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Flying Home During the Pandemic: Expensive, Demanding, and Dangerous

Our author braves closing borders and airport chaos to catch one of the few planes still flying.

Worried passengers wait at Wattay Airport in Vientiane, Laos, on March 19.
Worried passengers wait at Wattay Airport in Vientiane, Laos, on March 19. Nathan Thompson for Foreign Policy
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

I realized I’d lost my passport halfway through our desperate trip back to Australia. Ashen-faced, I pulled my bag off the floor and groped around inside, shoving aside sweaters and snacks. Nothing.

The mistake would have been costly at the best of times. Even worse now, I was escorting my pregnant wife home during a worldwide pandemic. Would I have to watch the birth of my first child over Skype?

We had left our home in Laos—a landlocked nation of 7 million people between Thailand and Vietnam—due to concerns about health care. “The standard of medical care [in Laos] is extremely poor and medical evacuation to other countries is now very difficult,” the Australian government said in a statement on March 23. “The land border into Vietnam is now closed. All borders with Thailand … will be closed, except for some commercial traffic.”

Vietnam has been extremely strict in enforcing its border closures, even splitting up families. Vietnamese officials separated Javier Zuñiga Segura from his Vietnamese wife and son at the Ho Chi Minh airport on March 20. “I was held for 10 hours,” Segura told me. “In the end, they gave me two options: Go back to Thailand or Spain.”

Vietnam has been extremely strict in enforcing its border closures, even splitting up families.

“I could understand if they didn’t want to give visas to foreigners from Europe, but I’ve been living and working there,” Segura said. “I have a family and a five-year visa.” He had to pay $300 for a flight back to Bangkok and missed his son’s first birthday.

On March 17, the trips we normally took from Laos to Thailand for doctors’ visits were already looking unlikely. The border closures that have proved so chaotic were still looming. The same day, the Australian government strongly recommended that anyone wishing to return to Australia should do so immediately.

Officially, there were more coronavirus cases in Australia—5,350 as of April 3 compared with 10 in Laos, though some question Laos’s numbers—but we figured the Australian health care system had a better chance of coping with the crisis. Flights were already filling up and ticket prices rising. The Singapore Airlines website crashed several times before we eventually secured a flight on March 19.

Crew members wear facemasks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on one of the few remaining flights from Laos to Singapore on March 19. Passengers hoped to return to New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Australia from there.

Crew members wear face masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on one of the few remaining flights from Laos to Singapore on March 19. Passengers hoped to return to New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Australia from there. Nathan Thompson for Foreign Policy

Wattay Airport in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, was quiet when we arrived. Half the flights on the screen read “cancelled.” But ours was still good—for now. Ben Spaul, a British tourist, and his friends stood under the departures screen wearing matching black face masks. They were also hoping to make it to Australia after cutting their trip around Southeast Asia short.

The measly number of available flights meant they were going to have to spend 12 hours at the Singapore airport, fly to Bali, and from there go to Cairns, Australia, where all six young men expected to be quarantined together. When I checked in with them later, they had made it to Singapore before the airline axed their connecting flight. “We had to fly to Sydney from Singapore,” Spaul texted me via Whatsapp. “But we still haven’t got our bags.”The French backpackers planned to hunker down in Indonesia, one of the few countries that was still accepting French visitors.

French backpackers Descot Pablo and Alice (who withheld her last name) planned to hunker down in Indonesia, one of the few countries that was still accepting French visitors after cases in France spiked—64,338 as of April 2. “We arrived in Laos on March 12, and everything started to change,” Pablo told me. “We planned to go to Vietnam and Cambodia, but the day we arrived, Cambodia and Vietnam started to deny French people visas. There was all kinds of information flying around, and it was very worrying.”

“We booked flights that arrived in Indonesia on Saturday the 21st, but we heard they were closing the borders,” Pablo explained. “We had to book another flight to get there before the borders closed at midnight [on March 19]. We lost 400 euros on that.”

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

In early March, the initial spread of the coronavirus caused airlines to slash prices to encourage fretful passengers to travel to destinations that were, at that time, deemed safe. But recent border closures have caused prices to spike. It’s difficult to get exact numbers, as there’s no system that reliably tracks airline fares. However, Haydn Long of the Australian travel company Flight Centre, said our observation of sharply higher prices was “spot on.”

“In February and [early] March, there were really cheap fares,” Long said. “Then the border restrictions were applied, and airlines cut capacities back significantly. Seats have been at a premium because you went from having a price war to having very few seats available.”

Travel agents and airlines have struggled to cope with the wild fluctuations. The Australian airline Qantas and its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar announced that 90 percent of international flights and 60 percent of domestic services would be cut.

A volunteer hands out “isolation guidance” to passengers arriving at Brisbane International Airport in Australia on March 20.

A volunteer hands out “isolation guidance” to passengers arriving at Brisbane International Airport in Australia on March 20. Nathan Thompson for Foreign Policy

Brea Wright, a student at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, had been in Bali for a surf competition but struggled to pay for a flight home after the event was canceled. “I couldn’t afford flights, and I had to get on the phone to my parents, and we booked a flight,” she said. “But that got canceled, so we had to change it and pay AU$300 [Australian dollars, or about $180] more. My dad just started working as a nurse, and the AU$1,200 [about $720] he paid is not easy money.” Budget airlines usually offer one-way flights between Australia and Bali for about $100.

She has taken to walking around the apartment with a wild look in her eyes, trying to take her temperature with her own hand.

At the Singapore Airlines desk, an exhausted staffer looked around to try to find my passport before shaking his head. He said he hadn’t had a break in 12 hours. At the next desk, an American couple was arguing with another fatigued staffer. The couple were desperate to get back to Los Angeles to pick up their two young children. They had been on vacation in Thailand, leaving their kids with relatives. It was supposed to be a trip of a lifetime—but now they were waving credit cards, desperately trying to get on one of the few remaining flights home.

I returned to my wife empty-handed just as the information desk put out an announcement to see if anyone had found my passport. When she saw me coming, she raised my passport with an apologetic look. It had been in her bag. She had taken it for safekeeping.

It was 10 a.m. in Brisbane when we arrived, nine hours before Australia closed its borders. As we walked off the plane, two people in green hospital gowns, gloves, and plastic face shields stood at the top of the jet bridge. They had forms for everyone to fill out and formally declare their good health.

At the time of writing, I’m in self-quarantine in a tiny rental apartment somewhere on the Queensland coast. Luckily, my wife and I get on well. No fights as of yet. She has taken to walking around the apartment with a wild look in her eyes, trying to take her temperature with her own hand. I’m just glad I got here at all.

Nathan Thompson is an FP contributor based in Southeast Asia.

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