As I’m very sure you’re aware by now, there’s a global pandemic impacting travel everywhere. It’s something I’m personally pretty familiar with as a travel writer—I’ve reported on it for TripSavvy for over a year. Naturally, the slowdown has affected my line of work pretty profoundly. In a normal year, I’d hop on anywhere from four to eight planes a month (and sometimes even more), but in 2020, well, let’s just say I flew far less frequently.
To me, flying isn’t just business. As I’ve said before, sitting on a plane at cruising altitude is my happy place—call me George Clooney à la "Up in the Air." So being grounded for months on end has worn me thin, and like many people around the world, I was suffering from a bit of cabin fever. That’s why when I had the opportunity to take a work trip to Kenya in October and report on my flight experience on Qatar Airways (which happens to be one of my favorite airlines), I jumped on it.
Departure from New York
Under usual circumstances, booking a trip abroad requires a fair bit of planning, taking into account details like visas and vaccinations. Now, all that is amplified dramatically. I needed to have a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within three days of arrival to enter Kenya. Given that it takes nearly a full day to get to Kenya from New York, my testing window was incredibly slim. After quite a few phone calls to different clinics, I found one that guaranteed a 48-hour turnaround for results, which would ensure that I’d have my paperwork in order before I boarded my flight and that it'd still be valid upon arrival in Kenya.
Online check-in for my flight wasn’t available—probably because the desk agents needed to verify that I had the appropriate paperwork in hand—so I arrived extra early to the airport to complete the process. After the desk agent inspected all my documents, I was granted my golden tickets: two boarding passes for my two flights, first to Doha, then onto Nairobi.
Once inside the terminal, I had nowhere to go but the gate, as all the lounges were closed. After I took my seat (socially distanced from other passengers), our gate agent handed out face shields to be worn from boarding through deplaning. Pro tip: Qatar’s face shields have protective films on them, one on each side, so make sure you peel them off less you end up wandering about in a fog as I did. Then boarding began.
The First Flight
One of the reasons I felt so comfortable flying was that I would be seated in the business-class cabin. On Qatar’s long-haul flights aboard B777s or A350s, that means a Qsuite, which is more or less the ultimate social distancing seat on an aircraft. Business-class passengers are treated to spacious private suites with sliding doors—though they’re not entirely enclosed, they did ensure that you’d be quite separated from other passengers and even the crew (who were, for the record, outfitted in PPE galore). And, as I expected, the plane was not even remotely full; in my cabin, only half of the suites were filled, allowing for extra social distancing.
Arriving at my Qsuite, I found a special sanitization kit awaiting me, in addition to the standard amenity kit: Qatar provides disposable masks, disposable gloves, and hand sanitizer to all passengers. Though it probably wasn’t necessary, I did wipe down my entire suite just in case. As is the custom in long-haul business class, I was handed a glass of champagne as my pre-departure beverage—I carefully slid down my face mask for each sip, slipping my glass under my face shield.
Though passengers obviously have the freedom to skip meals if they choose, I decided to test the waters and have a late dinner, even though my flight departed at 1 a.m., primarily because I was curious about how it would be served. On domestic flights in the United States, first-class dining options are limited to snacks rather than plated meals. That’s not the case on Qatar. I was served short ribs on a real plate with real silverware, and my wine was poured into a real glass. Though passengers were allowed to remove their face masks while dining, I kept mine on between bites, just in case.
There were, however, a few tiny differences between pre-pandemic and during-pandemic service on Qatar. First, for sanitation purposes, flight attendants refrained from setting silverware—forks and knives were wrapped in napkins and set on our tray tables in bundles so that no hands touched our silverware but our own. Second, meals were not served by the course, but all at once to minimize contact between flight attendants and passengers. And finally, each plate was covered with a plastic lid for an added protection level against contamination. Quite frankly, I didn’t find any of these changes to be disappointing in the slightest, and I appreciated the safety measures.
After dinner, I asked my flight attendant for turndown service, which is still provided to business-class passengers—the Qsuite has a lie-flat bed, and its dressed with a pillow, a quilted mattress pad, and a duvet. While my seat was being prepared, I headed to the lavatory to change into The White Company pajamas provided by the airline, thus avoiding any overcrowding in the aisle. As for sleeping, business-class passengers on my flight were permitted to remove their face shields and masks, given the distance between seats. I did remove the plastic shield, but I kept my mask on for additional security. Today, however, Qatar’s site indicates that all passengers must wear masks at all times.
The rest of my flight was pretty uneventful—I slept soundly, then awoke to breakfast before landing, which was served with the same safety precautions as dinner. All in all, it was a delightful flight.
Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, is a major transit hub, and in normal times, it can be quite crowded. That wasn’t the case this time around. Transiting passengers go through airport security before entering the main terminal. Unlike at JFK, my lounge was open here—I spent my layover at the massive Al Mourjan Business Lounge. At 100,000 square feet, there was plenty of room for social distancing. There are various seating areas, including private quiet rooms with sofas if you want to take a nap, plus a restaurant.
I split my time between a private quiet room and the restaurant. In the pre-pandemic days, the restaurant had self-service buffets, a bar, and à la carte meal service—today, the only difference is that you can’t sit at the bar, and the buffets are now staffed.
The Second Flight
Unlike the first flight, my second flight, a six-hour hop from Doha to Nairobi, was on a B787 Dreamliner, meaning no Qsuite. Instead, I sat in a more traditional-style business class with a reverse herringbone layout. As with my first flight, face shields and masks were required during boarding, but all passengers were allowed to remove them for dining, while business-class passengers could remove them to sleep, too. (Again, that no longer seems to be the case today.) Given that quarters were a little tighter than on my first flight—though still far more spacious than in economy—I made sure to keep my PPE on as much as possible.
Arrival in Kenya
At long last, I made it to Nairobi. Protocols for entry were pretty straightforward—get your temperature taken, produce your passport, your e-visa, and your negative PCR test results. By the time I made it through border control with a fresh stamp in my passport, my suitcase was waiting for me at baggage claim.
The return journey was more or less the same—except for arrival into the United States. Currently, the U.S. requires all passengers to present negative COVID-19 antigen test results to their airlines before boarding their flights to the country. That wasn’t the case when I flew in October. In fact, there were absolutely no rules about testing or quarantining whatsoever. Arriving home and going through passport control was essentially just like any pre-pandemic day, which I found rather shocking. However, for my own peace of mind, I did get tested and stayed at home of my own accord.
To be very clear, I don’t support traveling carelessly during the pandemic. However, I do believe that we can travel smartly and safely, so long as we adhere to all local, national, and international guidelines.
Throughout my entire 38-hour experience on the go, I felt reasonably safe—and I didn’t feel that I was putting my fellow passengers or crew members at risk, either. (For what it’s worth, there have been plenty of studies showing that the virus is not likely to be transmitted aboard an aircraft, so long as everyone is wearing their masks.)
Would I fly again during the pandemic? Yes. In particular, I thought Qatar did a stellar job communicating and enforcing its health and safety policies, protecting its crew and passengers, and still providing the top-notch service the airline was known for during pre-pandemic times.