As the order to stay at home reverberated around the world, flights were cancelled and airports shut. People found themselves far from home, so repatriation flights were organised to get tourists back to their own country. We took one of these flights and documented our experience, answering the question: What does air travel look like in a pandemic?
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Quarantined in Colombia
It was day 40 of quarantine. The nationwide lock down in Colombia had been extended once already and there was talk that a third extension was on the cards. Air, sea, and land borders were closed until the end of May.
Suddenly an email appeared in our inbox from the UK Ambassador in Colombia. There had been reassuring emails over the past few weeks about repatriation flights back to the UK, but we hadn’t been paying too much attention.
This new email said tickets two repatriation flights organised by the UK Embassy in Colombia, were available. The email was long and detailed. The second flight on 4th May would be leaving from Bogota and then landing in Cartagena. The second flight would collect those still near the Caribbean Coast; which is where we were.
We’d been travelling through Central America for the last six months. Our plan had been to travel the length of South America when the seriousness of Coronavirus became apparent and stopped our plans in their tracks.
We found ourselves in a jungle haven with 35 people from 14 different nationalities as the Colombian government announced the nationwide quarantine. In comparison to a lot of travellers who had dreadful experiences, we had found the opposite. A safe and beautiful hostel; an ideal place to wait out the quarantine.
The first repatriation flight offer
Previous emails about repatriation flights had not been very tempting. We let the British Embassy know we were in Colombia and they kept us updated with regular emails about flights.
Early on a flight was arranged, leaving from Bogota. The tickets cost a whopping $1800 per person!
The main issue was that we were in Minca, up near the Caribbean coast. Minca is over 20 hours away by car from Bogota. With a nationwide quarantine recently in place, we had no idea how to get to Bogota safely. If the extortionate price didn’t put us off, then the lack of help getting to Bogota during a nationwide lock down was off-putting.
Emails assured us that you’d just need to show your plane ticket to any authorities that stopped you on route to Bogota. Everything would be fine and you’d be allowed to continue on with your journey.
But in the end the link for the tickets came too late and many had to travel, breaking quarantine, to the airport. We heard rumours that people had to grease a few palms along the way to get through the roadblocks, without a ticket to confirm why they were travelling.
Deciding to stay
We had decided that the flight was not worth the price. Happy in our jungle paradise we decided to wait. After all, the quarantine might be over soon. Still on the email chain, we continued to watch the emails come in about the repatriation flight.
Very soon we were thankful we’d stayed put. Emails arrived telling people that a link was available to buy tickets. Another followed to say that the link couldn’t be used on a mobile phone, only a computer. However, call centres were open to make bookings.
Not everyone travels with a computer, so there must have been a lot of panicked people calling parents or friends asking them to book the flights. We were relieved it was not us in that position.
To be helpful the UK Embassy in Colombia opened desks at Bogota Airport, on the day the flight was leaving, to help people buy tickets. We saw Facebook posts about people trying to enter Bogota airport, only to be denied entry by security because they didn’t have tickets.
The UK Embassy were doing everything in their power to get people home as quickly as possible in exceptional circumstances. Their effort was incredible. However, everything we read reinforced that we’d made the safest decision at that moment staying in Minca.
Details of the 4th May repatriation flight
However, the latest email we received was different; detailed, well thought out and organised. The price of the ticket would also include transport to the airport. We would also receive an official document from the Colombian government saying we had special dispensation to travel.
As we were in quarantine near the Caribbean Coast they’d arranged for the airplane to do a second pick up from Cartagena airport. Cartagena is only a four hour drive away, as opposed to a 20-hour bus ride to Bogota.
The email mentioned priority going to the elderly, vulnerable people, and families. We did not fall into any of those categories. With absolutely no idea how many British people were in Colombia, we didn’t want to be taking an opportunity away from someone in need. We had safe shelter, food and a strong network of people supporting us.
No more repatriation flights
We emailed the UK Embassy in Colombia to ask whether we should be buying tickets or leaving them for people in more desperate situations. The response from the Embassy was clear: there were enough seats for everyone that had registered their interest. We needed to book tickets on this flight. Although they commended us for putting other people first, they urged that no further repatriation flights were planned.
Reading that no further repatriation flights would be organised made us really think. The world had changed, and we couldn’t just jump on another flight in two weeks. Unless we were willing to wait in the jungle for six months, this might be our only chance to get home.
Deciding to leave
Argentina had just banned any international travel until early September. We worried that Colombia might decide to close their borders and limit international flights until September too.
Our insurance company confirmed to us on the phone that everyone should take any opportunity possible to head home as the Government Foreign Office Advice was to return to the UK. We have comprehensive insurance and the insurance provider thankfully confirmed we would get £500 each off any flights home under ‘Travel Disruption’.
Deciding to leave our quarantine home was not an easy choice. Siembra Boutique Hostel is a wonderful place to find yourself in quarantine. In addition, it was hard to accept that our days of carefree travelling were over and our travelling plans on hold.
Booking our tickets on the repatriation flight
After spending the morning discussing the situation, we eventually clicked onto the website to book our tickets. We input all our details and a UK address where we’d quarantine for two weeks after arrival. Then we paid for the tickets, which of course was declined the first couple of times. Just to add more tension to the moment!
After paying, we had to wait. Wait for confirmation we were on a flight and that we were on the flight leaving from Cartagena. Not being entirely ready to go, the uncertainty of not knowing whether we were leaving instead of being annoying, was welcome.
At this point we informed two of our friends in the hostel, G and Vidas, that we’d bought our flights. Both were from Lithuania but live and have their businesses in the UK. As UK taxpayers they were eligible to buy tickets. Finding this out, they then spent the whole day debating what to do.
Preparing to leave our lovely quarantine
By the end of the day all four of us had booked flights. Then we had to tell the other people at the hostel we were leaving, which was probably the worst part. We’d had an incredible experience living in the jungle and now four people would be leaving at once. We knew the dynamic might change and we felt guilty about that causing that.
A few days passed and it became obvious that we weren’t on the first flight. The UK Embassy in Colombia had asked us to follow their twitter account, so we monitored it for updates.
Soon there was a tweet saying that people would shortly receive an email about the second flight. Then late one night as we were sitting with friends, the email came. The confirmation meant we would be leaving, and our emotions were mixed.
The email was extremely detailed. It is very clear how much work the UK Embassy undertook to arrange the repatriation flights. The collection point would be from outside a supermarket in central Minca. Then we would be taken to a Radisson hotel in Cartagena to wait until the airport opened at 6pm.
At the airport, we’d check in and we’d have a short interlude until the flight landed from Bogota to collect us. Then it was direct to London Heathrow. The only thing we needed to arrange was food. Other than that everything would be included in the price of the ticket. We couldn’t help but wonder, what does air travel look like in a pandemic?
The quick bus journey to Cartagena
The days went quickly after that and soon it was time to leave. Although the flight was leaving at 10pm UTC, we would meet the bus in Minca at 8.30am to be on the road for 9am.
After an emotional goodbye we ventured out of the hostel for the first time in 48 days. Putting a face mask on in the humid jungle heat instantly felt wrong. It was way too hot.
At the bus, the driver asked us sign in. Then he took our temperature by sticking a thermometer in our armpit. After about thirty seconds, he removed the thermometer and noted the number down on a piece of paper.
We were all given a face mask, gloves, food, and a bottle of water. There would be eight of us in the bus and it was the first time we’d been with new people in six weeks. We all felt apprehensive.
Loading our bags on the bus, the driver sprayed them with alcohol to reduce the risk of any contamination. We used hand sanitiser every time we touched something and that would continue throughout the day.
The journey was quicker than expected with hardly anyone on the roads. We drove through various communities and saw red flags hanging outside houses. A red flag means that the household is issuing an SOS. They have no food or water and they are asking for help. It was heart breaking.
Arriving at the Radisson
We arrived in Cartagena at the Radisson. Our large bags stayed on the bus. We were told we’d return to the same bus that bought us from Minca. It would then take us to the airport.
It was strange walking into a huge hotel in the age of social distancing. The staff were wearing face masks. Hellos were dulled but their body language was welcoming. In the reception area, no one sat on the sofas or stood at the reception desk. The noise of our footsteps bounced off the walls as we made our way through the hotel. It felt so empty.
The staff explained that we couldn’t to go swimming in the swimming pool or go down to the beach. Luckily it looked rather dull and windy outside, so we weren’t upset and we were happy to wait in the conference room. We’d left the sunshine in Minca and the grey, windy beach didn’t look too tempting.
Waiting for Cartagena airport to open
The four of us sat together on a table. We had a delicious packed lunch made by the hostel for lunch but the Radisson also gave us food. The staff offered us drinks and coffee to make our wait as comfortable as possible.
The conference room had enormous windows that looked out onto the beach and the huge hotel complex. The unoccupied rooms were a sad reminder of how much the pandemic has affected those working in the tourism sector. An industry that so many in Colombia, and round the world, rely on to make a living.
We spent a few hours at the table, chatting between ourselves. After six weeks in quarantine it would take some adjusting to the outside world. Our quarantine experience was like living in a bubble, and now that bubble had burst.
The owner of Casa Lomo, another hostel in Minca, had accompanied us on the bus. Jay works as a volunteer for the UK Embassy and was brilliant. Jay provided us with all the information and timings from the moment we were collected.
Together we shared happy stories of our quarantine in Minca and we discussed details of a fundraising initiative we were helping with. Minca Covid Relief is raising money for the local community of Minca, many of whom have lost their income overnight.
Arriving at an empty Cartagena Airport
Jay told us we’d be the first people to enter the airport. When it was time to leave, Jay came and collected us. We gathered our belongings, all the leftover food and headed out to the bus. We made the short journey to the airport along empty roads, not seeing another person for the entire journey.
When we arrived at the airport, Jay asked to take some pictures to send to the UK Ambassador in Bogota to show our progress. We happily agreed to having our picture taken and we queued up, at two metre markers, waiting for our temperatures to be taken again.
We later found out that these pictures made it onto twitter, and it was slightly surreal seeing all four of us in line, waiting to get into the airport.
Airport temperature check
We were called forward one by one to have our temperature taken before being allowed in the airport. Asked if we felt ill and whether we had a temperature, a temperature reader was then pointed at our heads.
Unfortunately, I had forgotten to take my jumper off after hours in a highly air-conditioned room. I stood in the thirty-degree heat, saying I didn’t feel hot but sweating profusely.
Luckily all our temperatures returned normal readings and we proceeded into the airport. If we had a temperature, we would not have been allowed into the airport. The air fare would not be refundable.
Walking into Cartagena airport was an eerie sight. It felt like walking into an abandoned building. The check in desks were empty and dark. It was so quiet it felt like we’d walked into a church instead of an airport. There was no excited hum from people chatting and waiting to check in. All the shops closed; their doors shut and lights off.
Instead of looking for a screen to find our check in desk, we were pointed to the only three desks with lights on. We made our way over the check in desks. Like outside, clear markings on the floor showed you where you could stand.
With no one in front of us, check in was extremely quick. We handed over our passports, put our bags on the scale and then stood back to socially distance from the airline staff who all wore masks and gloves.
We had our tickets within minutes. Being a flight organised by the UK Embassy, our Lithuanian friends showed their UK Driving Licences to confirm their eligibility for the flight.
After the swift check in, we applied more hand sanitiser, and meandered over to Passport Control. Floor markings were on the floor to ensure a 2-metre distance.
We queued, and someone checked our passport and our ticket, but we didn’t remove our face mask. Then we were in another queue and that was for the official immigration officers to inspect our passports.
Here we waited for a while. After about 10 minutes the officers started to call people forward.
Under the new rules of air travel during a pandemic, I approached the desk. Then I had to move back to a marker two metres in front of the desk. The officer was wearing a mask and gloves. When he got to the picture page in my passport, I had to take my mask off to show my face, so he could check it matched the passport photo.
Once he confirmed the passport was mine, my facemask went back on. After he stamped my passport, I walked forward to collect my passport. Then we joined another socially distanced queue to have our luggage scanned.
Going through security
We seemed to stand in the line for security forever. Everyone silently watching the staff chat whilst wearing masks. We all had food on us and some drinks too, so we were all hoping that they wouldn’t be confiscated. We were told there wouldn’t be any shops open, so concluded the rules had been changed given the circumstances.
As we waited a lady with a little girl, stood nearby. The little girl, bored by waiting, was running around. The Mum was trying to explain to her that she couldn’t run around, and she needed to stay close by. But at the first opportunity she was off, darting around and laughing.
Eventually the queue started to move. Before we could proceed to scan our luggage, a policeman asked a few questions about who we were travelling with and where we’d been. As he asked the questions, he took an extra look through our passport and then waved us forward.
We put our belongings in trays as usual but only one person could go up at a time. Liquids and electrical items were removed, but the rules had been relaxed as our full water bottles were allowed to remain full. A bonus of air travel in a pandemic.
Waiting in the departure lounge
We collected our belongings and once all four of us were ready, we went into the departure lounge. Every other chair had a sign saying it shouldn’t be used. We chose our seats and sat with a free chair either side, to maintain social distancing.
There was a shop in the departure lounge; the shelves were full, but no one was working. Only the toilets were open and were continually being scrubbed by cleaners wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
We sat there for a few hours, chatting and passing the time. Continuing to monitor the UK Embassy in Colombia twitter feed, we saw that the flight had left Bogota. It would only take forty minutes to get to Cartagena, so we wouldn’t be waiting for much longer.
Boarding the repatriation flight
Soon the plane had arrived in Cartagena. Sadly we weren’t all sitting together as a four. G boarded ahead of us as the plane, the back of the plane boarding first.
Being the last group to board, we stood waiting to have the final ticket and passport inspection in the terminal. We were able to spread out and maintain a distance from other passengers. Once the final passport and ticket check was done, we headed outside.
The heat hit us immediately even at 9pm at night. Ahead people were spread across the tarmac, everyone maintaining their distance as we climbed the steps of the plane. *climbing steps to plane*
As we reached the top of the plane, staff kitted head to toe in PPE greeted us. They wore protective overalls, face masks, visors, and gloves. It was reassuring to see them wearing the right sort of kit.
With only a face mask and hand sanitiser, we could only hope that all the other passengers had maintained a strict quarantine.
Air travel in a Pandemic
When we got on the plane any social distancing went out the window. The plane was full. Arriving at our seats in row nine, we found most people were already seated.
We were all exhausted. After an emotional goodbye and a full day, it was now 10pm Colombian time and everyone was ready to sleep the whole way. I was asleep before the plane took off. I only awoke when food was distributed by the PPE clad air stewards and stewardesses. Was this the new normal or just the look of air travel during a pandemic?
No hot food allowed on the plane due to health and safety reasons. Instead everyone received a plastic bag with various cold, food items. The main wrap was discarded after a couple of bites, but everything else was edible. It was a good bit of sustenance before we all fell back asleep.
We took off at 10pm UTC and we were due to land at 1pm GMT at Heathrow. The flight passed extremely quickly but was uncomfortably cold. There had been no blankets or headphones on our seats, so jumpers went on to guard against the air conditioning. Before landing, we ate another meal, which gave us all some much needed energy.
Landing at Heathrow
When we landed in the UK, the sun was shining brightly. There were still airplanes on the tarmac, but everything looked distinctly quiet.
Once the plane came to a stop, we were informed that disembarking would be socially distanced. Starting with the people at the front, the air stewards called out the row numbers. Then they specified who should go first; left side, then middle, then the right side of the plane.
After sitting on a jam-packed plane together for ten hours it all seemed a little ridiculous that socially distanced disembarking should matter. It was reinforcing behaviours we would have to follow.
The empty airport at Cartagena had been eerie but seeing Heathrow totally devoid of life was really perturbing. A row of eight televisions showing the departures for that day showed only a handful of flights. Usually there are hundreds.
Walking through the airport looking for some normality, we could only see everyone was shut. All the electronic billboards showed signs saying everyone must ‘Stay Home’. No one in Duty Free or Boots. Everything closed. The silence was unnerving, and it felt like a scene from a Hollywood disaster film and not like real life.
UK Border Control with no queues
As we got to passport control, the usual queues weren’t there. Staff in masks directed us over to the electronic passport machines to minimise any human contact.
There were hardly any staff on duty. At the machines there was only one person showing people how to use the machines and one immigration officer you could visit if the machines hadn’t accepted your passport.
Socially Distanced Baggage Collection
Passport checked, we applied more hand sanitiser, and headed into the baggage collection hall. The other carousels were still, none in use other than our the one for our flight.
The large baggage hall usually swarming with people, now used the extra space to socially distance one flight . People were moving silently, directed by the muffled voices of staff wearing masks.
Waiting for our luggage we were standing at a socially distanced marker. Markings on the floor maintained a 2 metre distance. Trolleys had been set out next to these markers to ensure people were not crowding together.
Soon there were not enough space. Staff were creating a barrier to keep people back, gradually allowing them forward as luggage was retrieved and more space became available.
We had disembarked first, but soon our friends caught up with us, so we went to say goodbye. After being in quarantine together and experiencing the surreal flight home, it was incredibly sad parting ways.
We watched as G and Vidas walked off and headed back to the carousel to collect our luggage. After ten long minutes our bags appeared. We picked them up, applied more hand sanitiser and started to roll them through customs.
We’d been asked that if someone was coming to collect us, that they remained in the car park and didn’t enter the main terminal. As a result, there were not many people waiting the other side in arrivals. There were a few people holding signs, but these all seemed to be taxis.
As we walked through arrivals, on every other seat there were big signs blocking off seating to ensure people maintain social distancing. Shops and cafes closed and only W.H. Smith & Boots open.
It hit us as we walked through the hushed arrivals hall that it was the lack of voices and chatter that had made the journey so strange. The excitement of travelling removed. It was the lack of noise that had felt so disconcerting throughout our journey. That was our experience of air travel in a pandemic.
Soon we were heading out towards the car park to catch our lift back home. We’d had minimal contact with any authorities at Heathrow. No one took our temperature when we landed at Heathrow and we’d only seen signs advising us to ‘stay home’. We headed towards the car park to head home and into self-imposed quarantine for two weeks.
To the UK Embassy in Colombia and their fantastic team for supporting us whilst we were in quarantine, keeping us updated on our options. Their hard work resulted in a highly organised and smoothly run repatriation flight. To the UK Ambassador in Colombia and his wonderful team – thank you.
Secondly, thank you to Siembra Boutique Hostel in Minca, who kept us safe, healthy and well fed throughout our quarantine. To the incredible staff who cooked, cleaned and made us part of their family; we are so lucky to have met you all. We can’t wait to come back and visit. To all the other guests; what an experience and let’s hope we can all meet again soon.