As airspace reopened after two months, I took a flight from New Delhi to Varanasi and back to understand how the pandemic has changed the way we fly.
At the entrance itself, a lot seemed different- the human interface was minimum. You now show your ticket and ID through a glass shield to the CISF personnel. You get the boarding pass through a machine after you scan your ticket bar-code from a printout or phone.
As you now enter the airport after the mandatory temperature and Aarogya Setu check – you can straight away go for security check-in. On the way to inside the Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport, the CISF personal all covered in white plastic maintain their distance from every passenger. There are constant announcements for passengers to keep a safe distance from each other.
I put my hand baggage for screening and went the other side where the security doesn’t stamp your boarding pass now. Doesn’t touch it.
I looked back to collect my bag, it was stuck. But no one would touch it. Everything now was untouchable. A CISF personnel pushed my bag in, using a stick. So far, I hadn’t spoken to anyone. Zero human interaction.
As I sat at my designated gate to board the flight, I looked around, everyone was wearing masks. Different kind of masks - cloth, N95, the surgical blue one. Even babies, little babies in prams wore masks. It didn’t fit them, but they had been tightly tied. Most people wore gloves and yet kept sanitizing their hands.
I had to board a flight, any flight, to any destination as I had a story to file, but why were so many people taking this risk on the first day of flying. ‘I haven’t seen my husband and my four-year-old in two months, I’m so happy I can go back home’ the woman sitting next to me told me with teary eyes. Her mask kept slipping from her nose as she spoke to me. What was wrong with me? Instead of thinking of her joy and sharing it- I kept thinking of her mask that looked loose, old and dirty. Is it even safe? I wondered.
Take a look at this ground report from IGI Airport in Delhi. pic.twitter.com/RkerShJ4lk
— CNNNews18 (@CNNnews18) May 25, 2020
I went to the other side and spoke to more passengers, most of them had the same story, they were reuniting with their families after long. It was a sudden realization that the sudden lockdown has meant separation for so many and many of them were under the same roof at that moment. I hoped for all of us to go back to our homes safely without getting the virus. But was it even possible? Some may have to go back with the virus. The fear got more real when we went inside the aircraft, it was cramped. Three people in a row leave no scope for physical distancing. Although the airlines provided passengers with face shields and masks but was that really enough?
The flight was full and ready to take off, the air hostesses making the announcements looked different, robotic in the semi PPE suits and shields. The announcement too was different- ‘keep minimum interaction with fellow passengers’ the hostess said. Not that people were talking to each other anyway- the masks and the face shields not only made it difficult to talk but blurred our vision and suffocated many. And even if you smiled at someone- chances are they won't know. Will we be ever able to make new friends- I wondered at that moment. It looked to me like a flight of aliens.
The air hostess doesn’t help you with your bags now- they won’t touch anything you own. No food will be served on the flights- if you want water- go walk and take it yourself.
‘Earlier it used to be a happy go lucky fun flying for me- now it’s all about being responsible and uptight’ the air hostess onboard the flight told me.
She was right- It was a battle flight, the passengers were armed with shields, masks, gloves to fight an enemy they couldn’t see.
As the plane landed in Varanasi, for a second it felt that the battle was over. But it wasn’t. It isn’t.