MIAMI – With reduced flight frequencies and travel bans on both sides, traveling from America to Europe has never been so complicated.
It had been eight months since I boarded on a plane. During this time, the world changed; COVID-19 had become an integral part of our lives, changing – perhaps forever—the world as we have always known it.
Cities became empty, people stopped traveling and the aviation sector has entered in one of its deepest crises, a crisis whose end is not yet in sight. For personal reasons, I had to fly back to Milan, Italy, during this pandemic.
Finding a flight was not easy: many airlines have reduced their frequencies, leaving only a few combinations to reach Milan, all with a stopover. I decided to fly Alitalia (AZ) to avoid crossing multiple countries, lowering the risk of getting stuck somewhere in Europe.
Alitalia and COVID-19
Like many other companies around the world, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, AZ drastically reduced its flights, limiting itself mainly to domestic service and a few European destinations. The only long-haul connection left is the one that has always been defined as the carrier’s mother route, as well as the most profitable one, from Rome Fiumicino (FCO) to New York (JFK) and back.
The route was suspended throughout the month of May and resumed operations in June, at first with two flights a week, then increased to four. It now operates daily by an Airbus A330-200, the only other model of aircraft for the long-haul of AZ’s fleet in addition to the Boeing 777.
Before COVID-19 AL used to operate three daily flights between New York and Rome, in addition to the daily flight of Delta Air Lines (DL), American Airlines (AA), Norwegian Air (DY), and United Airlines (UA) from New York’s EWR. On September 8, DL resumed operation from New York to Rome with a flight operated three times a week.
Leaving New York
As I traveled with two suitcases, I decided to avoid public transportation to get to JFK and took an Uber instead. My flight left at 5:05 pm local time, so I decided to book an Uber for around 2 pm, managing to get to the airport with an extra margin of time compared to the usual two hours. After a 45-minutes ride from Brooklyn, my Uber left me in a completely empty Terminal 1.
Everyone was required to wear a mask while inside the terminal, and a form was given to travelers in duplicate where I had to declare that I had no symptoms related to the COVID-19, that I had not been in contact with people positive with COVID-19 in the last 14 days, the reason for returning to Italy, and the address where my quarantine would be observed upon my arrival.
In addition, my temperature was checked once in the airport and written down on the form. One copy was left at the gate during boarding, another would be delivered to the customs entrance in Rome.
Most of the stores in the airport were closed, including the lounges, so business class travelers are given a US$25 voucher that could be spent in the few shops that are still open. After going through security, I went straight to the gate of my flight. Only three planes were parked at Terminal 1: a Lufthansa (LH) A330 headed to Munich, our A330 to Rome, and a China Eastern Airlines (MU) 77W that was boarding.
The departure was scheduled at 5:05 pm local time, and boarding began 45 minutes earlier. We proceded following the usual boarding scheme: Magnifica (AZ’s business class) first, followed by Premium Economy and then Economy which is divided into two parts.
I could count eight people in the business class cabin out of the 20 seats, four in the Economy+ cabin out of 17 seats, and a couple of dozen people in the Economy section (out of 219 available seats). The welcome drink was a plastic water bottle, and the amenity kit was delivered sealed in a plastic bag. On every AZ flight, a surgical mask is mandatory, and it needs to be changed every four hours.
We began our pushback at 4:40 pm, 25 minutes ahead of the schedule. We were still in front of Terminal 1 with the engines off, when the Captain informed, “we are number one in line for takeoff”. We taxied along taxiway Alpha, crossed the runway 4L, and drove to the head of the runway 31L. During the whole taxi, the only plane moving was a DL flight that had landed on the same runway, nothing else.
We took off at 4:59 pm, the first time that I happen to take off from JFK before the scheduled departure time. We flew over Jamaica Bay, Far Rockaway, turned left, and headed towards the Atlantic. We flew over a blanket of clouds and during sunset, dinner was served. Our meal was served on a tray as if you were in Economy – in fact, the quality was the about the same.
The food is sealed, and the interaction between staff and passengers is reduced to a minimum. An automatic announcement reminds us that the service does not correspond to AZ standards but is due to the contingent situation. We are also reminded to keep our mask on for the entire duration of the flight, except when eating, and to change it every four hours.
Used to traveling in Economy, I couldn’t help but enjoy the excellent seat used by AZ in the Magnifica class, and I fell asleep on what for me was a king-size bed. I woke up over Italy still asleep while flying over Turin. Breakfast was served, with the same method used for dinner.
We landed an hour ahead of schedule in a Fiumicino airport (FCO) that is still sleeping, and we went straight to Pier E, when we began our disembarkment divided by classes, and for the Economy, by single row. I handed my self-certification to customs, where, however, no one asked me anything about either the reasons for my trip or the fact that I had to observe a 14-days quarantine.
My connection flight to Milan left in a couple of hours from Pier C. I walked into an empty FCO, where most of the shops were still closed. The only open shop at Pier C was a cafeteria, and four screens were enough to show all the flights for the next 12 hours.
Traveling during a pandemic is a weird experience. I find it difficult to make general judgments either on the quality of the flight, on the service on board, or the services at the airports.
Of course, traveling through an empty airport is generally faster, and traveling on an empty plane usually means that you can have more room for yourself. The question is: is this the aviation we want?
Featured and all images: Author