Thursday, 30 July 2020

Travelling from LHR to PSA in the midst of a global pandemic

Yesterday afternoon, myself, my wife and our 5 year old daughter arrived back home from a week in the Tuscan countryside. I realise how lucky we have been to have been able to travel at present, and I wanted to write a record of what European travel was like this summer.

When Italy was added to the list of countries from which visitors did not need to quarantine, we took the opportunity to book a country house hotel at which we had stayed last summer. When we were feeling uncertainly about travel, knowing exactly where we were going and what to expect made a very positive difference in our feeling comfortable about the visit.

Our BA Club Europe flight to Pisa left LHR at 8.30am on 22 July, so we decided to stay at the airport on the Tuesday night to save a very early start. I booked one of the Bath Road Holiday Inn's 'stay and park' packages, as none of the official Heathrow parking options was available. We arrived at Heathrow mid-afternoon on the Tuesday, and took the opportunity to have a drive round Terminals 2, 3 and 5 to see what it was like. Unsurprisingly, I have never seen Heathrow so quiet. There was no traffic, very few people, and only the occasional plane landing or taking off. The airport car parks along the perimeter road were empty, and the hotel car parks only had a smattering of cars in them too. Describing the area as a ghost town would be a cliché, but...

We arrived at the Holiday Inn to find our car park pretty much deserted too, and that the Holiday Inn was closed. Our stay had been transferred to the Staybridge Suites which shares the building. We were given one of the larger suites for the night, and had an early supper alongside nine other people in the hotel. Apart from the lack of guests, everything about the hotel was as you would normally expect. We left before breakfast on the Wednesday morning, so were unable to see how that was offered, but we were each provided with a packed breakfast to get us to the terminal.

Despite the offers of a £17 taxi to T5, we took the free 423 London Transport bus which is a service I have never had the need to use before, but certainly one I would be very happy to use again. The bus was fairly empty, and we were the only passengers with luggage. The entrance to T5 was very quiet, and when we entered the departures area, the space swallowed the passengers queuing to check-in.

We made our way to the Club check-in area, where there was no queue at all. As we entered the usual rope path, we were asked where we were travelling, and duly given three copies of a form to fill in for all people travelling to Italy. When we had wound our way through the ropes to the check-in desk, the first question was whether we had had our temperature taken. While the form-issuer had been holding a thermometer, he hadn't checked our temperatures. He was duly summoned to the check-in desk where he took our temperatures, and our boarding passes note the fact that we had been checked. 

There was no fast track security, but families were directed through what would normally be fast track, and the process took as long as usual.

Once through security, there were more people in one place than I have seen for some months, but nothing like what would usually be expected on a July morning. The usual banks of chairs had individual seats taped off to stop them being used, and the distancing markers that are now part of life everywhere adorned floors and walls.

The Galleries Lounge was, as BA had announced, all table service. In practice, this meant finding a table, scanning a QR code and ordering from a menu. This worked well until a window seat became available and we moved. If you do this, you need to log out from the app and start again, scanning the new QR code. We were clearly not the only people to have done this, and there was also a sense that lots of the staff did not necessarily know where all the tables were: presumably, as this is new to them and staff will be coming back from furlough, there are lots of new processes for them to get used to too. There were more cleaning staff moving around the lounge, but we were not given and did not see the red/blue cards to indicate that an area was finished with.

Our flight was leaving from gate A13 so our movement around the terminal was minimal. The major difference at this point was that the flight boarded from the back in groups of five rows at a time. For a single cabin plane this seems so sensible, and something which I would not be unhappy to see maintained going forwards. As we boarded, we had the three forms which we had had to complete for the Italian authorities with name, date of birth, passport number, permanent and temporary addresses, and contact details, collected. Being in row 1, we waited until last to board, and even though the flight was full, this felt much more relaxed than having boarded and then having everyone else pushing past or queuing through the aisle.

As we boarded the A320, we were each given a sachet of hand sanitiser and an antibacterial towel. The safety briefing included the instruction to remove face masks before putting an oxygen mask on in the event of the loss of cabin air pressure, and an exhortation to remain seated as much as possible, and to avoid queuing for the toilets or congregating the galley area.

There were no special (including children's) meals, and we were served the new BA Club Europe lunch box, shown in much more detail here. Everything else about the flight and service was just as it ever is.

On arrival, everyone was instructed to remain seated, and four rows at a time from the front were invited to stand up, collect hand luggage and leave the plane. This was - apparently - an instruction from the Italian government - but we also did this to disembark back at LHR. Again, like boarding, this reduced the pushing and desperation to get off the plane and would potentially be a good thing to maintain going forwards.

As we entered the terminal and before we got to Passport Control, each passenger had their temperature taken by a ceiling-mounted thermometer underneath which everyone had to stand individually. After this, the rest of the airport procedure was as always.

Outside the airport, the shuttle bus to the car rental area was not running, so people had to walk the 400m to the rental area. Some rental companies were seemingly closed completely, and others - like Avis with whom I had booked via BA - had their desks in the office closed and only a couple of members of staff available in the car pick up area. 

Avis never seems very fast when it comes to collecting cars, but having to queue to have my booking number and a mobile number taken for someone to call back from head office to arrange the contract (and attempt to do all the usual up-sells), for the contract to be emailed back to the office to be printed out and to be given the keys seemed a somewhat cumbersome process. In the end, it took just over an hour to get the car, and the number of other people sheltering from the sun in the make-shift tent indicated this was very much the new normal for now.

Having got the car, and got to our accommodation, the holiday was very much as we had anticipated. The strangest thing was - again - how quiet Pisa and Lucca were (there were no queues for the tourist attractions, although I did have my temperature taken as we entered the Cathedral in Lucca), and the absence of tourists from continents other than Europe was notable. 

Returning home yesterday, PSA was very quiet, with only one entrance available for departures. It transpired that this was because passengers had their temperature taken on entering the building and had to walk through some sort of disinfecting misting machine. As we checked in, those aged 6 or over were given forms to fill in with contact details and addresses, which were collected as we boarded; these were also for the Italian government. The lounge (which is always a shared, non-BA, lounge) was closed, but there was no offer of vouchers for food or drink from the terminal. Boarding was, again, from the back, and the flight was the same as the outward trip, and we disembarked in groups of rows again.

Heathrow Border Control was busy as - apparently - lots of staff are not being unfurloughed until August. Family groups (as always) are not able to use the eGates, so the queues were long. A member of Heathrow staff was very generously taking pity on families with young children and let them out of the queue early to a desk on the side. Apart from the hour's queue, we - like several other travellers - also made a mistake here. We were not told at any point that we needed to complete a Passenger Locator Form for the UK government. Yes, there had been small signs on the ropes of the queue (but there always are, and you never read them), and there was a line in the sixth paragraph of the pre-flight email from BA saying it needed completing (ditto). The electronic form is several sections long, and each adult needs to complete it. We were able to do it on our phones huddled in a corner, and duly sate the Border Control officer. I suppose I had assumed we would be specifically given something as we had been when we arrived at the airport, and then assumed the form we had filled in in Italy was the information that was needed, or that - as UK citizens - it was connected to our passports. Whichever, it was our mistake, but we were not the only people who had made it. It can be completed in advance, and you can download the form immediately to show it on your phone, but a copy is also emailed to the address provided. All adults have to do their own form, and children can be attached to one of the adult's forms.

Another nearly empty 423 back to Newport Road with no other travellers, and a still-empty car park at the Holiday Inn/Staybridge Suites greeted us before we headed home for the first decent cup of tea in a week.

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