Flight 911 was going South into Covid-19 territory on a Saturday morning, what could go wrong?
Where there was supposed to be spring there was Covid-19. Leaving the airport at Copenhagen comfortable empty on a Saturday morning, ahead at the bag drop a few teenagers wearing flimsy surgical masks of no use and even less so as they pulled them down to converse with each other, a case of “perception is everything”.
At security no lines something I had not seen ever… A few of the security staff wearing blue surgical gloves which is not unusual in “normal” times either. In the tax free shop a stand with hand sanitizer otherwise pretty much business as usual sans the crowds.
If Kastrup (Copenhagen) Airport was quiet not so at Schiphol (Amsterdam) where the connection to Caneloni country awaited. The approach to Catania kept Etna under a cloud wrap in the afternoon of 7 March. An ALIBUS four Euro shuttle ride later dropped me at the train station. My host had sent detailed instructions on how to enter the apartment. A shower later it was time to explore the city now gilded by the setting sun. The purpose of my trip had been to attend the TBEX travel blogger conference, which had been called off days earlier. With a non-refundable airline ticket and pre-paid accomodation the Corona scare seemed too far away to really be of concern. As a matter of fact the Milano epi-center and locked down parts of Italy was closer to Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and London then were I.
However the human psyche and political decisions would prove to put Sicily much closer in days to come. It was quiet on the streets of Catania as I wondered from Park Bellini along Via Etnea towards Piazza Duomo. Two street musicians stood lonely at opposite sides of Piazza Universita which had not seen any students for three days. Half a dozen dogs surrounded a disheveled man by a shop window.
By 2AM the following morning the Italian coalition government had prohibited public gatherings, performances, church services and declaring that people should stay one meter apart in bars, restaurants and supermarkets etc. The streets became even more deserted.
On the 9th it was decision time with rumors of two week self-quarantining starting to circulate. As KLM (my carrier) had cancelled all rebooking fees even my non-refundable could now be changed. Even a normally lively city filled with monuments (all closed) and history had become somewhat enclosing and it was time to go home. To avoid exorbitant ticket upgrade prices I opted for a flight on the 11th.
The day after the entire country of Italy was declared “Zone Red” on the 10th, which meant lockdown. There were significantly more people wearing surgical masks (had it now become a fashion statement as they were still considered pretty useless by the medical profession), perhaps 5% of those out and about. Not so many in the still lively fish market. Many shops were shuttered. The baristas at Caffe del Duomo were admonishing customers (mostly tourists) to stay apart having their coffee “al bar”. Instead of chasing away pigeons outside the waiters now made sure that people stayed at distance.
At 12:03PM KLM What’s Apped to inform me that the I booked a day earlier was now cancelled. At 13:20 I received a new message that my flight had been changed to Alitalia, with an added stopover in Rome. I immediately checked in and received my boarding passes the flight the following morning at 10:15. The evening was spent in solitude with self-catered hearty pasta avoiding the cue outside the supermarket.
To be on the safe side and an early bird I was on the ALIBUS to the airport by 06:55 on the 11th. As I dragged my suitcase to the station the last man I spoke to was a friendly street musician I had given a few Euros a day earlier in exchange for a picture of him posing. A quarter past seven the screen listing departing flights blinked CANCELLATO next to mine and many others. With a slight panic, I walked across multiple yellow taped lines a meter apart to inquire. Indeed the flight was cancelled and my name was not on either of the two following completely full flights either she said. I was advised to go to the ticket counter handling a dozen airlines including Alitalia. Waiting in line I WhatsApped the KLM service center (07:26), then called only to be rerouted to the center in Milano where I was disconnected. Called Amsterdam and advised of a wait time of 30 minutes or more. Call back. Click, disconnected. Called the UK center, not open and neither was the one in Copenhagen as it was before 8 AM. In front of me at the ticket counter a group of French middle aged skiers had a lengthy discussion but apparently no luck. My turn came as the line behind me had now quadrupled, “passport please” and within minutes I was so magically on the “full” flight to Rome and asked to get boarding passes at the now empty Check-in counter. Eventually a friendly Alitalia employee showed up and printed my three boarding passes. Relief! With plenty of time to spare I ventured out for a nip of fresh air and a view of Etna’s snowcapped caldera for the first time as it was now contrasted against a blue sky.
Before getting to security there was one more hoop of Italian bureaucracy to jump through. A form declaring that I was going home and I was “aware of the infection containment measures referred to art. 1, paragraph, of the President of the Council of Minister’s Decree of 9 March 2020 about the travel of persons within the whole national territory, as well as the penalties provided for by art. 4, paragraph 1…. ) of yet another Decree dated 8 March). Needless to say I was not so well versed in these decrees surely issued in Italian (of which I knew little), but happily signed as I had no medical complaints of any kind but for feeling that I had done a fair bit of walking along empty streets the last few days. With time to spare a last cappuccino and a cannelloni. With sticky fingers I washed my hands for 20 seconds before getting on the plane, fully expecting it to be filled to the last seat. It was half full, did the 1 meter rule also applied to aircrafts? I felt bad for the French skiers who did not seem to have any luck to get out of Catania.
Taxiing into the gate in Rome it appeared to be an unusual number of grounded Alitalia aircrafts on hardstands around the airport. Since four hours had been added to my journey with this unscheduled stopover, what better than to use if to mangia and I knew exactly where to get it. However as time moves on the former restaurant albeit old style cafeteria had now been replaced by a food court. Luckily a traditional Italian fare was served next to McDonalds. Pasta Carbonara it was. All tables had only one chair in the fairly empty restaurant. However the imposed distance rule did not stop a quartet of surgical mask wearing millennial girls from dragging chairs together and in close proximity pull their masks down to chat. Perception is….
Whilst walking down the calories between terminals B, C and D I encountered a higher percentile of mask wearers in the almost empty terminals. There were those with beards, there were a those in groups who pulled them down as they spoke, there were those speaking through them on the phone, but what took the cake was the quartet of young men (a few with beards) coming off a flight and heading straight for one of the glass boxes placed around the airport. The stink tank where smokers congregate. A curable virus seemed to be of grave concern, but apparently not so much the proven risk of lung cancer. Oh well we all have our fears….
There were still flights boarding to Venice and Milano even as about 50% of flights on the departure screens were cancelled. KLM 1604 was on and as the doors closed less than half full. After an uneventful and quiet few hours in the air the hustle and bustle in Amsterdam came as a surprise. Very few masks perhaps as the spread of Covid-19 was not yet as wide in North-Western Europe. Whilst the last KLM leg was boarding I received an e-mail asking me to rate the flight I just disembarked. I guess that this was an automated mail sent by a bot based on the arrival of the flight. I frowned at the disconnect between the automated messages crafted by a “social media/corporate communicator” to strike the right tone and the reality the majority of travelers were currently experiencing.
As much as I believe in and rely on technology (occasionally I get GAS =Gear Acquisition Syndrome) in my daily life my best experience throughout the day had been with real people from the lady at the ticket counter, the man at the check in counter, the overloaded officials handling the Italian bureaucracy and security screeners in Catania, the gate agents, the chef and barista in Rome and the experienced purser onboard the KLM flight to Amsterdam who admonished all to sit in their allocated seat (until reaching cruising altitude) even if the flight was only half full. They had all done their jobs diligently, professionally whilst exposed to dozens or hundreds of potential carriers of Corona daily. Kudos!
The last one hour flight to Copenhagen was about 20% full and a breeze as was the cold winds when I finally reached Malmö seventeen hours after leaving Catania. I was happily home and could relax in my own bed. As I put my head on the pillow by midnight my thoughts wondered back to a one which had occupied my mind for the last few days. As the situation had escalated daily so had my stress level, discomfort and a growing feeling of mental and physical containment. Yet, it had lead me to think of how lucky I was to live in a part of the world where things do work reasonable OK even if there are hick-ups and glitches. The headlines and news casts had full Corona focus and last week’s big story in Europe was all but forgotten. On the Greek border thousands of refugees were being used as markers in a game between Erdogan’s Turkey and the EU. There were no surgical masks or paperwork but barbed wire, teargas and possibly rubber bullets. Amongst them surely a large number of economic migrants riding the refugee wave attempting to get a better life in Europe. But there were also those whose family members have been left for dead in the rubble of bombed houses and hospitals or those who might be killed by a former neighbor if they return home. So in the scheme of things the one day of slight uncertainty, frustration and inconvenience I had experienced in the last 17 hours was really a drop in a bucket.
What I also had learned was that for all the touting of and reliance on technology it will not be there to solve many real world problems when it really matters nor will a human connection ever be replaced by a bot or an App. At 06:31 the following morning I received a reply to my WhatsApp message from Catania: ”It seems it’s busier than normal. Sorry about that. If you like our help, please let us know”.