What Is It Like to Fly Around the World During a Pandemic?
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With much of the world grounded and around 85 percent of international flights canceled, fervent travelers are daydreaming over old trip photos and reminiscing on TikTok. Anyone who does set foot in an airport is met by total a lack of lines, and rows and rows of empty seats. But what is it like in the air? I spoke with Annie Mattos, a Boeing 777 captain for FedEx who, as an essential worker delivering cargo including medical supplies, flies around the world once a month, experiencing ever-shifting quarantine policies and zombie-movie airports along the way.
What’s an average month of travel like for you?
I typically work 12 days out of 28. My most recent full trip went from Memphis, Tennessee to Narita, Japan. Then Taipei, Taiwan to Hong Kong to New Delhi, India, and then Guangzhou, China. Then Narita, Japan to Osaka, Japan to Hong Kong. Then Hong Kong to Memphis, Tenn.
What types of things are you delivering?
We don’t always know what’s in the back of our airplane. Everything we have is boxed or containerized and palletized. But we know we are bringing a lot of medical supplies—test kits and protective gear.
Does social distancing come into play with your job?
It’s hard to social distance in a cockpit, so our policies are more around regular health checks and work area disinfecting. I do notice social distancing when we land. It’s eerie; like a scene from a movie. We were getting on the elevator in Osaka the other day, and someone said, this looks like a scene from The Living Dead, or Zombieland. There was no one until we reached security, and no one again until we reached our gate. Flying domestically, there’s only a handful of people on airplanes. It’s very apocalyptic—that would be my word for it.
I know you’ve been quarantining in different countries; what is that process like?
Part of what’s going on is the unpredictability of it; things are changing on an hourly basis. The company does a really good job of keeping us updated on the changes, but when you’re on a 15-hour flight, things can change while you’re en route. Your layover hotel can change, the country’s procedures can change. There’s just a lot going on in the world right now.
There’s usually a lot of extra paperwork that you have to fill out, and they’ll ask you if you’ve been to any of the major outbreak areas. They give a long list of symptoms and you have to verify that you don’t have any and check for fever. We’ve also required to self-check our temperature twice a day, and you have to sign an affidavit that confirms you’re in good health.
On our layovers, we’re not walking around like we usually would, not going out to dinner. We’re quarantined in the hotels and often in our hotel rooms. Gyms and restaurants are closed. In most places, they’ll deliver food. In France, we can go to the grocery store. In Honolulu, I was able to go out for a walk, but you couldn’t linger. It becomes kind of a relief just to be back in the airplane because that’s a routine that’s normal and well-understood.
Do you notice any differences in visibility while you fly, now that carbon emissions are down in some cities?
I haven’t really noticed that much. Things might be more clear in Asia, but if you’re in a climate that’s quite humid, the water vapor in the atmosphere causes some haze. Or it’s springtime, so it’s cloudy. My friends in Hong Kong have said it’s clearer there.
On a more general note, I’m curious: Do you entertain yourself at all while on a long-haul flight? If so, has your podcast or music diet changed since the pandemic?
We do a lot of studying and review of our procedures, and there’s the paperwork we have to do, like navigational plotting. We talk to each other, and we eat. (Thankfully we have an oven on board!) If we have a flight that’s over 7 and a half hours, we have a relief pilot, and we can take a nap in our crew rest area while the other pilot covers.
On the ground, I find myself keeping up with the news more than I used to. We have social media groups that a lot of us are in, and people will share their experiences, like how the new hotels have been, or what’s new at work. Best of all are the funny memes and videos of course—humor helps in dealing with the stress!
Have you and your colleagues talked at all about the new fears you might be facing?
Pilots don’t tend to be fearful people, but we are concerned. We’re concerned about bringing the virus home to our families. There are people who will come home and stay in a separate room for days. When I come home, I strip all my clothes and wash them, and go take a shower, kind of using the same protocols that a health worker would.
Have you witnessed any inspiring moments while traveling from country to country?
Everyone that’s out there, face to face with other people, they’re being brave. We don’t see the healthcare workers, but I really admire what they’re doing. And seeing how people are being kind while at the same time they’re worried about their jobs and their families. There’s a lot of emotion going on.