What I Saw in a Deserted, Chinese International Airport Terminal
With less than a handful of flights a day, international terminals now resemble abandoned, commercial wastelands
My 2020 was bookended by two flights. The first, an anxiety inducing March flight in uncertain times from Singapore to Shanghai. The second, a late November, new-normal, return flight from China back to Singapore. Though the evidence of a recent negative test result eased any concern I had about boarding the flight, the whole process, from check-in counter to boarding, was unlike any previous journey I had taken.
At the check-in counter for my departure flight, I wondered if the much-used analogy of never forgetting how to ride a bike would apply to taking international flights. Would I have forgotten to pack my passport? Would I bring toothpaste too big for check in luggage? What do you mean I can’t bring my favourite knife!?
On the immigration form for Singapore, there was a disclaimer that drug smuggling was punishable by death. I felt a little self-centred and disappointed in myself, as for the whole year, I never once thought about the damage done to the drug mule economy. Airport cavity inspectors worldwide would have been made redundant, and the only job going in the cavity inspection industry would be for COVID testers. Though it was not the cavity they were used to, perhaps they could upskill, and though a nose swab did not require the same force as their normal checks, the end result of the person tested expelling an uncomfortable cough would be familiar.
The timeliness of my fellow passengers at the counter was exemplary, with most arriving well before the check-in began. The flight to Singapore was one of only a couple of international flights from Guangzhou that day, so finding the check in counter was not difficult. In front of me in the line was a young father, spectacled, a little chubby, and perfectly calm. Sitting atop the pile of bags on his luggage trolley, swinging her feet, was his daughter. She would have been about four years old, had her hair cut in a neat bob, and wore a shirt that matched her father’s. Against the backdrop of travelling in a global pandemic, the two of them exuded a relaxed energy.
Moving through the terminal, the eerie, post apocalyptic vibes began to hit new heights. Duty free stores were stripped bare. The premium fashion houses had recalled all of their stock, except for a lonely pair of Toms heels, and unlike the domestic terminals I was travelling between for work, all of the stores were closed, even Starbucks. The math of running a café for four international flights a day, with a low passenger count, was clearly not compelling enough to woo the baristas back. Even the vending machines had not been restocked.
On my flight back to Shanghai in March, people were kitted out in homemade protective gear. This included ponchos, gumboots, the kind of rubber gloves people use for washing dishes, double layered face masks, and skiing goggles. But it was now eight months into pandemic life and people were donning more conventional medical equipment. The more casual travellers stuck to the mandatory face mask, while the more concerned were draped in large, bee-keeper styled PPE outfits, with tape around the sleeves and feet to keep everything in and out.
I wondered how this experience would imprint on the little girl with the bob. Seeing some people, normally dressed if not for their facemasks, and then comparing that to the travellers who were covered in protective gear. While it is disorienting to see people dressed head to toe in protective gear, it seemed like COVID was the new band in town, and everyone wanted the merch, especially the masks. But for the four-year-old, would she just see all of this as something completely normal?
Our plane, Scoot flight TR101, rolled up to the boarding bridge, and the inbound passengers began to shuffle off. As I watched them a thought came to mind that I used to have as a kid. When we were stuck in traffic on the freeway, I used to look at cars travelling in the opposite direction and wonder why there was no technology to allow the people who were where we wanted to go, and the people who wanted to go where we were coming from, to just swap bodies. That way none of us would have to sit in traffic. A few of the passengers just in from Singapore, in their PPE outfits, gave us a wave as they disembarked. Singapore had just removed quarantine requirements for travellers from Mainland China, but China had not reciprocated. So, while we would face our own moments of discomfort with a COVID test on arrival in Singapore, waving to those who had just arrived on their last walk before 14-day hotel quarantine was the polite thing to do.
It was not long on the flight before the desire to be normal swept over the PPE wearers. Though a good quarter of the flight was dressed this way, most of the head protection and masks came off at the sight of salted peanuts being passed around somewhere over the South China Sea.