Have you ever fled Africa? What about been thrown out? I have… but I’m not sure which. As Nigeria confirmed more cases of COVID-19, the country decided to close its doors to flights from the US and Europe. My consulting engagement ended abruptly, and I was sent home on one of the last flights out. While I was disappointed to leave before my job was done, there are 50,000 Americans abroad who wish they could get home right now, so I know how very fortunate I am.
I was sent home from Abuja, Nigeria, through London Heathrow. I landed in the US at New York JFK, where I went through customs (and spent the night) before finally arriving at LAX. Home Sweet Home! At 40-hours door-to-door, it was the longest trip this seasoned international traveler has ever taken, but I was grateful for it. Airlines were canceling entire continents – it was hardly the time to be particular about layovers.
Nigeria did a remarkable job of staving off the global pandemic for as long as it did. When I arrived in Abuja on March 1, their health screening was already more advanced than what I experienced returning the US three weeks later. First, they had everyone fill out a “voluntary” health declaration and take a mandatory walk by a thermal imaging camera, to detect any passengers arriving with fever before travelers entered the main customs area. Then they photographed each passenger while confirming our in-country destination. At every shopping mall I visited, our temperature was taken before we could be admitted. And I don’t think I entered any business in Nigeria without a compulsory dose of hand sanitizer. Unfortunately, COVID-19 can be asymptomatic for days, and more and more infected international travelers entered the country. Wisely, they eventually ended international air travel.
One day before, on the flight from Abuja to London, everything seemed pretty normal, much as it had during my weeks in Africa. The reality of the virus had not caught up with them yet, and it could have been mistaken for any normal flight, with slightly fewer people. I felt pretty stoked to get an empty middle seat between me and the next passenger.
Reality started to hit when I landed at Heathrow. Almost everything was deserted, security and customs were a breeze, and most of the restaurants were closed. Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food was open, and I was the fourth customer in the entire restaurant.
As pleased as the staff may have been to see me and hear my American accent – surely I would leave a nice tip at a slow time – the feeling quickly turned to horror. I ordered lunch and then proceeded to do the most un-British thing on the planet: I called my mother and cried, right there at the table, about my fears for my new Nigerian friends and colleagues. Despite my attempts to be discreet, I’m sure my improper behavior nearly gave them a heart attack.
As lunch came to a close, my PLUS gummy edible was trying to kick, so I headed to the gate while I still had my wits about me. After boarding, which went very quickly because the flight was practically empty, British Airways went through the cabin with a World Health Organization-approved aerosol aircraft disinfectant spray. The staff wore gloves at most times, but I didn’t see much PPE on passengers – significantly less than when I left LAX a few weeks earlier, where maybe 50% of travelers had masks on.
Most rows of nine seats had one person. I had a window, all the room I could ask for, and I was in the head flight attendant’s section. That man was promoted for a reason! I was given some champagne before the flight, despite my economy seat. With so few passengers, every service was ultra-fast, and they didn’t run out of anything. It was as pleasant as a flight could be – as were all of my flights.
Of course, I worry greatly about the exceptional staff. The airlines have enjoyed five years of record profits, including “$4.6 billion from baggage fees and $2.9 billion from reservation change fees” in one year, in the US alone. After taking ever every opportunity to nickel and dime customers, maybe they should have saved their pennies for a rainy day, instead of blowing through the surplus cashflow buying back their stock. Now, the airlines are pushing the burden of a downturn onto their front line teams, who not only may get sick but also might lose their job (despite massive government assistance to their employers).
Landing in New York at JFK was much easier than expected, presumably because it was about 10 pm. The lines at customs were not long, and health screening was a joke. Before exiting the jetway, we had to fill out a health form and have our temperature taken. One of the two ladies taking temperatures and reviewing the forms had her mask under her nose, so… we can reasonably assume the rest of the process was as well-informed and stringent.
Unexpectedly, customs was a breeze. Friends and family sent me article after article about the hours-long waits as the US streamlined international arrivals through only five approved airports in the nation. I hadn’t bothered to get a hotel room on the assumption it would take much longer, so I was left to wander around JFK in the middle of the night for hours. Did you know they have zero chairs outside security, in the check-in area? There was no place to sit but the floor, and I was carrying my body weight in luggage to recheck.
They practiced social distancing on the flight from JFK to LAX, spacing passengers as far apart as possible. Everyone traveling alone had a bank of three seats to themselves. As much as space permitted we were one to a row, and the persons in the rows in front and behind were on the opposite side of the aisle. I got a free breakfast on American Airlines, which is unheard of. The flight attendants in first class even brought us warm cookies. It was as pleasant as I imagine the glory days of air travel when everything was luxurious and free (and they thought nothing of smoking on a plane). I was concerned about going through LAX in the middle of a pandemic – that place is filthy on a good day – but everything was fast and easy for their few travelers.
The day after I flew out, the Nigerian government officially halted flights from the US and 12 other countries with a relatively high number of cases of COVID-19. (The irony of an African country putting a travel ban on the US is too rich for me to overlook.) With no planes allowed in, it’s unclear when I would have been able to get out. I have since received daily emails from The Department of State, asking if I want to join their list of people trying to get home to the US. They don’t have a plane or guarantee passage home, and they are clear that they cannot assist in any way with travel or expenses. It’s inconceivable that the State Department had no plan for this, despite months of warning about coronavirus. I always assumed that the US Government would get Americans home, no matter what. This virus has crippled international travel so greatly that they have been working on it for a week and a half with no solution. I keep close to my heart everyone who is abroad at this time and can’t get home.