I love to fly. Last year, I flew nearly 56,000 miles. I started the year in Maputo, Mozambique, and ended in Seoul, South Korea, with stops in Guadalajara, Athens, Istanbul, Cape Town, London, Paris, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Austin, Madagascar, and Reunion. (I had to look it up: Reunion is a French island just east of Madagascar.)
For the past decade, I’ve traveled full-time as a housesitter, caring for others’ pets and homes while they vacation.
It took a worldwide pandemic to ground my itchy feet. During the early months of lockdown, I lived in an idyllic loft in north London with the world’s cutest cockapoo and a couple for whom I was supposed to housesit -- before their travels were canceled.
Driving From London To Edinburgh
In early June, a friend stranded overseas indefinitely offered me her new, empty home in Edinburgh. A London friend drove me to Scotland so I could avoid public transportation. We carried a note from my stranded friend explaining why we were traveling in case Scottish police stopped us at the English-Scottish border. We’d read reports of Englanders being turned away for violating lockdown orders.
After crossing the border, we stopped on a rural road to stretch. Two hikers asked if we’d enjoyed our walk, assuming we’d just come from a nearby trail. Enthusiastically, I bubbled that I was moving to Edinburgh and we’d been driving from London. Their icy glares reminded me of the stories I’d read about “big city” folk being shunned in COVID-free villages.
The home in Edinburgh was lovely, but Scotland was much more locked down than England: There were no takeaway restaurants nearby, no open coffee shops to linger outdoors. I knew no one. I felt pretty isolated.
Flying From Edinburgh To London
When I was offered a 10-week housesit in one of my favorite areas of London, I leapt at the chance! Flying was my reflexive travel choice, and I was pleased to see an abundance of discount tickets.
What surprised me was how anxious I became as my flight grew closer. Although the logistics were easy (Uber to Edinburgh Airport, taxi from Heathrow), I was nervous about leaving the house. I never thought I’d become borderline agoraphobic!
Apparently, I’m not alone. My intrepid traveling friends have confided their anxiety about leaving their lockdown cocoons. I knew I was going someplace safe, but I couldn’t shake my lingering apprehension.
Studies Prove Flying Is Not A Huge COVID Risk
I knew my fear was unfounded. Two studies released early in the COVID crisis revealed minimal transmission between infected and healthy airline passengers: A four-and-a-half-hour flight from Singapore to Hangzhou carried 16 COVID-positive passengers on January 24. All 335 passengers were assessed for the next three weeks by the Hangzhou Center for Disease Control. Only one passenger who sat near four infected, unmasked passengers contracted the virus.
One passenger aboard a flight from Guangzhou to Toronto showed COVID symptoms. Public Health Ontario tracked the other 350 passengers aboard the 15-hour flight for two weeks -- not one tested positive for COVID at the end of the study.
These studies support the World Health Organization’s position that COVID droplets don’t linger in the air.
Flying From Edinburgh To London
Nevertheless, arriving at Edinburgh Airport didn’t calm me. It was eerie -- and a little scary -- to see it so empty. Everything was closed. Hand sanitizer stands were everywhere. New airplane decals on the floors indicated the distance required between queued passengers. Decals weren’t necessary, however, as I was the only traveler going through security!
The skeleton airport staff practically applauded me at every point. The British Airways counter agent offered to check my carry-on for free, explaining they were minimizing movement in the cabin. The woman at the baggage drop actually thanked me for flying. Security agents smiled. Everyone wore masks and gloves.
Boarding was easy: Back five rows first, next five rows … We disembarked in groups of five rows, as well, starting from the front. Very civilized, although many passengers -- as well as crew members -- weren’t maintaining social distance in the cramped aisles. As we boarded, we were handed “personal protection packs” that contained a small packet of hand sanitizer and an antibacterial towel. The plane was immaculate.
About two-thirds of the three-seat/aisle/three-seat rows were filled, with middle seats deliberately left empty. Seat pitch hadn’t changed, though, so other passengers were immediately behind and in front of me. We all wore masks -- until the flight attendants distributed baggies with potato chips and bottled water. Since the flight was only an hour long, it seemed an unnecessary contradiction -- so typical of much of the messaging around coronavirus!
With so few passengers on our plane, our luggage arrived at Heathrow baggage claim in record time. There was a sanitizing station available for passengers to wipe their luggage.
Parts Of England Experience A Second Wave
London is quite open now, although as I write this, a second English city is returning to lockdown after spiked COVID numbers. Already, cities across Europe are warning of repeat lockdowns, and my traveling friends are again in the “Should I stay or should I go?” quandary.
Meanwhile, I am thoroughly enjoying seeing my London friends. We eat outside -- sitting at opposite ends of the table -- or walk through the increasingly crowded parks. This coming week, I have daily plans to meet friends and to finally meet face-to-face with my book club and writing group. I avoid the Tube; the idea of being underground on a crowded train with unmasked people feels dicey. But I do take the London Overground and trains, where most people wear masks and maintain more distance. I wear a mask when I’m on crowded sidewalks, but it feels really uncomfortable and unfriendly.
It's hard to know what’s “safe” and what’s not. We each make our own decisions. I just want to get in as much living as possible before new lockdown restrictions are ordered! I have no desire to get on a long-haul flight and, since most of Europe is closed to Americans right now, I hope to stay in the UK. Next month, I’ll need to travel back to Edinburgh, but I think I’ll take the train.