Flying through the Pandemic

20 flights in 2020. That’s the number of flights I took during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

While we have already said goodbye to the year 2020, it seems that we are not going to be able to say goodbye to the pandemic soon and travel conditions are going to remain restricted. In fact, the new Covid-19 virus strain has imposed new travel bans on several countries. 

So rather than wait for conditions to go back to “normal” before traveling again, we can take a more proactive approach and travel under the “new normal.” Based on my experience flying domestically and internationally within the Philippines and United States, I found several options to travel by plane safely.

The author sits inside a 9-seater King Air 350.
In a commercial flight from Visayas to Manila, the author observed that the plane was fully-packed. In a flight from the United States to the Philippines, the author observed that there was social distancing of seats. In business class, passengers are seated alternately.

As of January 2021, there are several commercial flights that fly to and from different cities in the Philippines and abroad. For most cities, flights are not available daily (2-3 times a week only, etc.). Passengers must also check the travel requirements (PCR swab test, book confirmation, travel forms, etc) as these vary per destination. Some airlines also require an Antigen Test on the day of the flight before boarding. Those who test positive would not be allowed to proceed with the flight but can rebook, claim a refund, or obtain a travel credit. Be careful when booking promo tickets as these may have more stringent restrictions on rebooking or refunds. 

Cars can drive up next to the private plane so that travelers can skip crowds in airports.

Another option is to charter private planes. This is especially useful during stricter quarantine periods (e.g., Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine) when commercial flights are not available or too limited, or if you’re traveling in a large group of family or friends with high-risk individuals (senior citizens, people with compromised immunity or co-morbidities). 

The King Air 350 is one of the most commonly available private jets that can be chartered in the Philippines. It can transport passengers to domestic and international destinations.

There are several companies in the Philippines where private jets or helicopters can be chartered for domestic or international trips. These include Asian Air Safari, AirTaxiPH, and Pacific Global One Aviation Company. Asian Air Safari also offers additional services such as transportation to your final destination by limousine or helicopter, and booking arrangements at a hotel. A common plane to charter for domestic destinations within the Philippines is a King Air 350 which can carry nine passengers and requires two pilots. 

The author riding a 4-seater Cirrus in the United States.

Chartering a private plane does not exempt passengers from travel requirements imposed by the destination city. In addition, there will be documents that must be submitted by passengers so the aviation company can get clearance from the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines. However, passengers can avoid the risk of having to go through crowded airports since the plane departs from a private hangar and the procedure to get from the hangar’s lounge to the plane is very short. The number of luggage, hand-carried bags, and luggage weight per person are also less restricted, as long as they can fit in the aircraft. 

For closer destinations, travelers can also charter smaller planes like this 4-seater Cirrus.

Another option is to choose resort destinations that have their own chartered plane services. Some resorts that have their own plane services are Amanpulo, Balesin, and El Nido Resorts. A caveat about these planes though is that, in my experience, passengers have less space for social distancing and will require passengers from different families/groups to fly together. For instance, our 15-seat plane to Amanpulo was full and passengers were seated next to each other. Amanpulo requires passengers to submit a negative PCR Swab Test that was taken within 72 hours prior to the flight. Passengers are also required to undergo a medical examination on the day of the flight. For Balesin, only a negative Antigen Test is required to be presented prior to taking the flight. 

The 15-seater aircraft going to Amanpulo. Depending on the number of passengers, the plane may sometimes travel with full capacity.
The plane going to Amanpulo can seat 15 passengers. In this flight taken by the author, no seats are vacant.
Upon landing in Amanpulo, guests are taken directly to their casitas.

Whether you decide to take a commercial flight or a private jet, some studies indicate that the risk of acquiring Covid-19 during air travel is lower than in an office, classroom, supermarket, or commuter train (Sara Berg, 2020, citing Pombal et al., “Risk of COVID-19 During Air Travel”, JAMA. 2020; 324(17):1798. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.19108).  According to the JAMA Patient Page study, the airflow in today’s aircrafts are three times the amount mandated for infection control rooms in hospitals and the ventilation system of a plane can reduce the number of viral particulates in the air by 99.9%, thereby reducing Covid-19 risk transmission significantly compared to office buildings, restaurants or homes.

During my recent trip to El Nido, I read a sign that said: “We travel not to escape life but for life not to escape us” (author unknown). I hope that most people can travel again under the new normal, while escaping the Covid-19 risk.

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