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Flying Was Once Routine. During the Pandemic, It’s a Feat.


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FRANKFURT — Last week I stepped aboard the subway in Frankfurt for the first time since February, the start of a 4,000-mile trans-Atlantic journey to rejoin my wife after a three-month separation.

The trip to the United States is one I’ve made dozens of times over the quarter-century I’ve lived and worked in Germany. But this time, in the midst of the pandemic, it felt like a voyage into the unknown.

Crossing borders is no longer routine. Europeans are still persona non grata in the United States. I would be flying from a country just coming out of lockdown to one where the virus is still flaring in some communities.

By the end of a long day, I would be with my wife, Bettina. But the experience, sometimes frustrating, sometimes surreal, left me with the impression that flying would never be the same again.

It became clear that travel was more difficult these days as soon as I tried to book a flight. Lufthansa wouldn’t allow me to redeem a flight voucher from a canceled trip online. Instead I had to call the severely overloaded service center, which after a long wait took my reservation but then neglected to email me confirmation. I didn’t know whether I had a valid booking or not.

After numerous failed attempts to get through again, including one instance when I waited on hold for an hour only to be disconnected, I managed to confirm my booking. By then there were less than 24 hours until departure.

The day I was to fly, Lufthansa reported a quarterly loss of 2.1 billion euros, or $2.4 billion, as passenger traffic evaporated amid the coronavirus outbreak. A question for Lufthansa management: If you need all the customers you can get, why make it so hard to book a ticket?

About two dozen people were in line at check-in when I arrived at Frankfurt Airport on the morning of my trip. Usually flights to the United States are full of German tourists. But everyone in this line was speaking English with American accents. From their talk of deployments and their camouflage backpacks, it was obvious that many were military personnel on the way home with their families.

Then, to my alarm, an airline employee checking passports pulled me out of the line and told me to wait for immigration. After the hassles with Lufthansa, I was already nervous about what kind of administrative snafus I might run into on this trip.

To my relief, it turned out that immigration was looking for someone with a name vaguely similar to mine but half my age.

A few minutes later I had my boarding pass and was walking past rows of shuttered duty-free shops. I could hear my own footsteps echoing on the polished marble tile floor.

And here’s the weird thing. There was something strangely enjoyable about traveling through a deserted airport. So much of the stress of air travel comes from standing in long lines and fighting through crowds, yet Frankfurt was peaceful. Even the guards wrangling plastic trays at security seemed cheerful.

The feeling of odd contentment continued on the plane, a Boeing Dreamliner operated by United Airlines, a partner with Lufthansa in the Star Alliance. There was at least one empty seat between passengers, except for families. In other words, we weren’t packed in like sardines.

United offered assurances that the plane had been thoroughly disinfected. Still, I cleaned my armrests and seat tray with a disinfectant wipe. I also wore a mask the entire trip.

The only downer was lunch. No one expects much from in-flight cuisine, but in the name of sanitation the bland “spicy chicken” and fruit cup came in packages sealed with plastic film that had to be peeled off. Afterward there was no coffee or tea.

Somehow I have the feeling that small privileges like coffee and fresh rolls are never coming back.

About eight uneventful hours later we landed at Dulles International Airport near Washington, where I planned to get a connection to Burlington, Vt. That’s where I grew up and where my wife and our 24-year-old daughter were waiting out the pandemic.

Arriving in the United States was the part of the trip that worried me the most. The official form that my fellow passengers and I had to fill out before touchdown made it clear that people from the European Union were not welcome. There was no mention of an exemption for U.S. citizens like me, though I knew there was supposed to be one.

  • Updated June 5, 2020

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

But it was a breeze. At Dulles, a woman in a nurse’s smock checked my form, asked me if I felt sick and held a sensor to my head.

It’s easy to imagine health checks like these becoming a permanent part of international travel, along with worse food. Travelers can only hope the pandemic will also bring some positive changes, like less crowded flights and more freedom to change flights without paying stiff fees.

The sensor said my body temperature was 98.1 degrees Fahrenheit. Good to go.

Dulles seemed even sleepier than Frankfurt. Rows of United jets were parked on a side runway, evidently waiting for a vaccine to revive air travel. All but a few airport restaurants were closed. I was glad I had packed some energy bars.

The plane to Burlington, another United flight, was so empty that the pilot asked the flight attendants to move passengers to the front of the plane. “We’re a little tail heavy,” he said over the intercom.

Vermont requires people arriving from out of state to quarantine for 14 days. But there was no one taking names when I landed, just my wife’s friendly face. It seemed the only enforcement was a sign at the exit to the airport, like the kind highway crews use to warn of roadwork ahead. “Stay home,” it said.

I underestimated Vermont state government. A few days later I got a telephone call from an amiable woman at the Department of Health asking if I felt all right, reminding me of the quarantine rules and offering information on where to get a coronavirus test if I wanted one. I’m fine, I said, but thanks for asking.

www.nytimes.com 2020-06-09 18:30:33

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