From tomorrow, it is no longer illegal to fly off on holiday. But what will it be like at the airport and when you get on board? Travel Editor Sarah Hartley and our Holiday Hero columnist Neil Simpson took off from Heathrow to find out – and here discuss their adventure…
Sarah: Before March 2020, I was a confident traveller who jumped on planes so often that flying rules were ingrained.
Now? I feel daunted but completely over-excited, as if I’m flying for the first time – not least because I need to familiarise myself with the new reality of air travel. Passport, check. Insurance, negative Covid test, face mask, hand sanitiser, check. And remind me, what is the hand luggage allowance? I’m exhausted already.
Taking off again: Sarah and Neil share a toast on their first flight since the rules eased
Neil: I’m an airport geek. I happily arrive hours ahead of flights to get my fill of people- and plane-watching. I kept flying whenever it was possible last year, taking in lots of European capitals and UK cities including Manchester and my beloved Newcastle.
Mask-wearing wasn’t fun. But I kept thinking of supermarket staff (and cabin crew) who wear them all day and decided I could hardly complain. I’m also impressed by my fellow passengers. Mask-compliance seems higher in airports and planes than in shops and buses at home. But even with passenger numbers down, I noticed queues getting longer at check-in, security and immigration.
Sarah: If I’m taking an early flight, I book into an airport hotel the night before so the first day of holiday isn’t spent feeling washed out.
Signs showing some of the changes at Heathrow Airport. Neil writes: ‘A hand-sanitising station greets you at the entrance to Terminal 5, and inside you can’t miss the message on every massive advertising screen about the strict measures being taken to keep everyone safe’
You can’t beat a Hilton – its beds and pillows give me the best night’s sleep, and the one at Terminal 4 has just had a swish £3 million refurb. It’s good to see my room has a seal on the door to show it’s been cleaned to Covid-secure standards. The hotel is sleek, chic and takes inspiration from a first-class aircraft cabin, but for now it’s like a ghost ship, with friendly staff simply waiting to welcome holidaymakers tomorrow.
Neil: A hand-sanitising station greets you at the entrance to Terminal 5, and inside you can’t miss the message on every massive advertising screen about the strict measures being taken to keep everyone safe.
Sarah: ‘You can’t beat a Hilton – its beds and pillows give me the best night’s sleep, and the one at Terminal 4 (pictured) has just had a swish £3million refurb’
Sarah: I’m surprised by how normal it feels to stroll through the airport, but somehow it is a much more pleasing experience than before. Everywhere is spotless. The cleaners are out in full force, wiping surfaces and door handles. I feel as if I’m overseas already – Singapore perhaps?
One sign carries the request: ‘Where possible use the Heathrow and airline apps for a touchless experience.’ I use the British Airways app on my mobile for the first time and it takes me a few attempts to scan my boarding pass correctly. I’m told it’s probably because my screen has a crack.
I have an equally embarrassing situation at security. I forget the hand sanitiser attached to my handbag, which, of course, I should have put in a clear plastic bag alongside my contact-lens solution and toothpaste. There are businessmen behind and ahead of me and I fumble removing my shoes and over-stuff my tray. When it appears after X-ray, a shoe is missing. ‘Cinderella shoe?’ shouts a security adviser.
Only one person is allowed to meet someone from a flight in arrivals halls at Heathrow to stop crowds gathering
Neil: The airport is filling up – although there’s no holiday traffic until tomorrow. I’d say half the seats are taken in the main areas, yet it doesn’t feel overcrowded.
The clear signs are very reassuring – every other chair is covered up to ensure social distancing.
Hand-sanitiser stations are everywhere – in the end we stopped counting. There are touch-free fountains to refill water bottles and you can even use your phone to order and pay for food in outlets. The airline lounges are already doing brisk business but now you must scan a code to order food and drink – surely a bonus for those prone to mindless grazing.
Sarah: I do wonder how my parents and other older travellers might manage such a new and digital experience. They’ve only just mastered the NHS app. I’m also not sure about the cleaners spraying empty seats with chlorine – I wouldn’t want to smell of chlorine after sitting down.
And I can’t tell if the airport really is cleaner because my mask prevents me from smelling whiffs from the toilets or fast-food outlets which I usually find so unpleasant.
It’s a shame there are no longer any free newspapers and magazines to grab as you board. Our flight is busy with a mix of business travellers, students, older couples, a few young children and a couple of babies. At take-off I have butterflies – a mix of excitement and nerves
I take a peek at Duty Free, where social-distancing rules apply – you can still spritz perfume or test hand cream as before, but you have to sanitise before and after handling goods.
Somehow I just didn’t fancy it.
Neil: Forget priority boarding for those in business class at the front. Most airlines ask people sitting in the back rows to board first. It’s so that passengers don’t walk past each other to get to their seats.
Sarah: It’s a shame there are no longer any free newspapers and magazines to grab as you board. Our flight is busy with a mix of business travellers, students, older couples, a few young children and a couple of babies. At take-off I have butterflies – a mix of excitement and nerves. I’d forgotten the mysterious clunking noise a plane makes until it reaches cruising altitude. And how much my ears pop.
Neil: The new safety measures are made clear – we are kindly requested not to walk up and down or congregate in the galley.
If you want to use the loos during a flight, you’re encouraged to check the green ‘Vacant’ light is on before leaving your seat, to cut the number of people standing in the aisles. But queues are still likely. One more reason to do as frequent flyers do and use the facilities in the terminal. And we can remove our face masks when we are eating or drinking, of course.
Sarah: I like the fact every passenger is given a sanitising hand wipe in a plastic bag to use, then seal in the bag and give back. The woman in front of me wipes over her tray and armrests too. ‘It feels so good to be flying again,’ she says to Tom Gibb, the in-flight cabin manager. She looks euphoric.
Sarah said that before her flight she felt ‘daunted but completely over-excited, as if flying for the first time’
‘It’s picking up again,’ he replies with a wink, adding: ‘Fingers crossed!’ Passengers seem more attentive of the safety briefing and we are reminded that if an oxygen mask descends, we should remove our face masks first. Logical, but in a panic who knows what I’d do? I usually settle back to read the in-flight magazine but you can only view it online. It’s not as satisfying – I love to flick through paper – and somehow I don’t feel I’m going on holiday reading a screen. Forget, too, the rattle of the Duty Free trolley and those temperamental card machines – ordering from the online shop is now your only option.
Chef Tom Kerridge has devised a new onboard British Airways range which you must pre-order. It’s delicious if you want a super-filled sarnie: the ham and smoked cheddar looks good, but I opt for the brie and apple chutney ploughman’s.
Customers can then customise their journey by purchasing food, drink and in-flight retail items up…