parent opinion

Empty airports, hazmat suits and face shields: I just flew into London with my two kids.

Heading to locked down London on a long-haul mid-pandemic flight with my two primary school aged kids wasn’t top of my wish list this Christmas. But 2020 really is the gift that just keeps on giving. 

With overseas travel banned for Australians right now we are in the unfortunate position of having to leave the safety of our relatively covid-free shores for Europe - where the virus is once again wreaking havoc. Cities are being plunged back into lockdown as the infection rate and death tolls reach horrifying new levels.

Our family is split across the globe and the travel ban has meant my children - Olivia, 9 and Alfie, 8, haven’t been able to see their father since January. 

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Their Dad, Geoff, lives in London, which has just gone back into lockdown, while the children live with me in Brisbane. When he got the news in October that his cancer had returned, devastatingly the doctors told him the children should come to the UK “sooner rather than later”. 

He was diagnosed with leukaemia three years ago and has been in and out of remission since then. This this time feels different though and I can hear on the phone how desperate he is to see them.  

While the doctors haven’t used the word terminal I know that they haven’t promised he will make his 52nd birthday. He is waiting to see if he can get on a trial before the new year but until then it’s more radiotherapy and chemotherapy to try and get him back into remission. 

After weeks of heartbreaking phone calls with him we put in an application to the Australian government to leave the country on compassionate grounds. I attached letters from Geoff’s doctors and we had permission within two hours. 

I won’t lie and say I was happy. I was out shopping with my Mum and burst into floods of tears in TK Maxx. The combination of picturing the kids saying goodbye to their Dad, the whole flying in a pandemic thing and the chances of me getting sick, while worrying about the kids losing their father has left me in a pretty dark place for the past few weeks.

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So, I’ve packed the suitcases full of gin, Tim Tams, two-minute noodles and toilet paper just in case we can’t get any food delivered during lockdown and put my big girl pants on to do this.

That’s how the children and I find ourselves wandering into a practically deserted International Terminal at Brisbane Airport.

No shops or restaurants are open, the make-up area in duty free is fenced off and there are only two rows of check in desks open. 

Image: Supplied. 

It’s a stark reminder of the impact this pandemic has had on the travel industry and everyone who depends on it for their livelihood.

I know I’m not alone in having travel plans scrapped this year and am definitely not alone in being separated from family either. Our trip to see their Dad in June was cancelled. I’ve been left without a refund and instead have a “future credit” with Virgin for $4k which I couldn’t use for this trip. 

It’s a little financial hangover for me from 2020, but I know it also represents lost jobs for so many who worked for Virgin. This empty airport clearly represents the hundreds of jobs here alone that have gone from the shops, restaurants and airlines.

The International terminal is now populated by masked security guards who check all our details before we can get anywhere near the deserted check-in area. After flashing the email granting us permission to leave Australia the security guy asks us how much our flights were. I managed to find them for $5k return after a little searching. 

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He reassuringly says he hopes we don’t get bumped off our flight on the way back in January. I nod with a grimaced smile. Along with the mandatory two weeks in hotel quarantine when we return to Brisbane, it’s the prospect of problems leaving London which keeps me awake at night too. 

I’ve read too many stories abut people waiting for months to get on a flight out of the UK and eventually having to pay for business or first-class tickets to make it home. He then tells us to stay safe. That’s another thing that has been giving me daily panic attacks. How do you stay safe when leaving a country with a handful of covid cases, heading for one with more than 20 thousand a day?

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The Qatar staffer who checks us in for our London flight says it is normally just them running any service these days. They’re one of the only airlines to keep flying throughout the pandemic. She tells me that sometimes Singapore Airlines and Emirates have flights - today there are just two International flights. Eva are flying out to Istanbul and Qatar are flying us to Doha. 

When I ask her where everyone is going she says “home”. Most have either outstayed their visas or been waiting for the “right time” to leave. 

She puts in a call to an office in Canberra to double check we are actually allowed to leave, before checking us in. The flight, she says, unsurprisingly isn’t busy and she books us into a row of four so we have space.

It’s the fastest trip through security ever, with only one other person in the whole area. We are not asked to remove iPads or laptops from our bags, which also makes it a lot quicker and easier when juggling two kids and multiples bags and devices. There aren’t any temperature checks or questions about health and we aren’t asked to wear a mask which does surprise me though.

It’s mostly staff in masks and gloves, there are a couple of people in the airport wearing them but given that it’s never been mandatory in Queensland it still looks so strange, but it feels like something we should be doing.  

Image: Supplied. 

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The departures waiting area is deserted. Olivia takes the opportunity to practice her cartwheels and Alfie makes use of the wifi while I scan the whole place to double check I haven’t missed an open bar. I end up getting them Twisties and drinks from the vending machines, later finding out a Subway was the only place that was open.

An attendant comes over to give us our face shields before boarding. 

I take a little while to realise there’s a sticky film that needs to be peeled off, so I walk around peering through a tiny gap at the top looking like more of a weirdo than I feel until I eventually work it out. The kids have special small ones and we all put our masks on underneath. We aren’t asked to wear gloves but there are some in the “travel with confidence” pack we are given before takeoff.

When we board it turns out we have more than a little space. I put the kids to sleep in one row and move to the row behind for the full lie flat experience in Economy and sleep most of the way. The plane is less than a quarter full with everyone separated into their own rows and reassuringly spaced out.

The flight itself is pretty normal apart from the masks and shields which make a language barrier and general communication - read: asking for more wine - a whole lot harder. There is the same food service and drinks, but the staff all wear gowns, masks and gloves with goggles instead of shields.

It doesn’t seem to be fazing the kids at all. I do have to keep reminding them to put their masks back up and they both ditch the face shields whenever Im not looking - but they seem to be dealing with it a whole lot better than me. 

Image: Supplied

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Olivia is happily chatting away to the crew, telling them all about our trip into lockdown and how she’s missing the last three weeks of school. 

Arriving in Doha things get a little more real. There are people everywhere, busy flights departures boards and shops and restaurants open. 

The airport feels normal in terms of the number of people but with scores of travellers wearing hazmat suits and us still in our masks and shields it’s really anything but. 

It’s pretty confronting and I wonder if we will eventually end up wearing the full suits on flights too. 

We are reminded by the airline staff to stay socially distant while standing in line, but on board we are bunched together in a three seat area with people all around. I ask to move to the back of the plane where we find two rows for ourselves so the kids get some more sleep and I spend the flight watching movies and giving evil eyes to anyone walking past not wearing a mask.

It turns out I’m one of those people who will point at you and point at my mask to indicate that wearing it round your chin isn’t really doing anything. 

I find myself getting a bit panicky and overprotective of the children. I ask Alfie to swap seats with me when the young guy in the row across from his stops wearing his mask. He’s asked by staff five or six times to put it back on but keeps taking it off.  

I know it’s the stress and worry of getting covid and making the whole trip a total waste that’s driving me to be a little bit of a mask-obsessive. I also get that some people aren’t scared of it, but I’m petrified. 

If one of us picks it up on the journey the chances of the kids spending what could be their last Christmas with their Dad will disappear. I’m struggling to cope with the current situation, so I’m pretty sure I will be rocking in a corner if that happens.

Arriving in London we aren’t given a temperature check or asked about our health at all. We were asked to fill in an online tracing form on the UK government website when we left Brisbane but no one checks that I’ve done it. The trip through border control is pretty quick, there don’t appear to be any customs officers around and the bags come quickly too. There are some upsides to pandemic travel.

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Flying in from Australia we aren’t on any high-risk covid list so I guess they don’t think that we are likely to be bringing it in. To be safe, we are going to self-isolate, even though it's not officially required. We are also going to get a couple of covid tests over the next ten days to make sure we are definitely clear before the kids can go to their Dad’s house.

I had a test back in March after flying in from Bali on one of the very last flights before the world shut down. It was negative but I haven’t forgotten the watering eyes and the instruction to sit on my hands while the nurse jammed a cue tip into my throat through my nose - presumably so I didn’t punch her. 

I’m not sure the kids will like it but along with the pandemic flight attire and me constantly telling them to put their bloody masks back on, it falls into the category of things we never thought we would have to do until 2020. 

For what it’s worth I do hope that international flights return to some sort of normality in the not too distant future. 

I miss the busy airports, the rush to get flights, the impulse buying in duty free. But more than that it shouldn’t be so hard for us to see each other. 

The world felt so small before covid shut us down. Now it feels so big and we all fell so disconnected. I really hope that it changes soon so we can stop missing each other. 

Feature Image: Supplied

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