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First Person

30,000 feet above virus-stricken planet, a terrifying view of the way we are now

The FlyDubai plane to the UAE was packed, and I was paranoid: Forget terrorism or crashing, it was a simple cough that now had me wondering if we can ever go home again

Shoshanna Solomon

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

A FlyDubai flight from Tel Aviv to Dubai on December 7, 2020. (Shoshanna Solomon/ Times of Israel)
A FlyDubai flight from Tel Aviv to Dubai on December 7, 2020. (Shoshanna Solomon/ Times of Israel)

The last time I traveled on a plane was in January 2020 BC – Before Corona.

On that occasion, I booked my flight in the morning, packed my bag and hopped onto a flight the same day to Amsterdam. Within hours I was whizzing out of the airport to my destination. Easy.

Not so anymore. On Monday, I took my first flight in almost a year — after the coronavirus pandemic hit the world and wrought havoc on our daily routines. It was perhaps taking that flight that underlined even more how everything has changed, making me wonder if things will ever get back to normal — or what we thought was normal, then.

The new normal is very different. Today, if you want to fly, the procedures are complicated and the level of fear is high — so much so that it makes you wonder if it is worth the hassle at all.

All packed and ready for flight to Dubai; December 7, 2020 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

When I was asked to join a group of journalists heading to Dubai, I immediately said yes. Although I had already been to Dubai twice, from Tel Aviv via Jordan, for the annual summer party of a foreign news agency I used to work for, this would be a first for me as a journalist visiting from Israel after the signing of the Abraham Accords in September, which normalized ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one.

Dubai — a destination considered by Israel as “green,” or relatively safe in coronavirus infection terms, thus obviating the need (at the moment) to quarantine upon return — presented a perfect opportunity to get a firsthand feel of the warming relations between the nations, and also a bit of fun.

Since the accords were signed, Israel and the UAE have been on a honeymoon with business circles abuzz with excitement, and conferences and delegations abounding, charged with the prospect of new markets and opportunities.

Cold feet

Before I could travel, though, there were things that had to be done: I needed to get a COVID-19 test  — not more than 96 hours before departure — to make sure I was virus-free. After a long earbud was stuck into both nostrils and down my throat, I heard the next day that I was fine and allowed to leave. I also needed to get health insurance that covered me if I did contract the coronavirus, a health declaration permit to enter the airport in Tel Aviv, and a health declaration form to be filled out when I got to Dubai.

Social distancing creates lines outside the few Duty Free stores open at Ben Gurion Airport; December 7, 2020 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

And then I started to get cold feet. What if I got sick on the flight there? What if I got sick in Dubai and was not allowed to fly home? What if I flew with someone sick and got stuck with a 14-day quarantine requirement on my return? These concerns compounded fears I always harbored as a nervous flyer — will the plane crash? Will there be a terror attack?

My parents used to always travel on separate planes when they left us at home (not often) when we were younger, so as not to risk their kids becoming orphans should something happen to them on the flight. My husband and I fly on the same plane, but, before we leave, I send out a list with a note of our bank accounts and assets to my loved ones who remain home, in an email whose subject line reads: “Just in case.”

The author in Dubai on December 8, 2020. (Courtesy: Yehuda Sharoni)

Flying has always been an activity with an aura of danger around it — those preflight safety announcements and emergency instruction cards are not just for show. But suddenly, catching the coronavirus has become the more immediate, and real, worry.

On the morning before I left Tel Aviv, my sister dropped off some no-filter N-95 masks for me to use, which she said would be safer. My mum hugged me hard and told me to stay safe, and one US-based sister told me never to take my mask off on the plane. “Not even to eat,” she instructed. “You go a whole day on Yom Kippur without eating, you can afford not to eat for a few hours.”

My husband and daughter wished me good luck, and my daughter promised me that if I got stuck with coronavirus in Dubai one of them would fly out and be with me in an adjacent hotel room. My son, who is studying at a university in Haifa, told me to have fun and not to worry about anything.

I was embarking on a three-hour plane ride. It suddenly felt like I was undertaking a mission to Mars.

The Flydubai gate at Tel Aviv airport; December 7, 2020 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Coughs and cringes

When I got to the airport, I was asked for the health permit as I entered Terminal 1. The other journalists and I checked in at the FlyDubai counter (hard to believe we now have such a counter) and took the shuttle to Terminal 3, passing a whole lot of grounded planes — mainly El Al — and idle hangars.

Some duty-free stores were open but had quite long lines to enter. This was not because there were many people — the airport was not deserted but certainly far from the bustle and throng I was used to — but because of the limited number who can enter the stores at any one time. Most of the places to get food were shut but coffee and sandwiches were, thankfully, still available.

The departure board showed there were four outgoing flights to Dubai that day, plus one flight each to Hong Kong, London, Istanbul, Seychelle, Newark and New York, and four to Bangkok.

Every time the person beside me lowered his mask to talk, eat or sip water or whiskey from a flask I felt a pang of annoyance

The plane was full with a mix of Arabs and Jews, including some ultra-Orthodox students, businesspeople and vacationers, and paranoid me.

I didn’t take off my mask for a minute — not for water, tea, coffee or food. I read my book and didn’t even venture to the bathroom. Every time someone coughed, I cringed, thinking of all of the warnings I have seen in the past months about germs flying my way. Every time the person beside me lowered his mask to talk, eat or sip water or whiskey from a flask I felt a pang of annoyance — but controlled myself and refrained from commenting. I kept myself pressed against the window and wished the flight were over already. And it finally was.

The way we were

After we landed in Dubai, we were directed to the COVID-19 testing stands – “Tel Aviv? Tel Aviv?” the ushers were calling out at the Dubai airport. People with face masks, gloves and white reusable robes stood at hand. You can choose between a quick test for what someone said was $45 or a 24-hour free test. (We took the free test, because there is no quarantine while waiting for the results.) Again, a very annoying long earbud was shoved up my two nostrils (not throat this time). And then we were finally out and off to our hotel.

A waiter at the Ninive bar in Dubai, pouring tea December 7, 2020 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

That first evening I had a wonderful time. We ate delicious food and had lots to drink, sitting out in the cool, hopefully COVID-free desert air. The days ahead promise a lot of interesting meetings and also fun. I am happy I came, for now, and I still hope to make it home safe — both COVID and quarantine-free. So, wish me luck.

I cannot but feel a little wistful, however, about how different things are today, and wonder if I will ever again be able to get onto a flight in the same (almost) lighthearted manner as before.

Will I always want to wear a mask from now on? Will travel continue to be so burdensome, when once it used to be so easy? (For that matter, will we ever be able to sing Happy Birthday at the top of our lungs at a family party, without imagining the germs streaming forth? Will we again be able to dance at weddings in a circle, holding hands? Will we be able to sing along at an Elton John concert, hugging and dancing?)

And will it ever be possible to hop onto a plane after booking the tickets that same morning?

That flight I took in January 2020 BC was to go with my husband to be with my ailing father-in-law Max, in Amsterdam. We were lucky. We made it in time to be with him before he passed away a few days later. This was before the pandemic, so we could hug him and wish him goodbye in person. Today, there are friends who could not go overseas to attend the funeral of their parent. I also know of grandparents who have not been able to hold their new grandchild, born on foreign soil.

Perhaps with hindsight we will be able to see some good things that have come out of the pandemic — maybe working from home will become more commonplace; maybe we’ll learn to appreciate the hugs and family time even more.

But for now, I cannot but think that the coronavirus has made the world a bleaker and lonelier place. And I miss the way we were.

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