Our Home Airport - 'COVID oblige'

last update: 10 December 2020

In mid-March 2020 we landed in our home airport when COVID-19 was still something of an unknown. But in early December 2020 we took a flight to Malaga, and things were quite different. Both our local carrier and our home airport had 'adapted' to both reduced demand and increased constraints.

COVID-19 hit both air travel and airports hard. Already by March 2020 global air traffic had dropped by more than 50%, and by April 2020 it had dropped by 90%. As people stopped travelling, non-aeronautical revenues also fell by 90% in Q2. In April 2020 two-thirds of the world's 20,000 aircraft were parked, and runways became storage areas.
For 2020 it was estimated that there had been a drop of 50% in passenger traffic (that's a loss of 4.6 billion tickets) and a 57% drop in airport revenues (that's a near $100 billion hole). At the time it was predicted that the recovery of the travel industry would lag the general economic recovery by up to 24 months. As things started to improve, many older, less fuel-efficient and expensive to maintain aircraft, were being quickly retired, e.g.
Boeing 747's.

Step One - ticketing options

Our local carrier provides the usual European city-hopper style services, plus a package holiday option. In fact, our flight to
Malaga was really just highjacked seats on a package tour service, i.e. no business class option, etc. So you might have daily flights to Berlin, Paris and London, alongside twice-weekly services to Cagliari, and a once-per-week service to Agadir, etc.

We will see below that
Spain required a negative PCR test to be carried out within 72 hours prior to arrival.

Given this requirement we decided to book a fully refundable ticket (FLEX). There were a few other additional 'perks' for FLEX passengers, i.e. free seat selection, free fast lane access, and the option to buy access to the lounge.

On our particular flight the FLEX option was 17% more expense than the 'basic' fare without the refund option, etc.

Step Two - what did we need for Malaga?

Before booking it was important to understand the 'entry requirements' applicable to our destination. Our local carrier was flying direct to
Malaga, but what were the constraints?

The reality was that Spain, despite seeing what was happening in China, Iran and Italy,
failed to react quickly enough in March 2020.
In early July, Spain claimed to have 'defeated' the virus and controlled the pandemic. On 21 June 2020 they had started to lift the restrictions. However, whilst the strategy was fine, the implementation was poor. The idea to lift restrictions in an asymmetrical way as regions reduced incidence rates was applauded. However they
did not specific what the incidence rate should be and what specific healthcare guarantees were needed.
Starting again on 18 August 2020 Spain gradually introduce new restrictions, including travel restrictions on flights into Spain. Here is a list (in Spanish) of
all the practical restrictions in the tourism sector introduced since 10 May 2020. And here is the law of the 11 November 2020 covering the health controls of people entering Spain.

Here is a useful summary in English of the restrictions imposed at that time. There are pointers to the restrictions imposed region-by-region (in Spanish), including a map defining the situation and rules commune-by-commune.

Spain Travel Health is/was a multi-lingual portal explaining the health control of passengers upon arrival in Spain.

Firstly it is/was vital that those people who have, or have had during the previous 14 days,
COVID-19 symptoms, should not travel.

1 July 2020 a health control protocol for Spanish airports came into effect for all people flying to Spain from other countries.

It is/was mandatory to fill out and sign a
Health Control Form within the 48 hour period before the flight. A QR Code allowed access through the destination airport.

From 23 November 2020 Spain requires/required a
negative PCR result for all passengers coming from 'high risk' countries.

In terms of chronology the QR Code was an older requirement on all passengers entering Spain, whereas the negative PCR result was a more recent requirement and only for passengers coming from 'high risk' countries.

However, practically we received negative PCR result first, and then completed the QR Code procedure.

Step Three - obtaining a COVID-19 test

From 23 November 2020 Spain requires/required a
negative PCR result for all passengers coming from 'high risk' countries.

At the time of trip our home country was one of 62 'high risk' countries. The list is/was reviewed every 15 days, and, for example, our home country had not been on the lists released in early November.

Our home country provides/provided a 'large-scale testing' drive-through service, as well as the usual prescription-based medical test laboratories. For this second option you need first a medical prescription, and then you have to pay for the test. The 'large-scale testing'
COVID-19 service is/was free for any resident having a social security card.

To book an appointment for the 'large-scale testing' it was sufficient to have a social security number. Any resident has a social security number, even if they might not contribute directly to a domestic social security program. With a social security number it was possible to book an appointment for the free testing. However on the appointment confirmation it stated that you had to present ID and a social security card. This was the problem, you can have a social security number, book an appointment, but only then find you need a social security card. These cards are issued to people who are paying into one of the basic health insurance groupings, e.g. private sector, public sector employees, local mutualities, local pension funds, etc. The end result was that for people having a private pension and health insurance, the free 'large-scale testing' service was not an option.

Finally we obtained a medical prescription from our local practitioner, and went to one of the drive-through testing facilities. We made an appointment, but there was no queuing. We had the test at 12:00 and received our negative results at 08:35 the next morning. As per the Spanish requirement, the test was the so-called
RT-PCR test.

Most people think of the RT-PCR test as being the nasopharyngeal swab, but it is in fact a laboratory test routine, and test samples can be obtained by several different means including swab, salvia, etc.

Interestingly, the Spanish requirement was that the certificate must:-
  • Be an original

  • Be written in Spanish and/or English

  • Include the passengers name and passport or ID

  • Include the test date

  • Include the test centre and contact details

  • Include the technique used and the negative test result.

In addition, the passport or ID number on the negative test result form must be the same as that used to obtain a QR Code.

However in our home country the certificates are in French, sent a pdf files by email, and don't always include a passport or ID (you have to insist that it is included).

The requirement is/was for a certificate of a negative result of the
RT-PCR test for COVID-19 carried out in the 72 hours prior to arrival in Spain. Interestingly the Spanish website wrote you must have the certificate, but "You may be required to show the certificate upon entry into Spain".

Step 4 - obtaining our QR Code

We also had to complete and sign electronically a '
health control form'. It is/was a signed statement that you were not knowingly suffering from COVID-19.

It is/was mandatory to fill out and sign a
Health Control Form (or Sanitary Control Form) within the 48 hour period before the flight. You could pre-fill-in the form, but it could only be completed and signed-off in the 48 hour period before the flight.

Note: The time periods are different, the test is 72 hours prior to arrival, whereas the Health Control Form must be completed within the 48 hour period before the flight.

Once completed a
QR Code was sent to us by email. Travellers were expected to have it on their mobile phones or print it out. The QR Code allowed access through the destination airport, i.e. before luggage collection. The procedure is/was based on the international initiatives of public health and aviation organisations, and was designed to guarantee traceability of traveller.

Those not having a QR Code could download a form, fill it in by hand, and go through a health check in the airport.

There was one interesting dichotomy between the Spanish requirements and the procedures of our home carrier. In completing the booking process for the flight you can book seats. When we made our FLEX booking we could not pre-book seating, and we were left to book seating in the online check-in. However the online check-in is only open 24 hours before the flight, yet the QR Code procedures asks for a seat booking. It is possible to properly synchronise these different procedures - negative test, seat booking, QR Code - but it also possible to fail to do so. We ended up guessing our future seat booking for the QR Code procedure, and in reality we were right to within one row.

There is/was a
FAQ webpage dedicated to explaining the Spain Travel Health program, the forms and QR Code, and the prevention measures against COVID-19. There is/was also Q&A on the diagnostic test requirements for travellers from high-risk countries.

Step 5 - confirming the booking

Now that we had our negative PCR results and our QR Codes, we could finally complete the online check-in process (24 hours before take-off).

Our local carrier also asked for passengers to complete a "Notification of Health status prior to boarding", which we did. I think this is one of the suggestions made in a
European-wide set of operational guidelines. In any case the signed forms were totally ignored when we went through 'check-in' at the airport.

Step 6 - our local airport

We wore a surgical face mask throughout our trip, changing it once we had arrived in Malaga.

Our local airport (rightly) calls itself a regional travel hub. It is a simple, reasonably sized, modern building. The more obvious COVID changes were:-
  • Separate entrance and exit routes

  • Obligatory 'face-covering' and social distancing (2 metres)

  • Air conditioning with complete air exchange every 30 minutes

  • A lockdown was in place, meaning that the coffee shops, etc. were closed

  • Very noticeable security, and hand sanitiser stations, etc.

  • Above all, the entire building looked very empty (lots of flights had been cancelled)

  • So empty that we were able to walk straight through check-in and the security controls without waiting (you could see that the security trays were disinfected after every use)

  • The 'duty free' space was open, but the bars, etc. were closed (there were water and coffee distributors)

  • Markings on the seat were in place to maintain 'social distancing' (we were the only flight at that time so we had the departure lounge to ourselves).

Our home airport was one of the first in Europe to open a test station (starting 29 May 2020). It is said that passengers received a free, non-obligatory test voucher. We did not receive this voucher, so maybe the service has been closed down.

One noticeable restriction concerned hand baggage. The usual small roller-type suitcases were no longer allowed, and had to be checked-in. The explanation was that overhead lockers were not in use.

This provided not to be the case because one person sitting near us clearly had a carry-on with wheels, and we both put our things in the overhead lockers.

Step 7 - our local carrier

Our local carrier claimed:-
  • To completely disinfect the aircraft interior

  • To use eco-friendly products on windows, trays, seats, etc.

  • An important claim was that the cabin air is changed every 3 minutes, and is filtered to 99.9% against dust, alleges, bacteria, and viral organisms

  • The cabins were also 'defogged' before each flight

  • Each passenger received a small pack with a face-mask, sanitiser wipe, and hand gel

  • Boarding in small groups (this procedure was not applied)

  • Passengers widely distributed as possible inside the aircraft (this procedure was not applied)

  • No onboard paper (magazines, instruction cards, etc.)

  • No inflight sales

  • Cabin crew were trained also to promote good hygiene behaviours (not convinced because several people did not cover their noses with the mask)

One final point was the claim that they used an "
optimised catering concept" designed to "minimise interactions and contact". What was presented was:-
  • Drinks in plastic bottles, with plastic cups

  • Coffee with the usual plastic pack of 'milk', sugar, etc.

  • A paper box with largish bread-roll filled with ham, etc., a small plastic container with some cherry tomatoes, a simple cup cake (still in the paper cup), and a small pack of mini-biscuits.

  • This package was clearly designed to limit contact between cabin crew and passengers.

  • But probably not designed to limit time spent without a face mask.

Being a tourist package tour flight, seating was cramped. Knowing that they would not be full for a substantial period of time they could have reduced the number of seat. This would have reduced cleaning requirements before each flight, and at the same time would have provided more leg room, making seating a lot easier and faster.

Our local carrier claimed to arrange boarding in small groups, however boarding actually was 'as normal' with people leaving just a little more space whilst waiting to board. There was no attempt to "
arrange boarding in small groups".

The claim was that they would space out passengers in the aircraft. However, they did not do this. We were seated with a third person in our row, despite the row behind being empty. The 'third person' moved to the row behind us.

Now on to our arrival in Malaga…