Liese Coroy had no intentions of boarding a plane during the coronavirus pandemic.
But then her father tested positive for COVID-19, leaving him stuck in a hospital in Ottawa.
She decided to board a plane from Toronto to Ottawa on April 1 so she could get there in time to see him for the last time, even if it meant wearing a protective suit.
“I dropped everything to fly up to say goodbye to him,” she said. “I think the hardest part was not being able to touch him with my bare hands or hug him. I had gloves on, and did touch him, but it wasn’t the same. ”
Social distancing on the flight there and back was important, she said.
Coroy’s father died due to COVID-19 the day after she arrived.
Travelling has now become one of many routine activities that now feel like a foreign concept since coronavirus spread worldwide.
But some Canadians are still flying during the pandemic and the experience is starkly different than it would have been just three months ago.
Airlines have slashed the number of flights operating per day or have suspended flights entirely, like Porter Airlines and Sunwing. WestJet has laid off nearly 6,900 people and reduced their domestic flight capacity by 50 per cent. Air Canada has reduced its network of international and domestic flights by 90 per cent but will allow some options to resume starting in June.
Four airports in Canada remain open for international travel, including Toronto Pearson, Montreal-Trudeau, Calgary International and Vancouver International. The Canadian government has advised against all non-essential travel and has instituted the Quarantine Act requiring all travellers to isolate for 14 days if they come back from abroad.
Global News spoke to some who have flown fairly recently and described a vastly different travel experience that will likely reflect what others will observe when and if we return to airports.
‘Terribly nervous’ to fly
Right before her father’s death, doctors told Coroy and other family members that the prognosis was looking dire and it was imperative they get to Ottawa immediately if they wanted to say goodbye.
Under the circumstances, Coroy was already highly anxious to fly, even though prior to the pandemic she was flying at least twice a month for work.
“I was terribly nervous,” she said, adding that she had arrived ready for the short flight with hand sanitizer and masks. It was eerie to be at Toronto Pearson International Airport, a massive space, with barely anyone around, she said.
“It was so empty, I’ve never seen it this way even when I’ve landed at two in the morning,” she said, adding that she stopped to take pictures of how deserted the airport looked.
Entering the plane, Coroy says she was upset as flight attendants told her social distancing would not be possible on the flight, although there were less than 15 people on the plane. Even though she had a row to herself she says, there were people directly in front of her and behind her.
Coroy says this upset her, especially since her father caught the illness.
Global News asked Air Canada about their social distancing policies on flights.
The airline referred to their new CleanCare+ program launched on May 15 that involves new policies to keep travellers safe including “more personal space” in economy class at least until June 30.
Face masks for travellers and PPE for employees are now mandatory on flights and they are now blocking the sale of adjacent seats in economy class as of May 12, unless you are travelling with someone under the age of 14. Enhanced cleaning protocols are now in place as well.
Flying home, Coroy was concerned about infecting others since she had been at a hospital, and she continued to wear a mask and keep her distance. Returning to Toronto, she isolated for 14 days as a precaution.
In the future, knowing there would be adequate social distancing not just in the terminal, but on the plane as well, would make her comfortable enough to fly again, she said.
Empty airports, no food service
Grace Armstrong, a 26-year-old student who goes to Dalhousie University in Halifax decided to fly to Milwaukee, Wis., to isolate with her family instead of staying by herself.
Armstrong says she’d been waiting to find a safer time to fly to her family since the U.S.-Canada border was closed for non-essential visits. She picked a flight on April 30 hoping more cleaning and distancing protocols would be in place by then and she self-isolated two weeks prior as a precaution, she said.
While she felt fairly safe, she says she was nervous about what it would be like to interact with the U.S.-Canada border during the pandemic and the behaviour of other travellers. As a dual citizen, she would be allowed to cross the border.
“From the beginning, I’ve been strict with myself taking precautions and my biggest worry is usually the people around me not doing the same,” she said in an email to Global News.
Masks were required at Halifax Stanfield International Airport, where she was told by a security agent that she was on one of three flights that day. She flew with Delta Airlines, who notified her via email in advance to bring her own food as shops and restaurants were closed in the airport.
During the flight, antibacterial wipes were handed out, food service was cancelled and flight attendants reminded passengers several times to keep their masks on, said Armstrong.
It was strange to hear announcements on the flight like “thank you for trusting us” instead of the expected “thank you for flying with us,” she added. Delta also emphasized they were doing extra cleaning on the plane and using an additional air purifier, she said.
But she was surprised to see many in the airport were not wearing masks when she reached Detroit, where she had a layover before reaching Milwaukee.
“Once I was in the U.S., it was maybe 50/50 people wearing masks. Deplaning in the U.S. definitely felt like I had stepped into a more dangerous area, especially because the news was on every TV discussing the worsening situation,” she said.
“Empty airports and having whole rows to yourself is great, but wearing a mask for 12 hours was not,” she said. “I now understand what health-care workers mean when they talk about their ears hurting from wearing a mask all day.”
Arriving in Milwaukee, Armstrong said it was frustrating to have to continue to keep her distance from her family and isolate away from them for 14 days.
In a few months, her lease will end in Halifax and she will have to fly back in time to isolate for 14 days again before she moves apartments. But if Wisconsin’s cases get worse, she says she won’t fly back so she’s not arriving from a severely impacted area.
Her confidence with travelling for leisure potentially later in the year will really come down to how strict airlines are with their safety measures, and how high the cases numbers end up being wherever she wants to visit, she said.
“I don’t want to take any unnecessary risk of getting sick or getting others sick. In that way, lifting restrictions makes me feel less confident in travelling. Where I am now is opening back up despite numbers rising, so it would be irresponsible for me to leave,” she said.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.