Air travel is in terminal danger

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

During the political car crash of 2019, I couldn’t imagine ever agreeing with Theresa May. Yet last week she exhibited both principle and pragmatism — qualities sorely lacking in her capitulation to the conniving EU paradigm whereby Northern Ireland made Brexit supposedly insoluble. The legacy of that surrender, Ulster’s disastrously unworkable trade protocol, will wait for another day. I come to praise May, not to bury her.

The previous prime minister stressed to the Commons that ‘chaotic’ and ‘incomprehensible’ international travel restrictions, more oppressive this summer than last, send the message that Britain is ‘shut for business’. She upbraided the government for failing to register three truths: ‘we will not eradicate Covid-19 from the UK’; ‘variants will keep on coming’ and if we refuse to open up travel until there are no more mutations anywhere ‘then we will never be able to travel abroad ever again’; and Britons will keep dying from Covid in future, ‘as 10,000 to 20,000 do every year from flu’. In declining to take advantage of a spectacular vaccination programme (which I predicted would take years; sometimes it’s simply delicious to be wrong), we are in danger, she warned, of losing a British aviation sector altogether. Imagine, an island from which you can only depart with a pair of oars. Gosh, it’s almost like time travel — backwards.

At last May’s hectoring schoolmarmery was put to good use. In the improbably sustained hanky-twisting over a waning pandemic, however, this rare voice of reason, by definition, will be ignored. On the cusp of my own daring escape from Fussbudget Britain, I still found her impotent admonitions a wan comfort. This week, touch wood — as fomite transmission of the coronavirus occurs only in about one in 10,000 cases, touching wood should be fairly safe — I fly to New York.

Modern air travel being trying at the best of times, which these are not, imagine the degree of dread with which I approach a journey once merely tedious, now horrific. Since purchasing my ticket, I’ve been bombarded by emails from Virgin Atlantic, full of italics, bullet points and screaming red ink, instructing what all I must and mustn’t do to fly, which I can’t say I prefer to advisories about how to select the halal meal preference.

After circling through a dizzying doom loop of inconclusive government and airport web pages to ascertain what kind of negative Covid test the US accepts, I booked a lateral flow at the terminal for three hours before take-off. That process took ‘only’ an hour and a half and cost ‘only’ 35 more quid. Then I was obliged to print out a declaration for the US that I’ve tested negative, even though I have to test negative to get on the plane — redundant bureaucracy that in Covid World is typical.

Between the Uber to Heathrow, the miserable loll about the airport, the flight, baggage claim and immigration, the taxi rank, and the taxi to Brooklyn — all on two gelatinous bites of chicken, because bankrupting airlines can no longer afford ‘amenities’ like nutrition — I will be required to mask up for 15 hours straight, by which time the flag of obsequiousness across my face will recall the ‘sea snot’ now smothering Turkish beaches.

I am six weeks out from double vaccination. Statistically, the risk of infection I pose to my fellow passengers is about on a par with the risk that I spontaneously combust. The primary risk those passengers pose to me is the very high likelihood that they spontaneously combust, for in the past year or so air rage incidents have been overwhelmingly occasioned by altercations over masks; in one such punch-up on a plane to San Diego last month, a bloodied flight attendant lost two teeth.

Ironically, considering that the primary reason I didn’t hesitate to get vaccinated in the first place was to be allowed on airplanes, current travel regulations make absolutely no allowance for vaccination status. I shouldn’t have to get a Covid test. I shouldn’t have to wear a mask. On return, I shouldn’t have to get another test to board the plane, to quarantine, or to take two more exorbitant PCR tests — whose swabs I already plan to stick not up my nose but belligerently under a tap.

Owing to the brisk air circulation on airplanes, more likely to poison you with engine fumes than diseased aerosols, ‘superspreading’ from air travel has been nearly non-existent. You’re probably safer at 36,000 feet than at sea level in a supermarket. Yet, perhaps playing to the party-pooperdom of staycationing scolds, this government has obsessively restricted air travel, even for the very citizens it’s made such a stupendous effort to vaccinate. Once more, we all have to get inoculated, and inoculation doesn’t matter. We all have to get tested, and tests don’t matter either, or air passengers wouldn’t have to suffocate for a full waking day behind sopping incontinence pads.

Granted, it’s fashionable to decry air travel as a luxury indulgence ‘the planet’ can no longer afford. Theresa and I — a compound subject I never thought I’d write — are sticking up for it. Affordable air travel is one of the most marvellous aspects of modern life.

I love living in London and still seeing friends and family in America every year. I’ve relished flying to international literary festivals, which have taken me to dozens of new countries, from Croatia to Singapore; the lame Zoom event, or non-event, that currently substitutes for an in-person appearance only barely improves on cancelling the whole shebang. For the UK’s economic, social and cultural health, it’s imperative to preserve a viable aviation industry, and that means at least letting fully vaccinated passengers skip all this dumb crap.

Meanwhile, wish me luck. Pointless regulations for their own sake shove an emotional cattle prod right up my bum. It was already the case that in security-theatre airports I become a danger to myself. Should the Shriver temper go south, I may be dumpily writing my next column back home in London after all.

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