June 19, 2021

Flight check

How does air travel in this age of Covid protocols differ from airline to airline and airport to airport? Our reporter found out by flying Gatwick-Dublin with easyJet and back with Ryanair

The Airports

Gatwick: Only North Terminal is currently operating. The shuttle from South to North was quiet, with passengers observing face coverings rules. It was a Sunday morning but North Terminal was a lot busier than I expected. Even at 7am the Red Lion, a Wetherspoons outlet, was packed and there was a steady line of people queuing to get in. The place operated a QR Code (track and trace) stipulation. Those whose camera phones couldn’t pick this up were asked to fill out a short form, with personal details, before entering. Once inside, tables were distanced at least two metres apart from each other and patrons were encouraged to order food from an app. I was surprised that Boots and WHSmith were not limiting the number of people moving in and out. Many of the fashion retailers were closed, although this might have been because it was early on a Sunday. Nearly everyone – but not all – was observing the face covering requirements whilst travelling through the airport. There were plenty of hand sanitiser stations throughout the terminal and dedicated ‘PPE bins’, marked for the disposal of face coverings and gloves only. In some areas of the airport, a one-way flow system was in place.

Dublin: It was late afternoon on a Thursday and the airport was very quiet. I was carrying only hand luggage but Plexiglas screens have been installed at the check-in desks to minimise contact between passengers and airline staff. All passengers are asked to wear a face mask during their full airport journey and once airside there were several vending machines disposing these. Many retail shops were closed and the large Duty Free area didn’t have many takers. One large bar was serving alcohol – but only when ordered with food bought somewhere in the airport (a bag of crisps seemed to fulfil this requirement). A large group were laughing, joking and moving around the bar without face masks, and gathering at the counter despite signs saying ‘table service only’, which made myself and a few others feel uncomfortable.

Security

Gatwick: Although there were plentiful open lines and I was through the body scanner quickly enough, it seemed like more bags than usual were being directed into the ‘to search’ channel, which meant there were a number of people hanging around waiting to have their hand luggage checked. Mostly this was because small liquids hadn’t been put into plastic bags or, even pettier, they had been deposited in two plastic bags instead of the allowed one. In the circumstances, this seemed over-zealous and counter-productive to have groups of people waiting in the same small area. This was the only time at Gatwick I felt that social distancing measures were laxer than they needed to be.

Dublin: I went straight to security, where floor markers had been put in place to maintain social distancing. I noticed a member of staff sanitising a pile of security trays and was told that if a body search were required security staff would wear a full-face visor. I was through and walking airside in less than five minutes.

Boarding

easyJet: The gate number was announced 45 minutes before departure. I immediately headed to gate 55C – a 10-minute walk – and went straight onto the plane.

There was no one staffing the check-in desk, which had a protective screen in place, with passengers able to walk straight through and down the jet bridge.

Tickets – mobile phone downloads have come of age during the pandemic – were checked at the aircraft door and we were directed straight to our seats.

Ryanair: The gate number, 105, was announced 50 minutes before the flight.With far fewer departing flights from Dublin and lots of empty gates, there were plenty of unoccupied seats nearby.

Passengers were asked to queue to board and tickets were checked before boarding. However, everyone kept their distance and there was no bottleneck situation or sense that it was all a bit too busy and cramped.

The cabin crew stopped us at the aircraft’s door, to ensure social distancing whilst finding our seats.

Onboard / The Flight

easyJet: I had pre-selected a window seat near the front of the aircraft. Both seats next to me were empty, as were the three rows immediately ahead, behind and opposite. I counted only around 25 passengers on the flight.

Announcements were made regarding the requirement to wear a mask during the duration of the flight, which we could take off only whilst eating or drinking. We were told to stay in our seats and, if wanting to use the lavatory, wait until the vacant sign was lit before unbuckling our seat belts.

Before take-off we were advised that, on landing, we should stay in our seats and not reach for our baggage until the people ahead of us had moved towards the exit door. A limited food and beverage service was served onboard. Cabin crew and passengers kept their masks on throughout and observed all social distancing procedures. The 50-minute flight felt relaxed and very safe – although this was no doubt partly due to the rows of empty seats.

Ryanair: I had a window seat, with the middle and aisle seats unoccupied. The flight was relatively busy – around three-quarters full – with the three rows ahead and behind me full.

Surprisingly, there were no Covid-specific announcements or any guidance as to safety measures we needed to adhere to during the flight. Before take-off, a passenger in a window seat in the row opposite was on his mobile phone for a lenghty time, with his mask down below his chin.

During the 55-minute flight the aisle remained mostly passenger free as a request to stay buckled during the duration was observed. Although busier and noisier than my outbound easyJet flight, the flying experience felt as safe, ‘normal’ and reassuring as it could be during these times.

Arrival

Easy Jet: Exiting the aircraft was swift, with social distancing protocols perfectly observed. Belfast International was near-deserted, with all shops, retail outlets and cafés, etc, shuttered, aside from a small WHSmith. The emptiness and lack of arriving planes and people felt a little eerie. From disembarking to catching a bus to the city centre took less than 15 minutes.

“There was no one staffing the check-in desk, which had a protective screen in place, with passengers able to walk straight through and down the jet bridge”

Ryanair: After landing at Gatwick we waited 15 minutes for a gate to become available. This was probably the tensest part of the flight, with people anxious to get off the plane. Once the aircraft door was open, several passengers started reaching for their luggage at the same time and gathering in the aisle.

I had purposely chosen a forward seat near to the front exit door to avoid this and was one of the first off the plane. Passing through Gatwick was seamless, although the shuttle to South Terminal was crowded.
There seems to be no measure in place to restrict the number of people boarding, which made the two-minute journey feel that much longer.