World News

I negotiated canceled flights, an unknown carrier and a 'sleep box' to get to my son

Posted May 12, 2020 7:52 a.m. EDT

— It had seemed sensible at the time -- having my British husband take our four-year-old son to the UK as the coronavirus pandemic started to take hold in Europe. He wanted to be close to his family and, as a former NHS and military paramedic, he wanted to volunteer to help if needed.

They left Turkey on one of the last flights out to London in March. My son, Alex, is used to me traveling so our goodbyes were relaxed and I was content, sure that if I needed to, I'd be able to just jump on a plane and catch up with them.

In the days after they left, I kept convincing myself that it would be fine, that there was no way Turkey would just stop all flights.

But it did.

My heart sank when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced "international flights have ended." That was the moment when all those "what ifs" and worst-case scenarios started racing through my head. What if there's an emergency? What if I cannot get to them? What if they can't get to me?

After a couple of weeks of separation and self-isolation, I had to get back with my family. But with shut borders and airports it seemed impossible. Until my hours on Twitter proved fruitful, with advisories from the UK and US embassies about commercial flights still operating out of Istanbul for those who wanted to leave.

Qatar Airways was up and running with a #Takingyouhome campaign. Ticket prices were significantly higher than usual but I booked my route to London via Doha.

The thought of going through airports and sitting on planes at a time like this was terrifying, so I packed my carry-on with the essentials for traveling during a global pandemic: several masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and surface wipes.

The night before the flight I woke up several times, and nervously tool my temperature, knowing that there were already fever checks in place at Istanbul airport.

Then the next morning I woke again to a message that the flight has been delayed. And from there it went from bad to worse. Another delay, then another, then what I really did not want to hear -- the flight was canceled.

Mentally, I was prepared for the trip, the risks, the restrictions, the unknown -- but I was not ready for this. I just wanted to see my family and the weeks of bottling up all the anxieties and emotions came rolling out with a flood of tears.

My booking was moved to the next scheduled flight. My husband, Matt, on the other end of the phone kept saying, "It's OK, it's just another five days."

But it wasn't. Before the next flight, Qatar Airways suspended its services out of Istanbul. Months of separation from my family was suddenly a very real possibility.

I was too emotional to think clearly, but thankfully colleagues in Istanbul and Abu Dhabi helped me look up different options. We found one way out, on Belarus' national carrier via its capital, Minsk.

I'll confess I had never heard of the Belavia airline before but some research and reassurance from coworkers in Moscow who'd flown with them made me decide to take the flight.

I fly regularly on one of the many three and a half hour daily flights to London from Istanbul. But this journey was scheduled for 28 hours -- 22 hours of them a layover in Minsk Airport.

The flight to Minsk was almost like being in the pre-coronavirus days. Many passengers wore masks and regularly used hand sanitizer, but the flight crew seemed pretty relaxed. They didn't all wear masks and gloves, and it did not seem like there were any attempts to enforce social distancing on board.

Days earlier, Belarus's longtime President Alexander Lukashenko had been dismissive of the pandemic's severity. He suggested drinking vodka and going for the traditional sauna to protect one against the virus

It was a similar story at Minsk Airport -- no temperature checks or social distancing guidelines, a far cry from the strict measures of Turkey where masks are mandatory.

But Belarus does impose 14 days of compulsory quarantine for anyone entering the country, so remaining in the airport was the only option for transiting passengers like me.

In the transit area, people were spaced out simply because there weren't that many passengers around. But there was no way I was going to sit in a communal area for 22 hours. I am a journalist and I usually enjoy exploring new places even if it's just a country's airport. But this time, all I wanted to do was find a corner and hide.

So I rented a "sleep box" -- a little wooden cabin in the middle of the airport. It offered a bed, an electrical outlet and social distancing -- all that I needed!

The bed had disposable linens, but I still covered the pillow with my scarf.

It was a long 22 hours. I was counting the hours to seeing my family and trying not to think of all the things that could still go wrong. A Turkish friend joked I could become stranded like Tom Hanks in "The Terminal" but I didn't want to even think of that. There was always the possibility my onwards flight would not materialize, so Matt and I had decided not to tell Alex I was coming until I landed in the UK.

I sat around the corner from the gate long before other passengers or airline staff showed up. Anxiously I watched the information board and almost burst into tears when it was time to get on.

The flight was pretty empty but again seemed to be business as usual, with the exception of a "Public Health Locator Form" we were given to fill out, to allow health officers to contact you if a communicable disease was later found to have been on board.

We touched down at Gatwick, the airport south of London that hosts many holiday charter flights. I used to fly into there regularly when I was based in Libya and I remember the long waits for baggage surrounded by hundreds of British holidaymakers in flip flops and shorts and children running around screaming and laughing.

This was a very different Gatwick. A desolate place. As we got off the plane, we were greeted by armed police officers spread out across the terminal. Elevators and escalators were turned off, ATMs were out of service and currency exchange shops shuttered. With no other flights, our baggage was straight out.

But finally, more than 30 hours after I left my Istanbul apartment, there was my husband, waiting for me in a stunningly quiet arrivals hall. We have had no airport pick-up like this one -- no hugs, not even a touch. I had been in public places and on planes for two days. The hugs and surprising Alex would have to wait until after a shower and change of clothes.

As we walked out to the car, down deserted stairwells and through empty parking lots, I realized I was still holding my pandemic tracing form. No one had asked me for it.

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