Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Every military family stationed overseas knows the story: traveling thousands of kilometers back to America for the summer, dragging gifts for family from your host nation. This past month I made the same trek from South Korea to Michigan, which was no small feat. The journey back to the States is usually a little stressful, and never the same as the last, but this time it was very different thanks to our good friend Coronavirus. Between getting your Exception to Policy (ETP) to travel and hoping your connecting flight doesn't get cancelled, it's much more work and stress than usual as your travels deviate so far from pre-COVID "normal."
I'll start from the origin of our travels, Incheon International Airport in South Korea. We arrived at the airport to an apocalyptic scene. There was practically nobody else checking in. The flight listing signs showed cancelled flights one after another, with few on-time arrivals and departures in between. We wore disposable masks that we switched out every five hours because they were less heavy and stuffy than the Vogmasks from the PX.
We had to be medically cleared at a sectioned-off area of the airport because we were traveling to the United States. There we filled out a questionnaire for each person in our family; it included questions about our symptoms, where we had travelled, and what type of medications we were taking. The attendant signed the questionnaire and a card that said we had passed our temperature check. Both of these documents had to go with our passports when we went through passport control. Our temperatures were taken two more times, at security and as we boarded the plane. We had to wear masks, social distance, and use hand sanitizer often. It only took 45 minutes to go from the short medical examination to our gate in one of the busiest airports in the world.
From Incheon we flew to Narita, an airport in Tokyo, with Asiana Airlines. It was a short two hour and 45-minute flight. The seats were spread out, with one between each passenger. All of the snacks and meals were packaged to prevent contact, but open drinks like tea and coffee were served. There were also wipes handed out for our seats, tray tables, and TV screens. When we disembarked, everyone who was transferring got off first while those whose final destination was Japan had to undergo another medical examination before going to quarantine for two weeks.
Incheon Int' l was nothing compared to how empty Narita Airport was. At least there were stores and restaurants open at Incheon; at Narita you were lucky to find an open kiosk. In the bathrooms there were no paper towels, and the hand dryers were turned off to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. When they checked our boarding passes before getting on the plane, we scanned them ourselves to prevent the person-to-person transmission of the virus. We boarded the plane from back to front, and the flight attendants handed out individually wrapped Purell hand sanitizer wipes.
The leg from Narita to San Francisco was our longest at almost nine hours. Not nearly my longest flight ever, but long enough to exhaust you. We flew United Airlines on the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, a plane that usually seats 296. However, on our flight there were probably only 50 passengers, so I got a whole row to myself. Any military kid's dream; I got to lay down and actually sleep. As on our previous flight, our snacks and meals all had been pre-prepared, but open drinks weren't served like on Asiana. Honestly, I would have risked getting Corona for some coffee because I had been traveling almost 10 hours at this point.
I don't have much to say about San Francisco, our layover was only an hour and a half. This airport was a bit busier than Incheon or Narita, and for the first time during our trip we saw people without masks that were ignoring social distancing guidelines. The "welcome to America" and "thank you for your service" from the border officer was the only thing that we encountered from pre-COVID normalcy. The flight from San Francisco to Chicago was also on United, but this time there was no concept of social distancing. We still scanned our boarding passes ourselves, but the people in line were standing pretty close together, even for non-Corona standards. Some were wearing masks improperly, rendering them completely useless.
The preventative measures put in place in previous airports were nonexistent at O'Hare International in Chicago. While Incheon, Narita, and San Francisco were nowhere near half capacity, O'Hare was packed. Almost no one was wearing masks, and all seats by gates were filled. Lines weren't distanced, and it was clear that no one cared about physical contact and transmission.
We finished our journey at Ford Int'l in Michigan, at 30 and a half hours of traveling. Honestly, I'm not surprised by the lack of compliance with airline, airport, state, and federal regulations in the United States, just taken aback. In Korea, regulations were super strict and everyone followed them. In America, they don't even require a quarantine period. My family is still going to isolate as much as possible for the next 14 days, but it makes you wonder if maybe this is the reason for high Corona rates in the U.S.
Each airline had different regulations to prevent the spread of Corona, and some were enforced more strictly than others, but even all three of our United flights had different guidelines. The one constant was that all of our planes were deep cleaned between each departure. None of this caused any delays, as you would expect. In fact, all four of our flights boarded and landed early.
The advice I can give for traveling during Coronatimes is to be flexible and understand that this is all temporary. Know that everyone is frustrated, not just you. Try to wear a mask and social distance, not just for yourself but for others too. Good luck to those that got an ETP to travel this summer!