Knowledge Exchange

International Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Boris Meyer (Class of 2022)

Air travel during the COVID-19 pandemic can be very challenging, but yet one of the most unique experiences of one’s life. Last November, my wife and I decided to send our daughter to boarding school in Dublin, Ireland. At the time, there were only murmurs of a flu-like disease originating from a wet market in Wuhan. Little did we know that a full-blown pandemic was brewing.

Initially, the plan was for the whole family to spend the last few weeks of summer in France and then drop our daughter in Dublin, before heading back to Hong Kong. Flights were booked in advance and the itinerary was slowly put into place. However, by the time my daughter and I finally left Hong Kong at the beginning of August, our flights got cancelled three different times; including one, just two days before my return trip.

As the months went by, the virus started spreading across the world. Nowadays, as some parts of the world deal with their second wave of infection, Hong Kong is battling its third. I still remember, right around Chinese New Year, while on a call with the school’s admission office, being asked if we were considering boarding school because of the growing virus concern in China and Hong Kong. A couple of weeks later the school had to shut down as cases were growing in Ireland. Nevertheless, our decision was made and we were going to proceed as planned.

The day we left for the airport there was a lot of apprehension. Should we wear face shields and gloves? How early should we get there? We ended up arriving two hours before the scheduled time and wore face masks only (changing it every four hours).

Interestingly enough, the barricades that were erected at the entrance during the protest movement were still there; an odd throwback to a time where people were still allowed to gather.

To nobody’s surprise the airport was eerily empty and it took us less than a few minutes to grab our boarding pass, drop our suitcases and go through immigration.

*Picture taken at the Hong Kong Airport just before immigration. Lights were dimmed to conserve energy.

I’ve been to empty airports in the past, especially when taking flights in the early hours of the day, however, there were telltale signs that it was a different situation and had nothing to do with the time of day. Shelves inside the duty-free shops were cling-wrapped and you could see a layer of dust starting to envelope the counters and displays.

*Picture taken at duty-free showing dust covering the display bottles.

Usually, the flight to London would be completely booked during summer. However, there were less than 30 people on this flight, including a couple of infants. The image of the air traveler wearing full PPE is less present nowadays compared to the earlier months of the pandemic. Most of us were just wearing a mask and keeping our distance whenever possible. There was a couple sitting next to us wearing full PPE that did not move an inch during the entire flight.

*Picture taken on my flight back to Hong Kong showing a completely empty section in economy class.

Landing at Heathrow airport was not too different from Hong Kong: very quiet. We disembarked in groups of rows – something we might have to get used to from now on. Since we were connecting to Dublin, we had to wait a couple of hours for our next flight. Europe and the UK had just started to re-open after several months of lockdown and to our surprise a couple of restaurants were open, but you could see that a lot of new measures had been put in place (separate table booths, the entrance and exit clearly separated, online menu  used for ordering) to respect social distancing.

When we finally arrived in Dublin the biggest difference we saw was with public transportation. Masks were compulsory, but on top of this, only one in two seats were available to sit on. Luckily, the bus never got so crowded that people who were standing had to be too close to one another.

Coming from a place where 99% of the population wears a mask outdoors, we weren’t used to seeing people on the street not wearing any. Sometimes it felt like we were the outliers. However, people in Ireland do respect the new social distancing norms and generally follow the WHO guidelines.

*My daughter and I on the plane to Dublin.

After several days of self-isolation, saying goodbye to my daughter was a very emotional experience. We spent our last day together setting up her room, visiting the dormitory, and meeting some of the other boarders. As we parted it started to rain and on her way back to the residence a teacher came out with an umbrella to shield her. After all we had been through, the weight of these eight months of uncertainty and ever looming danger of catching the virus was finally lifted and I broke into tears.

This trip ended up being completely different from what we had initially planned, but knowing that she got there safe was the most important thing. This experience has taught me that no matter the hardship, headaches or pains, as parents, the best gift we can provide for our children is a good education.

As I write this, I’m on my 11th day of quarantine in Hong Kong. Measures here are definitely more drastic than in Europe, but seeing how most countries in the world are now facing their second wave and are slowly locking down again, you can’t help but feel that it’s a necessary evil in order to keep each other safe.

I probably wouldn’t recommend anyone going through the hassle of international travel these days, but seeing our daughter having fun with her new friends and eagerly waiting for school to start again, I wouldn’t hesitate to go through it all over again.


Industry: Human Resources
Company: AIRINC
Job Title: Senior Manager, Client Engagement