AINsight: Travel in the Time of Coronavirus

 - October 30, 2020, 9:41 AM
Matt Thurber

Well, I did it. I accepted an invitation to visit Dassault Aviation in France, which meant I’d have to book airline travel to Paris. Having recently moved to the Portland, Oregon area, this would mean a fairly long flight overseas.

I started where I usually do, checking prices on Kayak and Google Trips to see which airline offered the best price. While I normally look for the best price first, there were some other considerations that applied while planning a trip during the Covid-19 pandemic.

First, there weren’t as many choices as previously. The lowest-cost flight was on Icelandair, but it didn’t look like that airline offered a free ticket change, and if I had to cancel for some not unlikely reason, I needed to be able to use the funds for future travel. It turned out that Delta Air Lines, although costing about one-third more, was the best bet as I could change the flight for no added fee. It’s amazing to see big airlines like Delta changing their tune on customer service and being more flexible, but it’s too bad it took a pandemic for the airlines to realize that it was time to step up their service game.

The flight would depart from Portland, with stops in Seattle and Amsterdam. The tricky part was meeting the requirements to travel to France. Not just anyone from the U.S. can go there as like many countries, France is not exactly enamored with the U.S.’s handling of the pandemic and burgeoning Covid-19 cases. As it turned out, France was having its own problem with rising numbers of infected people.

In my case, the French authorities agreed with Dassault that I would be considered an “essential worker” for the visit, so Dassault was able to secure permission from the French ministry of the interior. Along with the letter from the ministry was a formal invitation letter from Dassault. Provided I could meet any other requirements, it looked like the trip was a go.

Now began the confusing part. From what I could find online, I needed a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) Covid test 72 hours before departure. I decided to try the local Covid testing scene a few weeks before the trip to see how long it took to get results.

I did my first test at a local Rite-Aid pharmacy. This involved making an appointment then stopping at the drive-through window at the set time. The pharmacy technician handed me a swab kit and instructed me how to sample my nostrils, then put the swab into a test tube partially filled with liquid. The nostril sample involved swiping the swab in both nostrils, nothing like the deep near-brain-scraping I’d seen on television that other people went through.

It took about four days for the results, which wasn’t encouraging because I needed my results within 72 hours of departure. That meant if I took my test at hour 71, I might not get the results back in time. This test was easily available, but only offered limited reservations, and there was no way to guarantee I could even schedule the test at the proper time. I needed to find a Covid-19 PCR test that would give results in time for my departure but that was also done within 72 hours.

I searched my local area and found a Walgreen’s test that would allow much more flexibility in timing, so I scheduled the test on the Friday before my Monday morning departure, at about hour 69. This was also a PCR test with the shallow nasal swab, and they could only say I’d get the results in two to seven days, with 2.5 days the average. That was cutting it close, and I wasn’t comfortable that it would work out in time.

Finally, I found a local Legacy GoHealth Urgent Care that offered PCR testing with results in 15 minutes. I booked that test on Saturday, at about the 46-hour mark prior to departure. When I arrived at the facility, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I was ushered in, and with the rapidity of the test. I was assured that this was a PCR test, and like the Walgreen’s test, this required swabbing inside the nostrils, not deep inside my nose. As promised, the results were fast, with a negative result delivered in just 10 minutes.

As it turned out, the Walgreen’s results arrived in time. When I saw the result, which was negative, the description confirmed it was a nucleic amplification test, which includes PCR. It also noted that “This test has not been FDA [Food and Drug Administration] cleared or approved. This test has been authorized by FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization.” I had no idea whether that met the requirements for this trip, but because the document said “PCR” I decided that it would have to do, plus I also had the results of the GoHealth PCR test.

At Portland International Airport on Monday morning, the Delta agent asked for my Covid test results and the permission letter from the French interior ministry. That was in French, and the agent disappeared for a few minutes to check out the paperwork. She did ask me to show here where my test said “PCR” on the results. After the paperwork check, she made some notes in my file and I had my boarding pass.

The first leg on an Embraer E175 from Portland to Seattle was about 50 percent full, so there were plenty of unoccupied two-seat rows. The Seattle to Amsterdam leg was on an Airbus A330, again about 50 percent full. What was most interesting was to see how accommodating the Delta flight attendants were to passengers who wanted to switch seats. The flight attendants even asked some passengers if they would like to switch to open rows for more comfort. I was able to sit in an open two-seat row, but there was no concern about the fact that I wouldn’t be in my originally assigned seat and thus harder to contact trace in case of a virus outbreak. Other than everyone wearing masks, the flight was normal, with regular meal and drink service.

Arriving at Amsterdam Tuesday morning, I had to go through passport control but thankfully not another security check. This step proved to be the most stringent of the trip, with the officer asking where I was going and why and also scrutinizing the interior ministry document. He did not ask to see any Covid test results.

The flight to Paris on an A319 was quite full, and I caught a lucky break. For some unaccountable reason, almost all passengers were invited to board at once, unlike the rear-to-front boarding process in the U.S. As my seat was in the rear and I was not first in line, by the time I boarded all the overhead bins were full. As I walked past my seat looking for an open bin, I could see that my seat was already taken by another passenger who may have assumed that he could use my window seat instead of his assigned middle seat.

At the direction of the helpful flight attendants, I had to paddle upstream to the front of the aircraft to see if there was an open overhead bin. I could see there were plenty of open seats with no occupied middle seats next to them toward the front, so once my bag was stowed, I mentioned to one of the flight attendants that it appeared someone was sitting in my seat and then offered to grab one of the more attractive seats toward the front. She kindly acquiesced, and the short flight was pleasant.

The big surprise was the lack of detailed scrutiny by passport control in France. The officer stamped my passport, and that was it. I didn’t need any of the papers in my growing sheaf of invitations, permissions, and test results. It was kind of anticlimactic.

To this point, I must say that I was surprised how easy it was to travel internationally during this pandemic. Rather than roadblocks, everyone I encountered has been most helpful, and the entire process has shown me that it is possible to travel and get some face-to-face business done.

However…as I write this, I’m in my hotel in France. I had planned to take a couple of days off before flying home for some hiking, but French President Emmanuel Macron just announced a new lockdown because of rapidly rising coronavirus cases. All bars and restaurants must close and people must avoid going outside unless for an essential purpose, although schools remain open. Regional travel is prohibited too.

It appears as though I’m about to find out exactly how flexible that Delta Air Lines ticket actually is when I try to change my flight to return early. And while I hope the return trip is as smooth, I’m prepared for the unexpected and will add an update with the details of that journey once it’s over.

Read Part 2, the trip back to the U.S.