Boy am I glad to see Gummersbach. The town in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, 36,000 feet below me and 50 kilometres east of Cologne, is apparently famous for its first league handball team VfL Gummersbach.
But for me, it’s more famous for being the first town I spotted after loading the inflight map during my first international flight in almost five months. I’m onboard Qatar Airways bound for Doha and then Hong Kong, and how good, how very, very good, it feels to be back on the road and doing what I have done for the past 33 years.
I confess that I was wary of making this long trip, one that involves three airports, two flights and a whole lot of transit time. But I have been super-impressed by the efforts of almost every industry stakeholder that I have encountered in terms of maximising customer confidence in the safety of the journey. I said almost. More of that in a moment.
I flew out of Heathrow Terminal 5 (Qatar Airways has been shifted from T2), where from go to whoa there was clear, reassuring signage, plentiful availability of hand sanitiser, and generally a firm but measured approach to passenger safety. Full marks. The same applies to the fine Qatar Airways check-in staff, all properly masked even when many passengers were not (see below).
Full marks too for most of the store and food & beverage staff I met, for their pleasant, unobtrusive but prudent presence in their respective outlets. But no marks at all for the Travelex staff (pictured) for their casual wearing of what I am sure are compulsory masks. One with her mask worn on her chin like a Johnny Depp goatee and the other with it covering her mouth but not her nose. Even in a depressed travel market, think how many consumers those two staff are engaging with every day.
I don’t like to call staff out – they are no doubt diligent, hard-working people doing a tough job in the current climate – but this time I feel I must. In that casualness, they are letting down every other employee at Heathrow as well as endangering themselves and their customers.
Just as one passenger I met at security check did. Like me, he had his hand luggage scrutinised during a secondary check. His was a huge plastic bag stuffed with oversized toiletries that would never have passed muster, global pandemic or not. And yet while the admirably patient security officer checked each and every questionable item, the offending (and offensive) passenger stood inches away from him wearing his mask around his chin and mouth only.
I don’t know what the poor security guy made of all this, but I know what I did. “Pull the mask over your nose,” I said to him as he walked away with what remained of his possessions after several of them had been binned. He looked at me as if I had just accused him of child molestation and then (to my surprise) put the mask in the correct position. Too little too late. That young, decent, hard-working security man had been compromised and therefore, potentially, so had others.
This is where we go so wrong so often in the west. A mask is there for a reason. You don’t wear half an oven mitt to protect yourself from burns. It’s about personal responsibility and care for others. Only then can we beat this curse called COVID-19. No mask (properly) in place, no security clearance should be the ruling.
If you love the travel retail industry as I do, walking through Heathrow is a sobering experience. At least now there are numerous stores and F&B outlets open – bravo to all concerned – but there are many closed, some of them owned, run or staffed by people I know well.
The steady opening up of travel in recent weeks has taken away some of the ghost town look of a couple of months back when you half expected to see tumbleweed blowing through the walkthrough duty free store but there’s still a long way to go. However, we are getting there and huge credit to Heathrow and its partners for the work they have put in to create some sense of normality.
And so to the inflight experience. Every passenger boarding a Qatar Airways flight is now presented with a face shield at the gate. After the initial shock of seeing everyone wearing an unusual and definitively 2020 travel accessory that evokes a beekeeper’s garb, you quickly think, “Great. This is making us all a lot safer.”
The crew are all wearing masks, face shields and protective glasses. They are ultra-polite to a man and a woman. In my view they are heroes and heroines and I doff my cap to Qatar Airways for how magnificently it has performed throughout this crisis, in the process flying more air miles than any carrier on the planet.
As we fly over Gummersbach and later across places such as Batman, Damascus, Lake Tharthar and Hawr Ash Shubaychah, I count myself lucky to be flying again. Huge kudos to industry stakeholders such as Heathrow Airport and Qatar Airways for their efforts in encouraging us to fly again. It’s #Timefortravel and perhaps some of us in the industry need to lead from the front.
I’m overjoyed to be back doing what I love, back in the skies again. Nothing will keep me away so long in future.