s also important to note that unlike Canada, France doesn’t require a 14-day quarantine for arriving passengers, and as it turns out, Colette didn’t catch any virus on the plane. I’m really happy for her.

My friend was obviously highly motivated to go to France, and her experience of flying Air Canada during COVID-19 was pretty good all considered. (Although in retrospect it sounds like she should also have packed an extra layer and some snacks). But she did acknowledge the risks to her health.

Personally, even though I’m an avid traveller, I’ve decided that I’m going to wait until a vaccine (or a cure) exists before making long-haul travel plans. I don’t have anybody that I absolutely need to visit overseas, and with a little willpower, I should be able to postpone pleasure trips for another year. Yes, I am sad about it, but that’s life my friends.

For contrast and extra information, you can also read the account of this journalist who was invited on a special Air Canada charter flight from Vancouver to Edmonton (short-haul) to demonstrate the airlines’s COVID-19 precautions. This is obviously the VIP version and unlikely to be what you experience as a regular passenger, but still informative.

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