Hello and welcome to my latest trip report! Pretty much ever since I was young, I had my sights set on following in my dad's footsteps and becoming a physician. Sad to say, during college I was always more of a B than an A student so when it came to medical school admissions my grades unfortunately held me back. When my first go-around of applying didn't produce any results I decided to enroll in a special master's degree program at Rosalind Franklin University. Essentially, you took about half of the first-year medical school courses and as long as you scored As and Bs and did fine with the interview you'd gain admittance into the actual medical program the following year. I did ok early on, but then in the spring quarter Medical Neuroscience came around and I barely managed to pass.
Even getting all Bs was not an easy due to the tough nature of the program. Anyhow, at that point I figured my best bet was to start looking at options abroad. Initially I was focused on attending the University of Queensland in Australia (where I had studied abroad during undergrad coincidentally), but I also applied to St. George's University (Caribbean medical school) and amazingly they offered me a good chunk of scholarship money. They also had the option of doing the first year in Newcastle. This was key for me because as crude as it may sound, I don't think I would've been able to withstand two full years in an underdeveloped place like Grenada. For any medical professionals out there that may be reading this, I was well aware of the risks and stigma associated with attending a Caribbean medical school. Trust me, that issue has been beat to death on another message board that I participate in.
Now that I've given you that whole spiel and covered all the background information, on to the fun stuff/the flights! (January 10-May 23)
I was pretty much scrambling to finish packing right up until we left to go to the airport. During the drive down to ORD a light rain was already coming down. This was the leading edge of a storm that was supposed to drop a foot of snow in the area the following morning, so I was getting out of town just in time. I got dropped off at Terminal 3 about two hours before my 10:30 PM departure. Whenever I travel abroad, I always try to shoot for the late evening flights. I like to think this makes it more likely that I'll actually fall asleep during the flight and conversely the jet lag won't be as bad.
Inside, the check-in was pretty quiet and there were plenty of available kiosks to choose from. For some reason, my boarding pass for LHR-NCL didn't print out and I couldn't get it to come up on my phone via the BA app either. After dropping the bigger of my two bags I was first in line for the TSA checkpoint, and aside from getting some flak for wearing my Green Bay Packers jacket, there were no problems. The post-security side of the terminal similarly lacked its usual bustle as it was down to the last few departures of the day. Keep in mind that this was in mid-January and at the time the coronavirus was just a blip on the radar screen. I had seen some news reports about it, but it was basically an afterthought.
I first walked down to gate K12 to get a look at the aircraft for my flight. Originally when I booked the trip, we were supposed to be on a 789 but it was later downgraded to a 788. This was going to be my first TATL or long-haul flight on AA.
I approached the gate agent at the podium to see if I could gate-check my other bag for free and she obliged. It seems like all airlines let you do this, so it sounds like an easy workaround to avoid the fee. You simply have to go through the inconvenience of lugging your bag through security first. Personally, I'd always rather check my bag when I'm connecting. In order to kill some time before boarding I decided to walk around, and I ended up over at the food court. In the picture below I'm fairly certain Air Belgium was operating on behalf of LOT Polish.
I bought a taco bowl at a Chipotle/QDOBA-style restaurant and sat down at an adjacent bar to eat and drink. Every few minutes I'd see somebody running through the terminal in a desperate attempt to catch their connecting flight, a feeling one of my friends has described as one of the worst in the world. Later on, once I had returned to the gate area, as I exited the bathroom a lady was having a medical emergency. Some airport staff had crowded around her, and she appeared weak and in some distress. Eventually the Chicago Fire Department casually showed up and wheeled her out on the stair chair. Turning attention back toward my flight, the gate agent announced that boarding would be delayed by 30 minutes. First, they said maintenance was looking at something and then flight attendants hadn't finished preparing the aircraft yet. When we finally did get onboard my seat was 18A.
The captain informed us there would be a slight delay because of a minor issue with the fuel pump. All told we pushed back about 20 minutes late. We took off from runway 10L and the ground below us quickly disappeared as we ascended into the murky weather. The dinner entrées were chicken or pasta, seemingly the routine choices these days. I went with the chicken and it was just about what you'd expect on a US carrier - nothing fancy but edible.
Following dinner, I watched about half of the movie Ad Astra before trying to get some sleep. This wasn't the longest TATL flight so at that point there were only a couple of hours to go before the cabin lights were going to be switched back on for the breakfast service. As usual though, it was a struggle for me to get any solid sleep. Eventually, I was aroused by some commotion in galley and toilet area behind me and yet another lady was having a medical emergency. I'm not sure if she fainted or had a fall or what, but a guy sitting in the row behind me went over to attend to her and it seemed like she ended up being ok. I guess flying really takes a toll on some people, huh?
During that previous summer I had flown Lufthansa and EVA and comparatively speaking, the conditions on this flight seemed a little cramped. A quick check of the website SeatGuru reveals 31 inches of pitch on AA's 787s. Up until the cabin lights came on I was unable to reduce the dimming effect on my window, so I assume the flight attendants had locked them in that setting to keep the cabin dark. Breakfast was of the "light snack" variety.
Descending into LHR.
We landed on runway 27R amid somewhat blustery conditions.
After taxiing around for a bit, we came to a stop and waited around fifteen minutes for our gate to open up. Upon exiting the aircraft there was a longish walk to the bus platform which transferred us over to Terminal 5 for passport control.
The folks from my school had repeatedly reminded us that we needed to avoid using the e-gates and instead get an actual stamp in our passports to show when we had arrived in the UK. However, the immigration officer affirmed that this wasn't necessary and ushered me straight through. During this time, I also retrieved my boarding pass at the BA flight connections desk. Following a quick security screening I was back in the departures hall. My layover wasn't particularly long but at that point the gate for my flight had yet to show up on the flight information screens.
I grabbed a coffee at Starbucks and meandered about until my gate was revealed. Once aboard the flight, our departure time came and went without us having pushed back. The captain eventually explained that there had been some kind of computer error that had accidentally booted about 20 passengers off the flight and it was taking a bit of time to get that corrected. Once we got airborne the flight was uneventful. Food and drinks were available for purchase. At that point I was really starting to hit the wall due to a lack of sleep. It was only a 45 minute flight, so it wasn't long before we started our descent into NCL. We passed right over Sunderland and flew out over the North Sea before turning back around to land at NCL. The wind was whipping around quite strongly that day (something which I would soon discover is a frequent occurrence in that part of England), so the approach was a little rocky.
For some reason we deplaned via the airstairs and got bussed to the terminal even though multiple jet bridges were unoccupied. The school had arranged free transport from the airport to our residence hall but when I exited the terminal the person was nowhere to be found. Thankfully I managed to stumble into two other guys who were also in my program and we were able to split an Uber.
St. George's has an arrangement with Northumbria University and that's where my lectures and labs took place. I was set up in Gateshead (on the opposite side of the River Tyne from Newcastle) so in order to get to campus it was either a 20 minute walk or riding a few stops on the Metro. A condition of the program was that we had to live in student housing. Frankly, I didn't know much about Newcastle beforehand, but I'd say it’s pretty neat and a rather unheralded place. The nearby area of Tynemouth is quite lovely as well.
Overall things were going fine the first two months. Then March rolled around and that's when the whole COVID-19 situation blew up.
It was actually my birthday when Boris Johnson made the announcement that all establishments would be forced to close. The majority of the people in my class were from the US and Canada, and once the coursework transitioned online about half of the group bolted and went home. A lot of them were freaked out about the impending travel restrictions and flight cancellations. Out of five guys I was the only one left in the flat and it got fairly miserable towards the end. Pretty much the only reason I ever left my room was to either run/exercise or pick up groceries at Tesco. Of course, I could've also packed up shop and gone home but I was worried I'd get distracted and do worse academically. I also assumed (wrongly) that the lockdown stuff would be short-lived and not drag out indefinitely.
I was further disappointed because I had been looking forward to doing some traveling throughout England and the rest of Europe later on in the semester. I was supposed to have a long weekend in Israel after one of my exams but obviously that got nixed. Aside from Tynemouth, the only other place outside of Newcastle that I got to visit was Liverpool. I did get to attend the Liverpool-Bournemouth match though, so that was pretty cool. There are probably not too many people back home who can say they've taken in a match at Anfield.
When everything was said and done I somehow managed to ace every single one of the exams.
If there was some sort of silver lining to all this, then that would be it. Needless to say, once my last exam was over, I was ready to go home.
My last exam wrapped up in the evening and I was to head out the following morning. We had to clear out of our rooms for the summer, so I was up late packing away all my stuff. In hindsight, maybe I should've given myself an extra day after the exam, so it wasn't as hurried. Everything that I wasn't bringing home with me (bed linens, kitchen supplies, etc.) was left behind in a large plastic bin that would be put into storage. As of this moment I still don't know if I'm going to be back in Newcastle for the second term, and if I don't go back then I'm assuming they'll ship it to me at some point.
At the time, BA had canceled all flights from NCL until June. I thought it'd be up to me to find my own transport down to London, but much to my surprise BA added a train ticket to the reservation. The only problem was that I had no idea how to obtain the actual ticket for the train. My itinerary simply noted to "Proceed to the airport to obtain your boarding pass for this flight."
Eventually I called them, and they gave me a link where I was able to access a PDF of my ticket.
A fellow classmate had provided me with a few N95 masks ahead of my journey. I had seen news that Uber was now requiring all riders to wear masks, however, the guy who drove me from the residence hall to the train station had his surgical mask was pulled down under his chin the whole time.
When I asked him if he wanted me to wear my mask, he said he didn't care, and his opinion was that none of it makes any difference. After a quick drive through the deserted streets of Newcastle we arrived at an equally empty Central Station.
Predictably, the load on the train was extremely light. There were only two other people seated in my carriage. Nobody even came around to check our tickets. As we approached Kings Cross it was announced that we'd have to present our tickets upon disembarking the train. However, as I approached the station exit the fare gates were all open at the attendant told me to go straight on through without a problem. From there I hailed another Uber and it was a nice, easy 40 minute drive over to LHR's Terminal 5.
At the curbside drop-off zone all passengers were directed toward one doorway to enter the terminal. There was a posted notice that only those who were traveling were actually allowed inside the airport, but this didn't seem to be enforced. There was, however, a guy passing out free surgical masks as you walked inside. A few airports in the UK at that time had adopted mandatory mask policies, LHR not included. As might be expected, being in such a large, empty check-in hall presented an eerie feeling.
As I cleared the security checkpoint, I found myself standing in the exact same place I was at about 4 months prior when I had first arrived in the UK. Considering it was now a ghost town, this provided a vivid before and after comparison. I proceeded down to the underground people mover transit system as my flight was departing from the next concourse over. With the exception of a convenience store located immediately post-security, it appeared as if all other retail at the airport was shuttered.
The flight information screen revealed a grand total of three departures from LHR that afternoon.
The aircraft for my flight was a 789. This was supposed to have been my first flight on an A380 as well as my first time being on the upper deck. You can add that to the long list of things that COVID-19 has ruined.
The gate agent informed me there were merely 35 people on the flight. I believe only US citizens or permanent residents were allowed to enter the country. During boarding I was randomly pulled aside for explosive trace testing. We departed from the gate on time and subsequently took off from runway 27R. I managed to spot Windsor Castle during the climb.
Before the inflight service commenced it was announced that the typical meal choices wouldn't be offered because of the pandemic. Instead of a warm meal we got served a snack box. Circumstances notwithstanding, it was quite meager for an international flight.
Unfortunately, my seat-back TV wouldn't play any movies and the screens for the two empty seats next to me had the same problem. The flight attendant attempted the reboot the devices multiple times, but apparently there was some sort of problem with a large swath of PTVs on that side of the plane. He offered me the opportunity to go sit in premium economy to watch the movie, however, I decided to just shift over to the center block of seats between the aisles. I was content with the space I had but in retrospect I don't know why I didn't at least go up there to see what it was like. At the conclusion of the movie I utilized the section of three empty seats as a makeshift bed and napped for a little while.
The sparsely filled cabin.
It appeared all of the other passengers on the flight wore masks and one duo even went all out and donned the plastic face shields. Surprisingly, BA bucked the trend and didn't instate a policy that required passengers to wear masks onboard. If we were crammed in then I would have done so as a courtesy to the people sitting next to me, but with so much room in the cabin to spread out it didn't seem necessary. Initially all the flight attendants wore their masks, but as the flight progressed some of them stopped doing so. The pre-arrival snack consisted of a few small packets of pretzels. We had also been given a health information sheet to fill out.
I had purchased a Wi-Fi pass to cover the last few hours of the flight and as we neared Chicago, I actually discovered that Cook County (where ORD is located) was under a tornado warning. Normally, flights arriving from the east are treated to a good view of downtown Chicago on the left side of the aircraft but due to the stormy weather we made landfall over Illinois much farther to the north. The approach actually wasn't bumpy at all and we landed on runway 10C. It looked as though the storm had cleared out of the airport just in time for our arrival.
Unlike LHR, which was at a standstill, there were actually some aircraft movements going on at ORD. There was even a surprisingly decent lineup of heavies at Terminal 5. Right before the boarding door was opened one of the flight attendants came scurrying down the aisle and quickly passed out masks to the other crew members who had since taken them off.
Under normal circumstances clearing immigration at ORD can be a lengthy ordeal, but obviously this time I breezed right through. Before heading over to the carousel to collect my luggage I was directed through a medical screening station that was manned by the Chicago Fire Department. An EMT took my temperature and read off of a piece of paper that the CDC "recommended" that I stay home for the next 14 days and monitor my temperature. The whole thing was rather nonchalant. Once that was taken care of, I scooped up my luggage and my mom was there waiting for me in the arrivals hall. From there all that was separating me from finally being home was a one-hour drive back up to Wisconsin.
Thank you for checking out my 40th trip report! Clearly, I'll always be able to recall this flying experience because of how unusual it was. If this virus sticks around for a long while yet I just hope traveling doesn't become a nightmare that puts people off. Much to my surprise, I actually did get a phone call a few days later from the Racine County Health Department (to check if I was feeling sick, not to enforce the 14 day quarantine). I guess they're more coordinated with all this than I thought they would be.
Throughout the whole travel day nobody at any time gave me any trouble for not wearing a mask, and in case you're wondering I've been symptom-free to this day.
Will you watch the Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions on Sunday? Only if coach Eric Mangini resigned after a loss.