California to Denmark in 36 hours – by air: Johnny’s travel odyssey
Johnny Thorsen is a seasoned traveller, but travelling to his home Denmark recently to visit his mother for her 80th birthday proved to be a whole different experience from how it “used to be”.
Navigating long haul travel in the age of COVID-19 raises a host of potential roadblocks.
Johnny’s story illustrates the variety of challenges he faced – but it also importantly raises a number of issues, notably around the measures being taken throughout the passenger journey to adapt to health requirements.
Achieving standardisation along the whole journey is remarkably difficult. From the array of different national authorities imposing varying - and often conflicting - rules, to the myriad actors along the chain with their individual interpretations of the rules, achieving a seamless traveller-comforting process is complex.
But there is clear room for improvement, if travellers are to be confident enough to return in numbers.
Johnny’s Travel Odyssey
I am a Danish citizen living in the Bay Area in California with a green card as my legal alien residence status – and I recently had to travel back to Denmark for family reasons as my mum turns 80 in mid-June and I decided to go back with my wife and be there in person for the celebration.
1. Can we go - and come back?
Before we even started the actual trip, a number of interesting challenges appeared in front of us starting with the very basic question – “can we actually travel to Denmark without the risk of being prevented entry in Denmark, and also make it back to California afterwards”?
2. Can we book a flight?
After a few weeks of research in a constant changing landscape I concluded that we could go – we are both Danish citizens and therefore would be allowed entry to Denmark based on all available information. However, this decision resulted in the appearance of the next challenge – which was to actually book flights for our trip.
We had original bookings on SAS before Covid-19 arrived in Europe, and given that SAS had cancelled all flights outside Scandinavia I started to look for new flights. In the end I made 3 bookings with other airlines based on their own websites only to find each time that the booking had been cancelled by the airline the next day.
Eventually I managed to book flights with a combination of United Airlines and Lufthansa, using a good part of my hard-earned United Mileage Plus points – but I didn’t want to have more bookings charged to my card and then get another credit voucher, so this was my smart way of avoiding the airline playing the tactical refund delay game.
With the booking confirmed only one week before departure it was now time to start preparing for the actual trip - which consisted of an estimated 35 hours of travel from our home in San Ramon, California to our summerhouse on the small island of Taasinge in Denmark. The itinerary went from SFO to Chicago with United, then a nine hour transfer time in O’Hare, followed by a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt where we would pick up a Sixt rental car and drive the eight hours to Denmark to avoid yet another long air transfer time of almost six hours.
This was clearly not an efficient itinerary and very different from the usual 10 hour long direct flight to Copenhagen from SFO, but a good indicator of the time it now takes to get to most places internationally due to the very limited flight schedules available to work with.
3. Time to go to the airport
In order to have time for unexpected events at SFO we left home 3 ½ hours before scheduled departure at 0045am PST, and given that the drive to the airport only took 45 min we arrived at the check-in counter 2 hours and 45 minutes before scheduled departure.
Unsurprisingly, there was nobody else checking in so, duly masked, we went straight to the counter; but for some reason the check in took much longer than normal due to what appeared to be extra data entry requirements for the United service agent – and while we waited I noticed the very limited presence of social distance markers on the floor – there was only one marker in front of each counter which means the passengers behind the first one has to keep their own distance – not exactly a major problem, but nevertheless a surprise at this casual approach.
Next stop was airport security where I realised that “TSA-pre” no longer seems to be available – the pre-check entrance was simply closed with no indicator about potential opening times (so I cannot share any information about general availability at this point).
However, the general security area was open – and here they had at least tried to make an effort in terms of social distancing – there were markers on the floor in the queuing area – but only for 12 people and they were not even used at this late hour as a total of only eight people were lined up in the queue trying to apply social distancing while also ensuring the gap didn’t become so big that somebody would enter the empty space to jump the queue.
Knowing that TSA agents generally don’t like any questions about the logic behind the service configuration in the airport I decided not to ask why we weren’t using the social distance markers and moved along until it was my turn to be screened.
I had thought about how TSA would handle the whole mask covering my face issue, and my theory was confirmed as the agent actually ask me to remove my mask for a moment while he looked at the picture in my passport, which I assume is an acceptable risk in order to maintain strict security.
I passed the screening and then went through the scanner – and was puzzled to observe that social distancing markers were in place on the floor leading to the scanner, but then there was no distancing going on at the scanner – so once again an inconsistent process had been established which seems to be the hallmark of most airports worldwide in my experience.
To the lounge…
After security was passed we started the walk through an eerily empty SFO airport, and noticed they had stopped the walkway and posted a sign explaining they were doing this to conserve energy which was a nice move – but I am not sure if there was any wheelchair service available for any person with a medical condition preventing them from walking the long distance on their own.
Upon reaching the United lounge my fears were confirmed – the lounge was closed and only operated from 7:30am to 5:30pm PST, so we were almost 5 hours too late. Apparently this was the only operating United lounge in all of SFO – so we moved on to plan B which was to get a drink somewhere.
However, five minutes later we concluded that everything was closed and the only available service option was to refill our empty water bottles which we always bring with us to SFO as they stopped selling bottled water earlier this year for environmental reasons anyway.
And so to board - using the Covid-19 protocol
We found a seating area nearby and then waited 90 minutes until boarding started and got our next surprise. Everybody was obviously curious to hear how boarding would work so the passengers were standing close to the counter trying to maintain distance, but also trying to hear the instructions given over the speaker – which was very hard to hear as always even in an almost completely empty airport.
There were no social distance markers on the floor – but it became apparent that they were boarding the plane in reverse seat row order starting with the rear end and then working their way forward.
This meant that the people used to boarding first (including myself) now were boarding last as the frequent travellers typically are seated in the front-end of the plane – either in business or premium economy; so this was an interesting change driven by Covid-19.
Eventually we had all boarded, and the cabin crew kept reminding everyone that we had to keep our masks on the entire flight – but regardless of this consistent message several passengers removed their masks immediately after being seated – only resulting in the cabin crew approaching them multiple times asking politely for the mask to be put back on for a few minutes.
A limited meal service
After the doors closed we experienced another airline classic feature – the announcements made over the speakers were almost impossible to hear and therefore we didn’t know if there would be any in-flight service or not on the flight. Eventually it turned out we each got offered a small plastic bag with a bottle of water, a small Oreo packet and a small bag of pretzels – which was handed out immediately after departure with a message saying there would be no other service during the four hour flight to Chicago.
In the end we slept almost the entire duration of the flight and had no other experiences in the air until we landed, and then once again struggled with hearing and understanding the instructions given for departing the plane.
It turned out we were leaving based on seat row numbers starting from the front, so this time the frequent fliers got their reward as they got back into the terminal first, and most passengers appeared to respect the order without trying to jump the rows – except for two passengers who claimed to be in a hurry and literally squeezed their way from row 25 to row 12 while being in close contact with every aisle seated passenger during that interval.
In the end the United flight was full in business and had 137 pax out of 209 economy seats, equal to about 65% load factor – so there were plenty of empty middle seats in the economy section – and we never felt nervous or scared, but just kept wondering why the airline didn’t ensure the speakers were easy to hear so their instructions could be understood without any doubt
How to pass 9 hours in Chicago O’Hare with nothing to do
After arriving in Chicago at 6:30am local time the first challenge was to find out of if there was an open lounge or not – we headed to the nearest lounge which simply had a sign saying “closed due to Covid-19”, and no other information about where to potentially find an open lounge. Next step was the inevitable google search – and five minutes later I had located a page on the United website which said the lounge at gate C6 would open at 7am – so we started the walk from terminal B.
Upon arrival at the lounge we were met by a sign saying the lunge only opened at 7:30am so we now had to find a place to wait for another 45 min – and located a seating area by an empty gate.
Random mask behaviour
While we were waiting we noticed that about one out of 10 people didn’t wear their mask over the nose and mouth, but simply had the mask placed around the neck as a decorative item.
Nobody seemed to challenge anyone about this, and we saw police officers, TSA agents, cleaners and also passengers walking around with no mask in place – which felt very strange and unsafe after weeks of stay-at-home isolation in California and always wearing a mask when leaving the house for any purpose apart from an exercise walk or run.
I didn’t know the local rules in Chicago so didn’t want to get into trouble by asking somebody to put their mask in place – but while we were observing this behaviour we also saw (and smelled) a Starbucks nearby which was open.
....and social distancing
I walked over and then had another social distancing experience – Starbucks (or the airport operator) had placed social distance markers on the floor for four people queuing in front of the counter, but number five and onwards had to make up their own distance and clearly had trouble with this as there were another six people lined up trying to avoid blocking the main terminal walk area.
Eventually I walked away proudly with our cappuccino and americano and we sipped our fresh coffee quietly while hiding in the gate seating area and avoiding close contact with anyone not wearing a mask – as we obviously removed our own masks to enjoy the unexpected pleasure of a fresh coffee in the airport.
Eventually the clock reached 7:30am and we entered the lounge through the sliding doors – only to find that there were too many people queued up in front of the receptionist using all the social distance markers on the floor – so we were asked to step outside again and wait.
The sliding doors were dark blue so we couldn’t see when there was an empty marker for queuing inside unless we kept triggering the doors to open – so it was quite a strange setup rather than having moved the receptionist outside the sliding doors, or alternatively just let the doors remain open all the time.
At 7:45am we finally entered the United lounge and found a place in the far corner where we could wait and remove our masks safely – and after a few minutes I put my mask back on and ventured up to get some breakfast. However, the food options were dramatically reduced to a yoghurt, a mini muffin and a small serving of juice in a separate plastic cups. The coffee and tea station was moved into the bar area, so we had to ask the bartender for a coffee (which then led to the usual dilemma of whether to tip him or not as he was behind the bar).
After two hours of hiding in the corner we needed a break and decided to go for a long walk in the empty airport – but first had to convince the United lounge staff to keep an eye on our hand luggage as we didn’t want to drag that along with us when we still had six hours of waiting time left.
Can airports adjust sufficiently?
We ended up walking four miles through 2/3 of the terminals, and came back with plenty of observations to wonder about – I have listed a few of them below:
- At current passenger volumes (probably 5% of normal levels based on past ORD trips) it feels safe to travel, but there is a lot of "randomness" where you suddenly see people without masks, both passengers and airport staff - which is surprising. At some point we walked past a group of 15 TSA employees standing close together without masks while being instructed by a manager wearing a mask, clearly a very strange sight.
- It is also interesting that social distancing markers on the floor typically only have room for 4 people so after that the queue is a lot denser and zig zags into the general area where others have to walk past at close distance.
- Putting my sustainability hat on for a moment, I wonder why every single gate and monitor still appears to be ready for action when the number of flights are down to 15% of old volumes; why not shut down half of the airport to save energy and optimise the ground operation?
After our walk through the empty terminals we decided to get some real food outside the lounge – and found a Wolfgang Puck place which was open – and even had tables and chairs where we could sit and eat.
Once again we were puzzled by the lack of consistency on the mask front, especially as the tables were lined next to the walking area and we had to remove our masks to eat as United wouldn’t allow us to bring the food back into the lounge even though they had no food at all after the “breakfast buffet” – only some chips and hummus dip were available.
Meanwhile, back in the United lounge
Eventually we were back in the lounge around 1pm, so only two hours to kill before we could head to our gate. The highlight of those two hours – and probably the entire nine hours in Chicago – was the live streaming of the Space X Dragon 9 rocket taking off for the International Space Station.
We watched this exciting event together with three other passengers, and at the peak I counted a total of 17 passengers inside the lounge, which had a capacity of more than 300 people from what I was told.
Boarding again - on Lufthansa
I was wondering how boarding would work for an international flight, and my limited expectations were met completely as things once again differed from the previous boarding procedure.
Lufthansa had divided us into five queues, with one for business (we were in that one) and four for economy class, based on the row numbers of the passengers. There were no social distance markers, and we were not allowed to enter the queuing areas until someone at the counter gave permission.
So, eventually about 150 people were hanging around trying to distance themselves from each other, while also being ready to move quickly into the queue and get early access.
After some delay caused by an unknown problem, boarding eventually started and we quickly reached our seats on the upper deck of the almost new 747-8 plane – this was a nice bonus experience as I had thought I had made my last 747 flight ever when I flew an old BA 747 flight from Miami to London in September 2019 – but yet here I was back in the queen of the skies again!
Airborne towards Frankfurt
Once we sat down in our seats it became clear we were allowed to remove our masks while seated, but the Lufthansa cabin crew kept their masks on for the entire flight – and everyone put their mask back on when leaving their seat regardless of the reason.
We left the gate 20 minutes late at 4:35pm but quickly made up that time as we went straight to the runway and took off with the information from the captain that we would arrive 15 minutes early in Frankfurt next morning. The flight was 65% full and had about 8 empty seats in business so I assume there were plenty of empty seats in economy – and it never felt crowded or unsafe, which was expected given that we were in business class.
The meal choice: some - or none
Apart from the pleasant surprise of being allowed to remove the mask, it was unexpected to learn that there only was one meal option in business class due to Covid-19.
Apparently there is also an impact on the catering front so the choice was to have food or not, and we decided to have dinner and then get some sleep.
Another surprise was the fact that the cabin crew no longer bring the drinks trolley into the cabin – they went to each seat and asked for the drink order and then went back to the galley and prepared the drinks and brought them to the seat – and then went to the next passenger.
This was done to avoid any potential spread of virus from a passenger coughing on the bottles and glasses placed on the trolley, and makes perfect sense – and it is a great example of the level of details the airlines have gone through in order to minimize risk at every step of the journey.
Upon arriving in Frankfurt Sunday morning, we ended up waiting for 25 minutes inside the plane before we could exit – this was apparently done to avoid over-crowding in the immigration area. But when we finally reached passport control there was nobody else around.
While we were waiting inside the plane I spoke with the cabin crew and learned that they didn’t know when their next flight would be, as the few flights being operated by Lufthansa were spread out between all cabin crews, so the earliest possible next flight was last week of June – another sign of how hard the airlines are hit.
Entering Germany – and the EU; surprisingly (worryingly?) easy, given Johnny was coming from a COVID hotspot in California
The German passport control was efficient as always, and they immediately asked why we leaving the airport when they saw that we had Danish passports. I explained that we were driving in a rental car from Frankfurt to Denmark to avoid another long airport wait, and this resulted in the customs officer asking me to show evidence of my car booking.
I did so, and we were then let through – and I was pleased to see at least some level of control in terms of where we were going – and why – as nobody has asked any questions of us in San Francisco or Chicago.
After getting our luggage almost instantly followed by a struggle to get a luggage trolley which now cost money in Frankfurt (paid with my Danish visa card using touchless as the machine would not accept a US issued Amex or Visa card) we walked to the Sixt counter and picked up the car with no queuing or delay – and at 8am German time we left Frankfurt airport to start the drive towards Denmark.
(To see how vastly this entry experience differs from a Hong Kong business traveller arriving into Shanghai, please see our accompanying story "Hong Kong to Shanghai in 12 hours - by air. A business travel odyssey")
Denmark’s “hard border control”
The Autobahn was almost empty and we only encountered three classic roadwork sections and reached the Danish border at 3pm. We had read that Denmark has re-introduced “hard border control” and we got stopped and had to show our passports. However, we also expected to have to justify our trip back home by explaining we were going to my mum’s 80-year birthday, but once we showed our Danish passports the guard sent us along with a big smile and a welcome home message.
We reached our summerhouse on Taasinge at 5:45pm - 35 hours and 45 minutes after leaving home Friday evening in California – so, clearly a new record in terms of duration for a trip back home.
Next step is to be tested, and we booked appointments at the local hospital the next day at 11am and expected the result in two days. Until then we are in self quarantine and have not met with anyone yet, but if we test negative then we can move around freely like all the resident Danes and benefit from the very limited lockdown procedures they have left here in Denmark.
The end of a fairy tale – with questions to resolve
The trip back to Denmark went better than I had expected in terms of feeling safe and not being faced with any unexpected major challenges – but I do wonder about a few things when I consider how travel can restart with serious volumes again:
- How can we combine the fact that airports are designed to have a maximum number of people cramped together in a minimum amount of space when we need the opposite during a Covid-19 time period?
- How can we create consistent and easy to explain procedures for airport and airline staff as well as the passengers when almost always end up with different ways of doing things in each country, airport and airline service model?
- How can we ensure the many small businesses who operate in the airport can re-open safely and benefit from regular business again when they don’t have the space or the setting to operate in such a way?
- And finally, how can we ensure that everybody can return from a trip and share a positive story about how things actually are working – when we hopefully get back to 25% of old passenger volumes within the next three months (that's pretty optimistic Johnny!) – this will require some serious common sense approach by all parties involved – and I am not convinced we as an industry are ready to do so?
With all that said – let me end this story with my favorite quote – it is a statement made famous by Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish fairy tale writer, and it simply says
"To travel is to live"
I cannot imagine a world without free and easy travel – and I wish for all of you that you will be able to travel safely again very soon and enjoy the freedom of flying through the air at full altitude
(PS Johnny, you still have to get back to the US.
We look forward to hearing about the return journey.
We hope it’s as easy and a consistent experience - and even a bit quicker?)