As one might imagine, Pearson — normally crowded like any large, urban airport — was a ghost-town. Where lineups typically prevailed, a few masked travellers and their minimalist luggage moved smoothly and quickly through check-in and security.
For my partner - a commercial pilot furloughed since her last flight on March 13 - it was a particularly haunting experience.
In an attempt to both share my thinking about why we chose to embark on this “non-essential” trip and capture our impressions of the experience, I’ve decided to blog about it. I’ll start with the latter, and focus on the airport.
Out in Public
I found one of the strangest things about the whole airport adventure not so much to be the lack of people, but rather, the mask wearing.
It’s an eerie feeling to see everyone, EVERYONE, masked. Only months ago online arguments were raging, about the appropriateness of Muslim women covering their faces... now I overhear the flight attendant telling person after person to please pull their mask up over their nose. (Yup, six months in, and people still haven’t figured out how to wear the darned things properly!!)
I’m also struck by how many people choose disposable masks. Almost without thinking, I set about ordering a supply of multi-layer cloth masks (some with insert for an additional filter) for our family shortly after the pandemic started. I’m curious about people’s choices.
Having the luxury of working from home, I also haven’t had to wear my mask for any length of time. Beyond a ten minute stretch here and there for various reasons, I have been living largely mask-free since the onset of the pandemic. Traveling at this time changed that.
This is the first time I’ve worn a mask for five hours, and I’ve had enough! I don’t know how essential workers are doing it, and I feel for my teacher colleagues who are still in the classroom/physical schools. My ears are hurting. My nose is itchy. Everything is sweaty. Ugh!
The Choice to Travel
So now, on to the non-essential travel choice. First of all, I realize how privileged I am financially to even be able to make the decision to travel. This blog post isn’t about that, but I do want to recognize that reality. Lots of people are struggling to pay the rent right now, and my biggest complaint is that I have to stay inside Canada for my 4-day vacation. I get it.
That said, we chose to travel for a few different reasons, which I will do my best to describe below. One thing I am recognizing about this pandemic is that people feel very strongly about their perspectives in relation to “managing” the virus. From masks to travel to school re-openings, everyone has an idea of how things should go, and the fact that we can control only ourselves and not society at large is creating a lot of anxiety for a lot of people. Moreover, the fear this anxiety creates can make it difficult for some people to think logically.
Safe Air Travel
Having a commercial pilot in the family, and belonging to a national organization that counts many professionals in the aviation industry among its members, we probably have a greater awareness of the travel-related matters than the average household. From cabin air quality to mandatory sanitation measures, we have more “inside scoop” than most folks. Given this knowledge, we believe that the risks of air travel are low.
The airport is also clean, with surfaces being sanitized constantly. Plus... wash your hands, people!
Weighing the Benefits
With one of us unemployed as a direct result of the pandemic, something my partner and I talk about a lot is the unintended side effects of extended lockdowns and social distancing. It’s no secret that mental health issues are at an all-time high, and that violence (including domestic violence) is not far behind.
Other impacts include a decrease in organ transplant and other life-saving surgeries and an increase of people dying of heart attacks at home because they’re afraid to leave the house and go to the hospital. It‘s not a small number.
The economic impact of the pandemic on those already struggling socio-economically has been devastating. While people celebrate “essential service providers” like grocery store cashiers and those who fulfill skyrocketing Amazon orders, the truth is that those people still earn minimum wage or close to it. Those lucky enough not to have been laid off, that is. Others are working longer hours than ever, and that, too, is taking its toll. For me at work the pace has been relentless. Most days are filled with back-to-back meetings and tasks with impossible deadlines. The evenings and weekends I’ve been working on top of the 8-ish hours my typical pre-Covid days comprised remind me of my days as a classroom teacher. I’m tired!
We believe that a family trip to another province, to visit an outdoor natural wonder not seen before, will have many benefits personally and — by extension — to those around us at work, school, etc. And so, since we’re in a position to be able to afford a few days away together, we did it.
Supporting the Travel Industry
On the earlier topic of job loss, let’s talk about the travel industry (and in particular, the aviation industry). While Jeff Bezos and his capitalist cronies continue to line their pockets with the spoils of people‘s retail therapy and other widespread swindles, small businesses everywhere are shuttering at an alarming rate. And other industries — and the people who work(ed) in them — are suffering, too.
All over the world and particularly in places like Canada, the aviation industry has basically come to a standstill. Pilots, flight attendants, flight engineers, ramp attendants, caterers, cleaners, office staff and huge numbers of related folks have either lost their jobs or been furloughed. Initially, the hope was that things would open up again in a month or two. As work restart deadlines continue to be pushed back and support cheques draw to a close, the struggle is becoming more real for many, including my partner, a first officer with a regional airline that stopped flying in March.
In Canada, the situation is particularly dire: While airlines in other G8 Nations receive substantial subsidies to stay afloat, Canadian airlines have largely been left to figure it out on their own and hope for the best. I read somewhere recently that Air Canada (which has attempted to keep some of its crew and other staff) burned through 1.9 million a day from April - June. Smaller airlines don‘t stand a chance!
Other than 3 weeks on PEI this summer (the first two of which were spent in provincially imposed mandatory self isolation while I teleworked) that we drove to and spent at the property we own there, this Alberta trip was our first out of province excursion, our first time staying on commercial property and our first time traveling by air since the pandemic started. We are eager to support our sisters and brothers in the industry, and help begin to rebuild a strong travel network.
Earlier I wrote about weighing the risks. I believe that the benefits of travel are significant. And with appropriate precautions, risks can be effectively mitigated. Frequent hand-washing and keeping a healthy physical distance from those outside one’s bubble are generally good rules. At this time, they become even more important.
The requirement to wear a mask on board planes, and inside restaurants and other public places, may further decrease the risk of spreading the virus.
Given the benefits of travel for those who enjoy doing so, I hope I have encouraged at least some of you to consider getting back into it. Our family’s exploration of the natural outdoor beauty of Banff, Jasper and the Columbia Icefields was a welcome reprieve after months of restricted freedom. And for those who are still uncomfortable with travel, I hope you’ll agree that we can have differing comfort levels with this and still coexist on this planet!