Around 48 hours ago I found myself in an airport for the first time in four months, following a blur of last-minute restriction-lifting on international travel by the UK government. I was off to report on how Spain’s Canary Islands (where tourism generates 35% of GDP) are slowly beginning to welcome back international travellers after one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, on a trip organised by the Canary Islands tourism board and the UNWTO. With flight options still restricted, I was flying to Madrid, then on to sunny Lanzarote.  

The last time I was anywhere near an airport was at the beginning of March (2020, though it feels several decades ago) – en route home to London from Vancouver with Air Canada, just before lockdowns began all over Europe. Until this Tuesday, the furthest I’d been from my Hackney flat since London went into lockdown on 23 March was Wimbledon – once. 

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Check-in at Heathrow ©Isabella Noble/Lonely Planet

A new Heathrow?

My handbag stuffed with antibacterial wipes, face masks and hand sanitiser, I zipped across London on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, where only Terminals 2 and 5 are currently operating. This was just the third time I’d set foot on the tube (underground) since March, and I was nervous and ever-so-slightly excited at the thought of flying and tackling airport logistics again. Would my armful of bangles upset security as usual? Would the much-talked-about middle seat be left empty? (Spoiler: nope). Being prepared was key: I’d scoured airline and airport websites for every last detail on new safety measures.

Arriving at T5, I was inundated with signs about physical-distancing, mask-wearing, off-limits seats, hand-sanitising stations (Heathrow now has 600) and the temperature-screening trial in place. Masks are obligatory at all times in the airport and on board (apart from for young children or due to exceptional circumstances) and were available for free at various points (but bring your own). My flight was with British Airways/Iberia, which are both encouraging customers to check in online, use digital boarding passes, bring enough face masks for the full journey and keep hand-luggage to a minimum so you can move through the airport as efficiently as possible.

Inside the eerily quiet terminal, just five flights lit up the departures board: Washington, Boston, Hong Kong, Singapore and Madrid. For a minute I felt like the only person there, until, having failed to check in online (technical glitches…), I found a handful of fellow travellers at the Iberia check-in desk. Staff, friendly and reassuring about my trip, were busy behind protective screens, and I was done in five minutes. 

Bag delivered, it was on to security – also impossibly quiet. There were sanitising wipes for trays, but I still managed to get flustered juggling my handbag, laptop, passport, jacket, phone, camera and tray while trying extra-carefully to not touch anything.

Flight departure sign
Are we ready to fly again? ©Kelly Sillaste/Getty Images

Before my trip I’d wondered whether to take some kind of packed dinner, but Pret was open for snacks, Boots for eleventh-hour toiletries and even a few shops too. Just a smattering of passengers sat around in the departures area, most passengers carrying only handbags or backpacks – perhaps the great fight for overhead locker space is finally on the way out.  

Gate B45! Time to board – and somehow I’d ended up running late and rushing along. Good to see some habits hadn’t changed. We boarded by seat number, back rows first, and had to briefly remove our masks while staff checked our passports. Everyone did their best to keep two meters apart at the gate, but even so it ended up being a bit of a scramble.

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 At Heathrow airport where there are just two terminals open. © Isabella Noble/Lonely Planet

Welcome back on board 

Having shuffled into the enormous Airbus A350-941 (usually used for long-haul flights), I settled into my aisle seat. I don’t remember ever being on a plane this big to Spain, and it was busy. Almost every seat around me was full: I was sitting closer to a bunch of (friendly!) strangers than I’ve been to most of my friends and family in months. In this Covid-19 world everyone was minimising movement and bathroom trips.

Masked flight attendants handed us each an antibacterial wipe – though to be honest I’d brought plenty of my own equipment for an extra wipe-down of tray table, chair and arm rest (another pre-Covid habit). Both BA and Iberia (like most airlines) have announced reinforced cleaning protocols, especially for high-contact surfaces like tray tables, seat buckles and bathrooms, and staff kept interactions to a minimum (no food or drinks).

Captain Ismael was keen to tell us about the HEPA air-filter system, which removes 99% of airborne particles, including, it’s thought, ‘el famoso coronavirus’. Then he announced the holy grail of flights: we were not only departing on time but also arriving early, as the Heathrow runway was uncrowded! Somehow, that felt heartbreakingly sad, and, for a second, I caught myself feeling nostalgic for the rowdy stag parties that often stumble on to my London–Spain flights. As we taxied towards the runway and took off, it was back to pin-drop silence. And drizzling outside. 

Everyone arriving in Spain by air or sea (but not land) now has to complete a form with contact details and health information up to 48 hours before travelling (ideally online). My check-in hiccup meant I needed to fill mine out in paper form on board. So between that and tapping away on my laptop, the two-hour flight… well, flew by. 

Suitcase or luggage with conveyor belt in the international airport.
Check local requirements when you land ©Mongkol Chuewong/Getty Images

Bienvenidos a España 

It was hazy descending into Madrid and I’d barely taken in the scorched plains before we landed. Things moved fairly smoothly, apart from a broken automatic door that caused a comically long twirling queue when handing in our health forms. I didn’t get a manual temperature check, but Madrid airport has recently installed thermal-imaging cameras.

Lugging my suitcase, I was out through the Spanish summer heat into a taxi. Outside arrivals, a family with an enormous custom-made banner was being tearfully reunited. 

All in all, it was a smooth journey and I especially appreciated the new safety measures and orderly boarding system, though it’s obviously impossible to physical-distance the whole way. We’re used to airports being all about tight regulations – now there are a few more of those to take on board.

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