We had tickets, all our paperwork was in order, we were packed and ready to go. In ordinary times, everything should have felt easy and straightforward after some expected stress trying to get out the door to SFO. For this trip, we knew that we wouldn’t really feel safe until we were on the flight from LAX to Sydney and well out over the Pacific, too far for the plane to turn around and go back for any reason. This may seem like overreaction, but our fears were not unfounded. There are, and had been for much of the year, only three flights a day from the US to Sydney, all of them booked as fully as quarantine caps would allow: maybe 40 passengers maximum. I had been keeping an eye on international arrivals at Sydney airport and had not seen any of those direct US flights get cancelled, though I had heard about one or two cancellations in the Facebook quarantiners group.
This airline scarcity is unaccustomed in our lifetimes. And we feared it might get even worse. Australia is currently allowing in only Australian citizens and their family members, subject to quarantine. International tourism into Australia is shut down (although international students are now being allowed back in, with quarantine). Many thousands of Australians want to return home from all over the world, but once all who wish to return have done so, will there be any flights at all? (Until the blessed day that tourism again becomes safe.) For a while we wondered if we’d be able to get a flight anytime in the next six months, let alone by the end of 2020.
It used to be that, if you missed a flight to anywhere, for whatever reason, you could be fairly sure you’d find another and get to your destination not much later than originally planned, though it might cost you. We now had no such reassurance, so every hiccup and uncertainty was terrifying. We were working so hard, all our mental and physical energy bent towards a departure date, and there was a not-small probability that we would not be able to leave on that date. To say that we were under stress doesn’t begin to cover it.
To try to give some relief to that stress, I had called Delta a week or so before. The estimated hold time was an hour, so I took the callback option. As it happened, the person who called me back was a supervisor, who told me that cancellations get escalated to him – and he hadn’t seen any for this particular route. He told me there were even a couple of seats still available in business class on our flight, and that overall he didn’t think I needed to worry. That was somewhat reassuring but then, I reflected, what else was he likely to say?
Probably because we were all tense, we managed to leave the house in plenty of time to arrive at SFO nearly three hours before our San Francisco-to-LA flight. Being able to use Delta’s Sky Priority boarding line (I have privileges) proved to be a boon, not because there was a big line, but because we had missed a crucial step in our departure: we were supposed to have filled out an Australia government health form within 72 hours before the flight. This would determine our quarantine status (which we knew would be “Yes, you must quarantine”) and give us the Australian health authorities’ permission to enter the country.
We panicked when the check-in agent told us about this form, but she tried to be soothing: “You’ve got plenty of time to do it.” There was a convenient empty counter nearby, so Brendan and I pulled out our laptops, hopped onto the airport wifi, and proceeded to wrestle with filling out the forms – one each for the four of us. That was an ordeal: for reasons we never did determine, the form was flaky, and it took multiple attempts and many repeat fillings-in to finally get all four submitted. Fortunately, the emails with the QR codes we needed to check in arrived within minutes.
Another point of anxiety was that Mitchell and I were both traveling on US passports. My partner visa (granted in September) meant that I did not need an exemption to enter Australia, but for Mitchell we had had to get a visa and an exemption. We had printed out all the papers to show the agent, but she also had to call Australia to confirm that he was on the allow list. This was fairly routine and we knew to expect it, and it only took a few minutes. Another hurdle safely behind us.
Finally, after paying $700 in excess baggage fees, we had all our boarding cards in hand for both flights, and were able to go through security. For mysterious reasons, Mitchell and I were able to use the TSA Pre line, but Claire and Brendan had to do the usual line. Throughout this we were all heavily masked, and maintaining distance as best we could from everyone else in the airport. TSA’s new practice is that the agent sits behind a plexiglass shield and does not handle your passport. They ask you to lift your mask for a moment so they can confirm your identity. Wearing a tightly-sealed silicon mask over my nose and mouth, with a surgical mask on top of that, was claustrophobic and impeded my breathing (yes, for real – it’s a known effect with this type of mask, and felt a lot like my usual low-grade asthma). But having to take it off, however briefly, in a room full of people felt even scarier.
SFO was eerily empty. Passengers were few, especially considering the date was the Sunday before Christmas. Some were not wearing masks properly (it goes over the nose, dammit!), but we had plenty of space to maintain distance. It was just difficult to remember that we should: I usually race through an airport as quickly as possible, but now it’s often better to slow down and give people space. Brendan had to keep reminding me of that. After so long mostly isolated in our home, it also felt weird and stressful to be around strangers at all.
The flight to LAX was uneventful, though more crowded than we would have liked, about 75% full even with some seats supposedly not available for booking. We remained masked for the duration.
You’d think that in a time of low airport traffic we could have got a gate with a jetway at LAX, but no (maybe because we had arrived on a relatively small commuter plane): we had to take a bus to a terminal, and then another bus to another terminal. They didn’t fill the buses as full as usual, but it was still more proximity than we wanted to a bunch of random strangers. At every step of this trip we were painfully aware of the potential for exposure: it would be uniquely horrible to arrive in Australia, finally, and discover we had contracted the disease we had sacrificed so much to avoid.
The international terminal at LAX was again surprisingly empty for the weekend before Christmas (or for anytime, really). It’s new or newly remodeled, full of shiny high-end stores – almost all of them closed. There were only about a dozen flights on the schedule that night. We found our gate and took seats well spaced from the other 25 or so passengers who would be traveling with us, about an hour before departure time. Boarding was not likely to be the usual hour-long procedure, with so few passengers.
We had sat for quite a while, growing increasingly bored, tired, and hungry (we kept our masks on tight). The gate agent announced that we were waiting for the fourth pilot. We tried not to worry about that. The wait dragged on and the tension mounted. Every passenger assumed that, if this flight got cancelled, our chances were slim of getting another anytime soon. As I later learned, one woman in the group was on her third attempt in a week or two to get a flight out, and another couple had had their original seats cancelled on November 3rd – December 20th had been the first date they were able to rebook after that.
The fourth pilot never showed up. He or she was ill, we don’t know with what, but Delta were taking no chances on infecting passengers or crew. They tried to find another pilot, but after another long, dragging wait, our flight was cancelled because a replacement pilot could not be found in time – with a long-haul flight, you run afoul of the time-outs of the other pilots, who are not allowed to be on duty more than some number of hours at a stretch (sitting in the airport waiting counts as being on duty for them).
A gaggle of devastated passengers gathered “close” to the gate podium. “We’re going to rebook you all on the same flight tomorrow,” said the agent. I asked, for everybody: “Can you guarantee that? Even with the flight caps?” “Yes, I promise you will all have boarding passes for the same flight tomorrow before you leave here tonight.”
We were all still skeptical. My guess is that it was possible because the airline caps into Sydney apply weekly rather than per-flight, and with flights at such low capacity there was undoubtedly plenty of room to put us all on the next one without exceeding Delta’s quarantine quota. Those who had paid for Premium Economy seats would be bumped back to regular economy, but no one cared about that – any seat on any flight that would get us to Sydney would be fine.
I tried calling Delta myself to see what options were available, but their hold time that night was two hours. I don’t know what else is or was going on with Delta, but… something was seriously wrong. The gate agent also had to reach Delta agents by phone (I assume via some special line) to individually rebook each party, one by one, and that was taking forever. A colleague was supposed to be coming to help him once she finished her duties with another flight, but in the meantime poor Christopher was dealing with all this on his own, for hours. Eventually he processed our party first because the only kid on the flight (Mitchell) was exhausted and anxious and starting to melt down.
Christopher handed us new boarding passes for the next day’s flight, and vouchers for an airport hotel and meals. We elected to leave our luggage with the airline – I could not face wrestling ten heavy suitcases, and we mostly had enough stuff in our backpacks to survive. Brendan bought himself a t-shirt at the airport shop so he’d have a clean one to sleep in.
I had been happy to see the name of the hotel Delta was sending us to: I’d been looking up options on Google, and that one said it had 24-hour room service (we still hadn’t eaten anything!). We found our way out of the airport, got the hotel shuttle (we were the only ones on it) and checked in around midnight. “We can order room service, right?” I asked. “No. Because of the pandemic, our room service now ends at 9:30pm.” Aaargggh. There weren’t any good options available for delivery – I was too tired to face an hour wait to get fast food, and we were all too tired to care. We ate some of the snacks I had brought for the flight, and I devoured a chocolate bar that Brendan had bought for me when he got his t-shirt. We all finally got to sleep around 1am, woke up hungry at 6:30, and ordered room service breakfast.
It was an unexciting 18 hours in the hotel. It seemed that we’d gotten unusually lucky, being able to get seats again so soon after a cancellation, but we would not be able to relax until we were finally on a plane. We ordered in lunch (sushi for me, Mexican for Brendan and Claire and Mitchell) – it was nice to have a good meal that I didn’t have to cook. We already had boarding passes and wouldn’t need much time in the airport, so we headed back late, around 8:30pm.
We gathered again at the same gate, the previous night’s passengers plus tonight’s bunch, many of us still afraid to hope that we’d actually get on a plane this time. The new gate agent made an announcement about some slight delay, adding: “But I promise you, you will be on a flight to Sydney tonight.” And so it proved: Not long after that we all boarded.
We were in rows 35 and 36 of a brand new A350 – the furthest-back passengers on the plane, with an entire section behind us empty. There was no one to contest us spreading out to a whole row of three seats each. I didn’t notice or don’t remember now when the “will we make it?” stress finally lifted, but it must have been pretty early in the flight. Soon after dinner (a hot dinner, thankfully) I stretched across my three seats and slept. Not soundly – that never happens to me – but a lot better than I usually do on planes. Even with a mask on (just a surgical mask, once the plane doors were closed), I was reasonably comfortable, and it’s surprising what a difference it makes to have no one walking around, none of those random assholes who insist on having a loud conversation when it’s clear that everyone else on the plane is trying to sleep… I had loaded up my phone and Fire tablet with shows from Netflix, HBO, and Disney, but only ended up watching one movie on the in-flight entertainment. And now I can’t even remember what it was. (Oh, right – it was JoJo Rabbit, which I strongly recommend!)
There were still 2 or 3 hours of the 15-hour flight left when I finally gave up on sleeping. That’s when I watched the movie. Breakfast was served and cleaned up, and then it was time to land.