Looking out from the large windows of my top-floor High Rise apartment, I can see my section of campus clearly. I can see students hurrying from place to place, stopping only occasionally to greet an old acquaintance. I can see local residents in their cars, braking suddenly at crossroads for herds of first years bustling to their next class. I can see professors carrying briefcases in one hand and coffees in the other while the day begins to brighten. I can see all that I hadn’t been able to see for the past nine months from my home in England. COVID-19 had severed me from Wesleyan, leaving me temporarily in a state of limbo, 3,000 miles away on the other side of the Atlantic.
This divide, albeit unplanned, was temporary. It had an end date that coincided with a late August flight to JFK. With each day of summer that passed, this date neared; my suitcases came out of hiding and gradually became filled with an abundance of British candy, English cookies, and Cadbury chocolate. Meanwhile, I sought to familiarize myself with what to do, expect, and prepare for as far as travel during a global pandemic is concerned. Trust me–it’s a whole other thing. Indeed, there is now what many are calling “a new normal” pervading the travel industry as a whole. For airlines, this has meant reducing capacities on flights as much as possible, mandating the wearing of face masks on board, reducing or eliminating food and beverage service during flights, and increasing the frequency of cabin cleaning. Some have also started asking travelers to fill out health questionnaires and now check passengers’ temperatures during boarding. The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, is also encouraging airlines to restrict access to lavatories and urges passengers to carry on only luggage that fits under their seats.
People’s wallets are also set to bear a serious brunt in an age where global travel has been put on the back burner. Mine certainly did when I booked the same flight that I had routinely taken in my yearly pre-COVID return to Wesleyan. This time around, I was faced with not only considerably fewer flight options, but also a heftier bill. Due to a reduction in the number of travellers, there is a strong sense that the kind of raised fees to which I was subjected will only become more prevalent. I am not the only one who has noticed this change.
“If the airlines can only put half as many people on the plane, it’s going to cost a whole double,” says Rick Steves, a Washington state–based European travel expert.
Some people are less encumbered by travel fees than others. In a bid to avoid lengthy queues, shared facilities, and contact with other passengers, many travellers—those who have the financial means to do so—have forked out for a different kind of travel experience, and they have done so in large numbers. Private jet company Sentient Jet is just one of many firms to have witnessed a spike of new customers during the pandemic, reporting almost 80% of the business they had projected before the global crisis happened. The overall result: an era in which travel is very much accessible to the one percent, yet inaccessible—or at least limited—for those outside of it.
Travelling privately was never a viable option in my case, regardless of whether I was worried about being in a crowded airport, sitting in a confined plane for nine hours, or exposing myself to the virus. For someone like me, a first generation, low-income, and international student, all that really mattered was getting back to America in a way that was as affordable and as safe as possible. Admittedly, the cost of my flights and luggage left a large and frankly painful dent in my bank balance, one that I would spend the start of the semester mending through various campus jobs. Yet, aside from the financial worries that hung over me, I also found myself plagued by dread and fear in the run-up to the departure date, steadily squashing the excitement I had originally felt to get back to Wesleyan. These feelings reached a climax on the day I was scheduled to fly out; at every point of my journey, from the drive to the airport right until the moment the plane doors would open at JFK, there was a chance that something or someone was going to thwart me in my efforts in getting back to campus.
Maybe this explains why, when I was told by AerLingus staff that I couldn’t board my booked and paid flight, a part of me wasn’t surprised. Was I angry, confused, frustrated, uneasy, and extremely disappointed? Absolutely. But, after I had wheeled my suitcases away and sat down in an airport coffee shop with my boyfriend, I found myself realising that I was not, nor would I be, the last one to experience this. Just five minutes later, I witnessed at least two other people being denied entry at check-in under the same justification.
According to the check-in department, the negative PCR test that I had taken 72 hours before my flight’s departure time, which is now a requirement for traveling just about anywhere in the world, wasn’t valid because it had been carried out by the NHS (UK National Health Service). After scouring the CDC website, the US embassy website, and the airline’s website, I had not seen this stipulation. Indeed, the CDC website simply states that all air passengers coming to the United States are required to have a negative COVID-19 test result no more than three days before travel or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 in the past three months before they board a flight to the United States. It even goes as far to state that the test that is used must be authorized for use by the relevant national authority for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 in the country where the test is administered. With these qualifications in mind, I was bewildered as to why my results, provided by one of the most competent public health care services in the world, were not sufficient. The very fact that not a single person at the airport could point out to me, on any official site, where it was made clear that such a test would not be accepted is a testament to the kind of confusion and uncertainty travellers are facing at the moment, confusion that could easily be rectified by providing better, clearer and simply more information to passengers.
A recent BBC News report detailed an instance where such confusion led to widespread disruption for travellers. On one flight travelling from my hometown of Birmingham to Dublin, around 31 passengers were not allowed to board the plane because they too had the wrong type of negative COVID-19 test result. Numerous passengers stressed that they had checked the website for the airline (Ryanair), which only warned against NHS Test and Trace testing, not other types of NHS tests. Similar to the experience I had, many of these passengers also spoke of suffering incredibly poor treatment from airport and airline staff who did very little to help passengers rearrange their flights or gain access to the correct type of test.
Almost a week after my original flight, I finally made it to New York, and in time, the eighth floor of my High Rise apartment. That is, after finding £60 for a private COVID-19 test—which I will again point out is identical to the NHS test that I had first presented to airline staff—as well as emailing and calling numerous individuals in an effort to reschedule my flight. As someone who will be flying across the globe for at least the next three years, I am hopeful that no other travel experience I have will be as draining, convoluted, ambiguous, or costly. But, for my hopes to be realized, especially as the world seeks to free itself from the grips of the coronavirus, there needs to be a collective effort to make travelling not just easier but also more accessible.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to travel in order to pursue my academic goals. But I am very much aware that after adding up the cost of COVID tests, hotel stays that are needed for quarantine periods, more expensive flights, and the constant threat that any travel plans you make will be forced to change, many people will find themselves cut off from their families, their friends, their jobs, their education, and frankly, the rest of the world. I know how that feels, but I also know how great it feels to bridge that gulf. In the past week, I have had conversations with people I haven’t seen in over a year, and with each interaction I have had, I have been reminded of what I love most about this community. There is no longer an ocean, a travel ban, or an invalid COVID test keeping me apart from Wesleyan. I just hope, for the time being, it stays that way.
Tiah Shepherd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.