My lockdown flight from London Heathrow to Tel Aviv
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My lockdown flight from London Heathrow to Tel Aviv

From El Al staff in full protective gear to filling out quarantine forms upon landing, Spencer Barnett talks about his surreal trip from London to Israel during the pandemic

Spencer Barnett with his son Louis on the plane
Spencer Barnett with his son Louis on the plane

As my son and I boarded our Heathrow plane to Ben Gurion airport, our temperatures were checked by an El Al crew member clad in full protective bodysuit. It was an alien procedure, replacing the usual warm welcome from the crew..

My time preceding this in the airport was equally as strange. Terminal 2, El Al’s home since the dramatic decline in air travel closed Terminal 4, was restricted to passengers only. Those who hadn’t donned their own masks and gloves were supplied them by the airport as a condition of entry. Once full of flyers, the airport was now an empty air hub with staff outnumbering passengers. The UK’s largest airport used to have an
aircraft take off or land every 45 seconds. I noticed just three other flights lit up on the departure screens.

Owing to the massive reduction in footfall, it wasn’t difficult to keep at least 2 metres apart – social distancing done for you thanks to our ghost town terminal. A noticeable number of Muslims clad in niqabs and headscarves punctuated the place in sharp contrast to my fellow passengers with their black hats and tallit. Two ancient peoples with decades of differences now uniform in medical masks and protective gloves in a joint fight against a new silent common enemy.

El Al staff in full protective gear

It was uncanny to see all the shops closed but for a single branch of Boots and WHSmith. With no duty-free shops or eateries open, the vital retail revenues airports so heavily depend on have dried up.

We departed on time at 4.50pm. I sat in premium economy with an impressive array of seat back entertainment. The inflight service was stripped back, offering very basic fare. A cold pre-packed hummus and red pepper sandwich and a bottle of water constituted meal service. Airlines have simplified their menu to reduce the chances of cross-contamination.

I strolled up to the galley area by the door by which I’d entered. The usual hum-drum of activity of the crew’s duties was lacking as this was no ordinary flight. Our pilots and cabin crew had set off from Tel Aviv at 3am.  They had first flown to Paris then to London and now back to Israel all with passengers on board.

Waiting to be screened at Ben Gurion

 

This would never have been permitted before this pandemic. The glow of the inflight map illuminated the otherwise dark cabin and charted our way across Europe. One thing we noticed about the plane was how much purer the air seemed in the cabin and how quiet the engines were.

The seatbelt sign signalled our initial descent over the eastern Mediteranean. Our hard-working crew, dressed more like a forensic team than flight attendants, discreetly prepared the cabin for landing. On the last leg of an 18-hour day, they were composed, quiet and charming.

A noticeable number of Muslims clad in niqabs and headscarves punctuated the place in sharp contrast to my fellow passengers with their black hats and tallit. Two ancient peoples with decades of differences now uniform in medical masks and protective gloves in a joint fight against a new silent common enemy.

More than anything, I was taken by the dedication of the staff and the spirit of El Al. On entering the terminal, I was asked to sit aside along with other non-Israeli passport holders. Two French speakers sat in my vicinity. This was the start of a lot of waiting and queuing, but not surprising as the airport was all but closed.

The usual process of passport control before the luggage hall had moved up to the area you enter after exiting the plane, making for a very different arrival experience.

Once past this point, I joined another queue in the circular concourse to complete online forms detailing my quarantine arrangements and contact details. This was followed by another queue waiting to have my temperature taken. The police were becoming angry as people failed to grasp the concept of queuing two metres apart. Then an incredibly slow queue snaking its way to a final check and briefing from another official.

Some 17,700, 28,200 and 26,200 Britons arrived in Israel in March, April and May last year. It’s been estimated that special permission has been granted to fewer than UK passport holders to enter Israel for the same three months this year.

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