It’s nearly two years since I was last on a plane. The threat of Covid19 made me postpone a lot of my scheduled travels including visiting home in the farthest corner of South East Asia.
That streak was finally put to rest when I decided to visit Salalah four weeks back. I wanted to see what the Garden City was like during khareef at the time of the pandemic.
Since it was only a weekend getaway, the fastest way to go was via plane. I was thankful that both Oman Air and Salam Air were operational.
While the airline we took will remain unnamed, something bothered me about the procedures on the plane. After passing the final check at the airport, we headed to the gate. In a room that was about 400 square meters in size, there were nearly 200 people all cramped up together. All seats were taken and because it was overfilled, some were standing in nearly every corner while others were sitting in the middle of the aisles. While everyone was wearing facemasks, something was not right.
I tried to remain calm. My brain was filled with thousand and one questions including: Is this allowed? Was the airline given special permission to not adhere to 50 per cent capacity which was imposed in different companies, hotels, and restaurants on the ground? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that people adhere to social distancing at the gates?
Working in the media, I heard countless stories of people having negative PCR test results when they departed from one location but became Covid positive after taking the test in their final destination. This recent flight to Salalah was an eye-opener.
When I got to the plane, I suddenly have the strong urge to run away. It’s the khareef season and it’s the weekend, of course, planes will be fully booked. I stared at the long line before me, people of different ages and backgrounds all rearing to go and catch their flight.
As the bus drop us off to board the plane, my stress level was to the roof. Except for perhaps two empty seats at the very back, all 200-plus people we saw at the gate cramped up were on that flight.
Aeroplanes actually have smaller spaces. The seats too are less than two meters apart. Each row has three opposing seats. Inside the plane, there was no social distancing. Inside, the 50 per cent capacity on the ground didn’t apply. My mind justified that they need to fill the plane to save on fuel costs. I wondered whether that very policy to save on cost was the very reason why the Delta variant and all the different variants travelled fast.
On our flight, a kid was crying his heart out five rows away from our seat in the front. His parents can’t keep him from wearing the mask. Are children not capable of spreading the virus? I really didn’t think of that.
About six rows behind us, an old gentleman was coughing his lungs out. Was he wearing his mask? I didn’t dare to look.
Then the flight attendants wheeled in the food. For an hour flight, they could just have avoided it altogether. But they have to make their sale. Nearly 30 people ordered — from coffee to tea, from sandwiches to chips. They talked as they munched. They laughed as their friends beside them joked. Small space, not two meters apart, talking, laughing without a mask, the child behind us cry in chorus with two more in the front, the elderly gentleman coughing behind us, someone sneezed by the toilet — it was a powder keg and a tragedy just waiting to happen. But I sat in silence praying that all of us were vaccinated.
By the time that we landed and I got the phone signal back on, I send messages to the airlines about their protocol. I asked them three questions. Was the 50 per cent capacity not applicable to airlines? Why was one seat apart not a safety protocol? Why were they not giving packets that included face masks and sanitisers?
The social media managers of the airlines gave me long, corporate, non-answer answers. When I insisted that they were not answering the questions, they want me to reach out to corporate. Apparently, it’s not in their pay grade to answer such questions.
We didn’t get the virus on that trip. I think of it as just us getting lucky. By the time we came back, we rushed to get our vaccine.
Hotels and restaurants on the ground had to adhere to the strictest measures. They can only operate 50 per cent of their available rooms. This also means that after the last guest left, the room has to be fully cleaned and sanitized. It must be vacant for the next 24 hours. That’s the protocol and not following this has already resulted in some institutions being penalized.
Oman just came from a near 5-day lockdown. Before it, hospitals were getting inundated with all ICU beds filled. Medical organizations were turning away patients because they can no longer cater even to those who badly needed oxygen. Thankfully, after the new series of curfews and the full lockdown, cases are going down according to experts. The country is moving forward with its vaccination procedures. Now more than ever, thousands are clamouring to fully open the airports for international flights.
As the Khareef season rages on, thousands will also fly to Salalah not just on weekends but even on weekdays. At the rate that the demand is going, many will definitely have the same experience as we did.
Should people fly at the time of the pandemic? To say no will be selfish. We travel for different reasons. I can understand the urge. I can understand the demand. I can understand the different purpose we think is more valid than the reasons of others. But if you haven’t been fully vaccinated yet, I urge you not to. It’s a powder keg and you might be not as lucky as we were.
And I urge the airlines to review their safety protocols. I urge the people responsible to check on these protocols. If we can’t even properly regulate domestic flights, how can we remain safe if we finally open up the airports for international flights? Somewhere in the process, there is a big gap -- something that contributes to the cases getting worst. With the threat of the new variants, we can’t rest on our early wins. As the virus mutates or changes, so do we and so do our practices and protocols.
Someone has to be responsible for our safety and it needs to be a collective effort not just by the authority but the airlines and the people travelling. Let’s not make 2022 another year of fighting another variant and we can’t keep losing just because money has to come first.
Thoughts? Email the author at email@example.com.