After three months of quarantine, the travel itch feels as persistent as a cottage mosquito bite. Happily, if you're pining for a stroll in a cobblestoned European town, a day at a beach with actual palm trees, or to be anywhere, really, but your A/C-less apartment, countries are slowly re-opening and the number of flights are increasing both cross-Canada and beyond. (Europe is begging for tourists to come back to even its most over-touristed areas.)
Before you pack your carry-on, remember the Canada-U.S. border is still closed to non-essential travel (like tourism, entertainment, and recreation) and our border also remains shut to most other international travellers until at least July 31. While you waiver on whether a jaunt outside of Canada is worth it (hello, two-week quarantine once you come back!), frontline travel industry workers, like pilot Kimran Deo, have already returned to the job.
Pre-pandemic, the Montreal-based pilot used to fly two to three times a day between Canada and the U.S. Here, she lets us in on what to expect when you do get back on a plane, the new safety procedures everyone (including her) has to follow, and whether or not we can expect flight costs to climb.
When did COVID-19 become a concern for you as a pilot?
People at work started talking about COVID-19 in February. That’s when my employer started doing regular safety meetings giving us information about the virus and sharing how to stay safe. I think my employer handled it really well. In the beginning, they asked us to cut down our hours so everyone could keep their job, rather than laying everyone off. We had a choice, we could keep flying, or not fly at all. Later, after a few weeks, people got laid off. I was on EI for my time off.
It took almost three to four weeks to ground everything, but we saw a decline in passengers starting in February. Then all the flights were grounded. They turned a few planes to cargo planes and took all seating out to get medical supplies and safety equipment from China. And there were few flights bringing in people stuck in other countries. Now, there are more domestic and international flights are starting to come back. Most international flights are still recovery flights where we're going to get Canadians. I want to help Canadians stuck abroad if I can. I see it as my patriotic duty.
Are you nervous to fly?
I have been. I live with my parents to save money and they are older and I don't want to bring COVID home. The flight crew has to stay in self-isolation when we come back. They book us in hotels rather than going straight home like we used to. We’re still doing that after today's international flights. With domestic flights, pilots don’t have to, but some are being cautious and self-isolating. We also have mental-health help available as well. We normally have mental-health coverage, but phone lines were set up so you can easily and quickly talk to someone over the phone instead of in person. It is stressful flying these days.
What are the new safety procedures for pilots?
I have to go to the airport earlier, three hours before now instead of two. We [as flight crew] go through questions about our health. We get our temperature checked and checked for any visual signs of any illness. We're required to wear non-medical disposable masks all the time with our regular uniform, even in the cockpit. I wear it with a face shield as well. All the crew members and all the passengers are currently required to wear masks. When it comes to food on the plane, all the food being served on the flight is pre-packaged. My airline is providing little health and safety packages that include wipes, a mask, hand sanitizer, etc. that are given to passengers when they board. Planes are not as full as they were before COVID, we are running at about half capacity, but passengers have been really careful and follow the rules. I haven't heard of any incidents, but if they do not follow the new procedures they’d be asked to leave the plane.
I know it sounds kind of corny, but being up in the sky is the best part about being a pilot. I miss being in that environment and being able to take people to their destinations.
Are airports so quiet now? No more long coffee lines?
Airports are ghost towns, they’re so empty! You can only come in if you are a passenger; you can’t drop off or pick people up. You cannot enter the airport without a mask. All the passengers have to answer medical-related questions and do an infrared temperature check. If any passenger is symptomatic, they send them home. If a passenger is refused, they can't travel for 14 days.
How are the planes being cleaned now?
Now, the cleaning crew has a lot more work. They always did clean the plane every time it landed, but cleanings are more thorough now — spraying the plane with a hospital-grade disinfectant every time the plane lands. That means we're spending a few hours extra at each destination. Pre-COVID, we spent anywhere from two to four hours at our destination before flying again. Now it's six to eight hours.
People are on the fence about whether or not they should fly especially with mandatory 14-day self-isolation if they leave the country. What’s your take?
People are scared; these are unprecedented times. I know I'm being selfish if I tell people it's 100% safe to travel. I think international travel is still risky. But travelling within Canada is safe. Airlines are following proper procedures. People just need to adapt to new realities when they're travelling and be mindful of the procedures and guidelines provided by Canada or each province. Bring with you masks, sanitizer, wipes, even if they are provided on the flight, so you have them in the airport.
Can we expect flights to be more expensive because fewer people are flying?
Eventually prices are going to have to go up since the airline industry can't go on taking losses. I think now is the best time to book a flight. Gas prices are starting to go up. We can't be profitable on the capacity we're running at right now, so maybe in September or October you’ll see higher prices. That’s my guess. We can help our local economy by seeing our own country. Do these little staycations. Our economy needs a boost and the airline industry needs a boost.
I’ve wanted to work with airplanes since I was five years old. I knew I was going to be an aircraft engineer or a pilot and, it happened, I got my commercial license in 2015. In the whole commercial aviation industry female pilots only account for 5% of pilots. We need to educate more women that this is a career path they can take. I know it sounds kind of corny, but being up in the sky is the best part about being a pilot. I miss being in that environment and being able to take people to their destinations.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resource