London Four-forty in the morning saw me jumping into a cab to head for the Lyon airport. Three emails from British Airways warning of a potential strike by security there advised – in the strongest terms – everyone to be there two hours early. I was sixth or seventh in line, but of course nothing opened until two hours before the flight schedule. Cab drivers were clueless about which terminal might harbor the flight, so there was no issue about getting my “steps in,” as people say these days too often. No signage in the huge rambling, newish facility offered much of a clue where BA might be, but eventually, every trail comes to an end, and there I was. We watched the gate agents laugh about as the clock ticked on and one lost soul after another walked past the lengthy line, snaking now from the barriers and then along the doors, and wandered to the counter to ask if this was really British Airways, and then walked back to the end of the now long queue.
All of this was prelude to the epic travel issues that await the intrepid soul venturing out across lands and waters in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic shutdowns. Airports may be open, but they are not together. Whether in Lyon or the giant London Heathrow, passengers clutched sheafs of paper with indecipherable QR codes, now seeing travel as a lottery past their speculation where they might – or might not – finally end up on a plane.
I was at the end of my 17-day journey. Wise and weary to the chaos that is now the common denominator. I had made it into both England and France with more worry than warranted. The British Travel Locator is essentially little more than an exercise in contact tracing and a forced subsidy for the country’s testing industry. Every adventurer is required to register for a test on the second day that forces you to pay the piper. Since no customs official is interested and the airlines only look at the first page, it would seem only a matter of time before veterans will just show up without signing for the second day with no one the wiser. The afternoon before in Grenoble, I had reread the instructions and realized for the first time that a second UK Locator would be necessary, even for the transit passenger. It seemed straightforward and was printed quickly in the Alliance Citoyenne office. I felt like I had dodged a bullet. They had not tricked me this time! I had also read the entry rules for the USA and realized that all I needed was an antigen test or so the US State Department said. I had two with me, and Monday had taken one timely. I had picked up a packet of NHS antigen tests in the Glasgow train station. I generously offered my horde to Adrien Roux so he and his team could save money in the future.
I sailed through Heathrow security and customs, but I still had to get a boarding pass onward from the United desk. What no QR code, one said? What is an antigen test, another said, as I showed them the negative reading on my cellphone? Why doesn’t the email or cell mess say “antigen,” one asked. I showed them on my computer where it described the company and its antigen tests. They fetched a supervisor. No, she said. This is not an antigen test per requirement, but it is a “home test.” It’s just for you, so that you know you don’t have Covid-19. It’s not for us. The airlines and their staff are now the new vax-police with rules and interpretations of their own, exceeding the US government itself!
It gets worse. She walks me back through Customs, and sends me through another Customs line and process to go outside where she says I will see the airport testing center. I’m on slow boil now, but this had only taken me an hour so surely, I could make my plane home. There was a long line of people waiting to be tested. The cattle driver told me that I had to book the test before I would be allowed in line, and it had to be done on a cellphone, if the Heathrow wireless would reach. There were people crying all around me and begging for a test in his new normal.
Maybe it was me? Maybe it was them? It took more than an hour to successfully book a test on a cellphone. Their website would claim my phone number was not entered correctly or my passport number was not the same. Each time it would make me start over. Two different credit cards were rejected, inexplicably. More than an hour later after 20 or 30 repeats, I had an email saying I had registered. I ran to get in line. No good. You had to have the email from them with the QR code saying you had paid. Three hours after landing I was finally once again in line at United for a board pass.
Success? Oh, no! The email would not download on either of my phones for the agent or me. They sent me back to get a printed copy of the results. Another half-hour later, and once again I was in line. Oh, of course, negative, but who really cared in the new bureaucracy?
I was lucky! My flight was after one, as it turned out. I was there in line when boarding started.
I’ve got a million miles with United. I’ve traveled all my life, and all over the world the last 20 years. What chance do people have who are dying to visit their families, sweethearts, and friends after almost two years of the pandemic?
Not much. My advice? Wait until the government and the airlines get in synch and are ready for primetime! We’re just not there yet.