“I imagine you are both enjoying seeing the grandchildren grow up,” said a friend by email, while we were out in Houston with the family. We were, but this was soon curtailed by the developing coronavirus panic on both sides of the pond.
We were due to fly back to Manchester 7th April, but it was becoming clear that we’d have to do so sooner. President Trump stopped people flying in from Europe from Friday 13th March. Maybe we should bring our departure forward by a couple of weeks to Tuesday 24th?
- Sunday 15th I phone Singapore International Airlines to bring the flight forward, there is a long phone queue, the online form does not work, so I email them.
- Monday 16th I sent the online form using a different browser.
- Tuesday 17th In the climate of increasing panic in both US and UK, the guaranteed 7-day response from SIA is clearly too long. I ring SIA US office using son’s US phone. After a long wait they eventually answer. It soon becomes clear that they have stopped all flights to UK, probably because the Trump ban now includes UK, including the one we are booked on. At this point in time they can offer no alternative.
We’re faced with hunkering down with the family in Houston for who knows how long, against UK government advice and possibly becoming illegal immigrants, or finding another way to get home.
- So I look at British Airways flights, as I know they’re still flying. There are still economy flights at a reasonable price, but with two stops, London and one of Dallas, Chicago or Miami.
- Then I notice that the price goes up by a factor of four on Wednesday 25th, clear evidence to get out of US as soon as possible.We settle on Friday 20th with BA/American Airlines via Miami, allowing another couple of days with the family.
- The virus is accelerating in both UK and US. Son thinks we are at risk, so persuades us to pay extra for business class.
So to the journey back, which proved eventful.
- The I10 and Beltway are unusually quiet as son drives us to Houston International Airport in filthy weather. More and more people are staying home.
- At the airport we get as far as presenting our cards for boarding. One passport scans, then there is a phone call. The flight has been delayed, due to bad weather in Miami. It is apparent that we will not hit our connection to London.
- The lady checking the tickets now browses furiously through her screen for several minutes. There is a flight to Dallas in the afternoon connecting to London and arriving in Manchester the next afternoon. Unfortunately it is ‘coach’, or economy, not business class. We settle for that, rather than wait 24 hours.
- We while away four hours of waiting in the AA lounge, which is pretty well deserted. Another friendly AA lady gives us better seats for the Dallas flight, and then eventually takes pity on us and gets us an upgrade to first class for the transatlantic leg.
The Dallas and London flights are not very full, and the airports are reasonably empty. People are stopping flying, the only passengers are aiming for home. We wear the two face masks provided by daughter and daughter-in-law, one on top of the other, while in the busy areas.
- We pass over more filthy weather on the way to Dallas, with wonderful cloudscapes when we are above them.
- We enjoy the first class transatlantic experience, with lots of empty seats around us – particularly the real food and the lay-flat seat for sleeping.
Then we arrive in London Heathrow terminal 3 and need to transfer to terminal 5 before passport control. Heathrow does not compare well with the American airports.
- There is a big queue for the transfer bus to terminal 5 (Dallas has the ‘sky train’ to all terminals). A bus comes and, horrifyingly, the driver crams as many people as he can into it – no chance of 2 metre separation there. There is some shouting and off it goes. London does not seem to have got the message about coronavirus.
- A second bus comes. Fortunately, there are not so many people, but there is still inadequate separation. We suggest to the driver that he is cramming too many people on and are simply met with rudeness. Heathrow staff training is clearly deficient.
We arrive in trepidation at Terminal 5, which is in our experience a nightmare at busy times. Now to passport control.
- We have no boarding card, as AA could not issue a BA boarding card, so we need to go to a BA desk. Can we go through passport control without a boarding card – yes is the answer given by the lady on duty.
- Passports cheerily checked, we are confronted by machines requiring boarding cards. Fortunately, there is a backstop BA desk there with one operative, who is not busy. After some time on the computer she comes back with our boarding cards. A quick glance shows they are ‘economy’, so we point out we had a business class booking. She rings someone, we wait awhile and eventually we are given business class boarding tickets.
- Then we have to go through security again, which we already did, of course, in Houston. Do Brits really not trust that the Americans have correctly checked us?
So to another 4 hour wait in the highly commercialised Terminal 5, now somewhat ghostly and echoing, with many outlets closed.
- Despite the unusually small number of passengers, much of the seating is occupied. At busy times this terminal is totally inadequate in this respect.
- Now where’s the BA lounge? Apparently one is closed, so we go to the other one, which we find is in the process of being closed. The government is closing down all restaurants, bars etc.
- Almost as a commentary, someone falls down the nearby escalator and BA staff rush to assist.
- So we resort to tramping the concourse for exercise, or finding a remote seat to rest. Luckily, Pret a Manger is still open, so we can at least get food and drink.
- The whole Heathrow experience suggests inadequate investment and poor management. Why on earth should such an organisation be allowed to create another runway?
For the final leg to Manchester, the middle seat of each row of 3 is being used as a table, so there is good separation. I suspect this only applies to business class. As ever, they somehow manage to serve a snack and drink during the 35 minute flight.
And so we arrive at Manchester, walk down stairs, just as in my business flying days 30 years ago, pay a visit to the tiny toilet facilities available, and wait by the tiny luggage carousel, struggling to maintain an adequate separation. Manchester’s facilities seem even more inadequate that Heathrow’s.
- Miraculously, our bags appear, despite the flight changes. At least this aspect of flying seems much improved.
- Our car is booked with Street Cars, the official airport transfer company. Their area is like a ghost town.
- The driver tells us that Terminals 2 and 3 are closing the next day and he won’t have a job. Air travel is winding down.
Basically, we got out just in time. Already, less than 2 days later, UK and US are increasingly locking down, day by day.
Our journey took just over 25 hours. If we had not travelled business class, we would have been highly at risk to the virus, due to the minimal separation in economy.
Of course, we were still at risk, particularly at Heathrow. We’re now self isolating, hunkered down at home, helped by wonderful neighbours to get shopping.
And I just got a text from SIA – they’ve formally cancelled our flight back on 7th April.
Featured image shows clouds from plane window, on the way to Dallas.