From Brussels to Malaga: traveling in times of pandemic

People wearing protective face masks are seen at Charleroi international airport, Brussels, Belgium. [Aris Oikonomou/EPA]

As the summer kicks in and EU countries have been easing travel restriction, I decided to experience what it is like to travel during a pandemic by flying from Brussels to Malaga in Spain.

Although my final destination was Granada, I was going to fly to Malaga to avoid transfers. The flight departed at 14:45 on Monday (29 June) from Charleroi Airport, around 60km from Brussels. And that’s where the trouble began.

Normally, there is a shuttle service from the city to the terminal but it is not available until 1 July. It would take me almost three hours to go by train to Charleroi city and then take a bus that may or may not be operational – I am unable to find out. I ask a friend to drive me instead. 

The car park is practically empty. Only a couple of families arrive at the same time as we do.  

The first control I find is located in an adjacent marquee that was installed to check luggage before accessing the terminal, following the terrorist attacks at Brussels Airport in 2016. 

Now, on top of the regular security control, you have to take a temperature check as well. If above 38 degrees, you cannot go through. 

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Inside the airport

Once at the airport, there are signs everywhere to remind you that wearing a mask is mandatory, that you should respect social distancing at all times and wash your hands as much as possible. Dispensers of hand sanitizer are installed all around the building. 

There’s only a handful of people wandering around, while flight attendants hide behind a screen in the check-in area.

I arrived a bit earlier than usual as the authorities have been warning about potential delays in the security control but here, all goes smoothly as well. All officers wear protective equipment of some sort too.

Inside the terminal, it’s a ghost airport. All the shops are closed, only one restaurant serves food and all the gates operating are concentrated in a narrow area at the entrance. 

A few dozen people sit around the empty restaurants or the waiting rooms. Most of them are wearing masks, only taking them off to eat or drink.

However, the minute passengers start to arrive, respecting social distancing becomes increasingly difficult, particularly in the restaurant area. When the boarding starts, it’s the same old bustling procedure, I see no difference from the pre-COVID times, except for the masks.

My flight was FR1916, operated by Ryanair and it was full. No seats were freed to ensure the safe distance between passengers, but wearing a mask was mandatory and everybody respected the rules.

In its recommendations, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency urged aircraft operators to ensure social distancing is practised at all time. “Where social distancing is not possible, the use of face masks for the passengers should be considered as an alternative,” the text read.

Contact tracing on arrival 

Once we touched down in Malaga, there was a similar scenario: a deserted airport, with everyone wearing protective equipment. Here though, not many signs are displayed and it is unclear whether wearing a mask is mandatory. 

When approaching the exit, I am asked to fill a form stating my flight number and where I was seated, so that I can be traced in case of infection. I also need to fill in what countries I have visited in the past two weeks, whether I have been in contact with COVID-19 patients or have had symptoms myself to evaluate whether I am a potential risk. 

Furthermore, I was requested to provide contact information to make sure I am reachable and must promise to quarantine myself if I show any signs of infection.

There is one more temperature control before accessing the luggage area. People waiting for passengers are not allowed in the airport and have to wait outside.

I wore a comfortable mask and the flight had passed very quickly. However, I felt anxious about sharing a small, closed space with a large number of people, after spending three months at home, bombarded by advice to limit social contact and take all possible precautions.   

If everyone followed the rules properly, the risks of infections would be certainly reduced, at least in airports.

However, on Monday, there were a total of eight flights departing from Charleroi, only three that afternoon, and just two of them around the same time. It is hard to imagine how those same measures could be applied in normal circumstances, with thousands of people at the airport.

Evidently, they will have to be tweaked, or just disregarded.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Benjamin Fox]

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