First of all, I love travelling. Always have.
I was one and a half years’ old when I first boarded a plane, and in the 20-plus years since I’ve visited approximately 18 countries, so travelling abroad has always been part of my DNA. One of the things I love the most about travelling to a different destination is the excitement, the joy and the anticipation when you board the plane, knowing that when those doors open again, you’ll be in a different place – whether that’s a place that you love to return to (for me it has to be Cagliari) or somewhere brand new - for me the moment the aircraft doors opened at Malaysia's KLIA Airport was pretty special.
Having said that, my latest experience was somewhat different.
No normal trip
For personal reasons, I needed to fly back from the UK to my home country of Italy on 27th April, as some would say during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in both countries. I was born and raised in a small village in North-West Italy, a few hours from the French border and despite having studied, worked and lived in other countries, Italy will always be home for me.
To travel home after weeks of isolation was not a decision I took lightly, but when the ability to do so came, through a special initiative with the Italian government I knew I had to take it.
Thanks to excellent communications led by the Italian Embassy in London, I knew that the only carrier that was allowed to fly toItaly during the lockdown was Alitalia (it’s our national carrier after all), and that the few available flights from London were flying to Rome Fiumicino (a move by the Italian government to gather all flights bringing Italians home from overseas into one airport hub, mitigating the risk of spreading the virus).
On the day of the flight, for the first time in as long as I could remember, I wasn’t excited to travel to the airport and get through the security checks. I was scared, and most importantly, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen once I got there.
As Alitalia suggested, I went to Heathrow Terminal 4, three hours ahead of my flight as I wasn’t able to check-in online and they had already warned me of the numerous documents I had to fill in to be able to go back to Italy.
Once I got to Terminal 4, the thing that hit me most: the silence. The silence was palpable and the terminal was a complete ghost town. I’ve travelled many times through this terminal and I’ve never seen anything like it – you could even hear the sound of your own steps.
Due to Alitalia regulations, we were required to wear a face mask during the entire length of the journey, from entering the departing airport to exiting the arrival airport.
Boarding and the flight
When it was time to board our flight, we were asked to form a queue in front of the gate and there were two people waiting for us (both wearing face masks): one was checking your temperature with an infrared scanning device and the other one was collecting the forms we had to fill in. What struck me the most was that they wrote your body temperature on your ticket, and that they put the date and sign it. No one was allowed on the aircraft if their body temperature was above 37.5 degrees Celsius.
To keep all passengers 1m apart, Alitalia only allowed two passengers per row, both seated at the window seat. It was the strangest feeling when I got to my seat and, not only not one was seating next to me, but I also found plenty of space in the overhead locker. While this is definitely one of the perks of the newly introduced regulations by airlines it was a little lost on me in the strangeness of it all.
No food or drink was distributed by the flight crew and passengers were asked to limit their movements up and down the cabin to contain the spread of the virus. Kudos to those amazing four Alitalia flight attendants that were on my flight as their professionalism and charisma in challenging circumstances was outstanding. They made everyone feel safe and calm during at time when some were understandably anxious.
Touchdown, but not as you know it
Once we got to Rome Fiumicino Airport, we were asked to disembark the aircraft in groups of 20 as we had to take a bus to the terminal, and we needed to respect 1m of social distancing at all times. When entering the terminal, our body temperature was taken by another infrared scan and we had to go through a two-step police check to make sure all our documents were correct, but most importantly, that we were traveling for a good reason, since all non-essentials travels were prohibited at that time.
I then had to spend the night at the airport since my connecting flight for Milan was the following morning and, according to the Italian government’s guidelines, Italian nationals coming back home from abroad weren’t allowed to leave the airport until they got to their final destination. It certainly wasn’t your usual layover, but that is a story for another time.
What I will always remember about my journey during a global pandemic was the silence, the extensiveness of the checks (a good thing), but also that feeling of uncertainty around me.
I personally cannot wait to replace my most recent feelings from a very different travel experience with that excitement and joy about travelling once again when this virus is all over, because while I give my admiration to all those who helped to get me home in these unprecedented times, this travel was anything but exciting.