The emails from Wizzair kept pouring in.
First, it was a reassurance of the new regulations about flying during the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Then it was a request to fill out transit forms that we would hand in upon arrival at Vienna Airport. Then a reminder of the regulations, which included the mandatory use of masks, a refresher course on social distancing in the airport, and an explanation of what Wizzair is doing to sanitize their planes.
We left a day earlier than our flight. There isn’t much to do around the isolated Billund Airport – you can, of course, go to Legoland or stay in exorbitantly expensive Lego-themed hotels – so we decided to explore the town of Vejle, known for “The Wave,” its famous residential complex on the edge of the fjord, and for its superior shopping.
In Denmark, masks were never compulsory – unlike in Czech Republic or even in New York, for example. As an expat, it had been strange and surreal to witness the differences between my beloved heart-homes: How they approached the pandemic, what they had to do to fend it off. But I couldn’t relate. Although Ondra and I would wear masks in the most crowded places, we would receive stares. Since Danes felt they didn’t need to wear masks, they thought the people wearing them were sick themselves, rather than trying to protect those around them.
Travel is a good – and, at times, required – time to mask up. Having this experience for essentially the first time, I actually found it calmed me. I felt we were doing something important. And once we started approaching the airport and seeing more and more people with masks, it felt not only appropriate, but considerate – something that public mask-wearers have known for a while.
A lot has changed in society since the start of the pandemic. Signs in places of major traffic, like supermarkets, display health guidelines and exhort people to stay home if they feel sick. You can find dispensers of hand sanitizer in most major places. To Denmark’s credit, many shops and restaurants designate a door attendant who offers you sanitizer upon entrance (and/or requires you to do so before going further).
And these regulations did not stop us from enjoying our short stop in friendly and colorful Vejle. We got some great pictures with The Wave and visited Skyttehushaven, a garden built on a little ripple of the shoreline with a gazebo that affords a great view of the harbor, intimate circles of birch trees, and an aviary! Then we walked into the buzzing streets of the town with its many cheerful alleyways.
We stayed in a cozy B&B along the water line. I was particularly curious how hotels and others in the industry would respond to people’s concerns about the virus, but reassuring people about the hygiene of their accommodation is now a new standard – and not necessarily a bad thing in general!
The best part, apart from the cloud-soft beds, was the romantic breakfast in our room overlooking the fjord.
When it was time to leave for our flight, we re-outfitted ourselves with our masks and made our way from B&B to the airport. It was at the hybrid train/bus station that we started seeing much larger numbers of people wearing masks and heading the same way we were.
For me, the worst thing about the mask is that people can’t see you smile. A few times, I tried to smile at a child or return a stranger’s smile only to realize that they can only see my eyes. (I have probably creeped out a lot of small children in the last few days.)
The situation at the airport was relatively streamlined. We were lucky to fly from Billund (I wouldn’t want it any other way, at this point) because it’s exactly as small and quiet “post”-pandemic as it always is! Overall, it seemed airport staff did their best to follow guidelines without making it stressful for the flyers.
When we entered the airport, we were welcomed by an employee wearing a face shield ready to direct people to the proper desk or check-in machine. Hand sanitizer dispensers were spread liberally throughout the main hall. Nearly all employees wore masks and/or face shields – the few who weren’t were behind a glass panel that is becoming more and more common in shops and cafés throughout Europe, particularly at check-out/pay points (I’ve since seen them in both Denmark and Czech Republic, so I assume they are quite universal at this point).
Security was as usual; the only difference was that we were required to stand apart in the line. You could sanitize your hands before putting your belongings through the belt and after retrieving them.
Once through, we relaxed a little in the small shopping area, punctuated by Lego figures, just before the gates. Billund is truly tiny – it’s my ideal airport hands down. There’s lots of space to sit, many bathrooms, and no running across the building for your gate (like in Vienna, Hamburg, Copenhagen…)
Once it was time to board, we lined up at the gate separated by colored markers on the floor. The gate attendant was behind another glass screen, but it was relatively easy to scan our boarding passes and show passports as normal.
I was certainly curious how things would look once we were on the plane. That’s where social distancing really went out the window. As can be expected of a low-cost airline like Wizzair, there was no real attempt to space people apart. Although there were certainly more people than I expected to fly, I found myself in a full row of three strangers even though there were tons of completely empty rows. Thankfully, once everyone was boarded, I was able to move over to a window seat with a space between me and the person on the aisle.
I don’t have any way of knowing whether the airplane had truly been sanitized beforehand, but it looked clean enough to the naked eye. I was pleasantly surprised to find we left on time either way!
Unlike we were told, we did not receive sanitizing wipes at the beginning of the flight. The somewhat nervous-looking attendants (just my imagination?) wore masks, served snacks, and helped people as best they could despite the added stress I imagine they must be dealing with in these times (my heroes!).
I was extremely proud of the many flyers for keeping their masks on – as required – the whole flight. Although it did start to feel a bit stuffy after a while, this is a small price to pay for protecting others’ safety. Honestly, knowing how gross airplanes usually are, I felt better wearing a mask in general and might adopt it as my standard. Still, our flight was less than 2 hours. I can’t imagine at this point what it would be like to fly to the U.S. for 7 hours.
Who will invent the super-breathable masks tailored to the travelers of the future?
When we arrived in Vienna, two things surprised us:
- No one ever collected the transit forms we were asked to fill out ahead of time! Big oversight.
- There was a large, contact-less temperature monitor (a much larger machine than the one you’ve probably seen held to people’s foreheads on the street in photos from around the world) before the entrance to the baggage claim. It apparently had a large range because all you had to do was walk through a field and the guard-like attendants could monitor the feedback on a large screen. When we had almost left the hall to enter Arrivals, it went off, beeping loudly and flashing red lights 😬
Otherwise, it was not very intimidating – and on the whole, the experience was easier than expected.
You are supposed to wear masks in the Arrivals hall whether or not you flew – i.e. if you came to pick someone up, you should also wear a mask. The overwhelming majority of people complied. A small percentage of people wore their masks below their nose (to breathe better?), which is not really the point 😛
I think I would have felt better if there were attendants specifically designated to ask people to adjust their masks throughout the hall, but when I think about it a little more, this kind of “social policing” is not very European.
At the same time, there is a lot of signage everywhere with information about Covid-19. I find the differences in language choice between countries very interesting. Whereas the reigning phrase in Denmark translates to, “Take care of each other,” the view from Vienna airport was “Stay safe,” whereas in Czech Republic it seems to be, “Be considerate.”
All countries ask residents to “Keep your distance.”
People in my little corner of South Moravia seem to be moving forward happily with their lives yet with caution. The pubs are open, people are in the street. Occasionally you see someone with a mask; although CZ had some of the strictest regulations, masks are no longer required after the final phase of reopening. In shops, people seem to keep at a distance by default, which I appreciate.
There you have it, folks. After a couple of days in transit, we are finally back in Czech Republic to visit family and manage visa issues.
Around Europe, the economy is not yet recovering as quickly as I expected. Although people are traveling and taking holidays, it’s important to remember not to rush back to travel as normal because there is still the potential for a large second wave in the fall.
If you followed the evergreen advice of “Be kind and considerate” during the worst of the pandemic in Europe, the best thing to do is continue following that advice through the year – and always.