Vicki Parris, FCM Travel Solutions' senior director of customer experience, shares her first-hand travel experience between Singapore and New Zealand.
For many business travellers before the pandemic, going on a business trip was as easy as grabbing your cup of everyday coffee. Something we had perhaps taken too much for granted. On a recent trip, I had to take due to personal family reasons, I experienced the journey in a completely unfamiliar environment, which made me wonder how the new norms for future travel would be like.
This is by far the longest time I have gone without boarding a plane in 15 years, and like a lot of you, I am extremely passionate about travelling. This flight experience was one that I may never experience again in this lifetime.
Since April, there have been no flights and it was impossible to fly between Singapore and New Zealand. On June 9 and 14, Singapore Airlines resumed their Singapore-Auckland and Singapore-Christchurch routes respectively.
Only New Zealand citizens, Permanent Residents, or those on pre-approved essential travel permits (health workers etc) can enter the country and all arriving passengers would be placed in a government-funded two-week isolation stay at a hotel.
Checking out the check-in experience
The itinerary for my trip was Singapore to Christchurch at 23.00 on a Sunday night. I decided to arrive earlier at Changi Terminal 3 (20.45) as I expected there may be additional check-in requirements.
The airport terminal was like a ghost town. The few staff who were around seemed genuinely excited to help and I guess for many of them, any sign of return to travel is welcome! There were two staff manning the check-in desks and with no queue, it only took a total of five minutes to get my boarding pass. When I asked if there were many passengers on the flight, the staff said there should be “less than 15”. I breezed through immigration with no further questions asked.
At the boarding gate, there were eight to nine staff at security point. Everyone was very enthusiastic with a lot of friendly questions! When I settled into the gate lounge, there was only one other person with me, and the number of passengers slowly grew to five. This will probably be the only time I get to enjoy experiences onboard an A350 with only five passengers!
Onboard experience redefined
Onboard, there was approximately 13 staff (including four captains in the cockpit). Every crew member was wearing a mask and we were each given a small care pack that contained a bottle of sanitiser, two wipes and a mask, to be worn at all times during the flight.
Meals were served almost as normal with two choices, except that drinks were served at the same time, on the same tray and not separately as it had been done in the past, in order to minimise contact with passengers. The crew was extremely attentive and in a conversation with one of them, she said this was her first time back to work in three months. In fact, almost everything looked the same onboard, except the lack of hot towel service, inflight magazines and other reading collaterals, as well as passengers!
The long-awaited arrival into Christchurch
Our plane was the first international flight into Christchurch since March. When we arrived, there were a lot of excited staff and Ministry of Health officials waiting to greet us. Temperatures were taken and everyone was marked with an ‘A’ (strict quarantine for those who displayed Covid-like symptoms) or ‘B’ (managed isolation in a hotel with no symptoms). Marked with a ‘B’, I boarded a bus that was taken to Commodore Hotel where I remained isolated for 14 days. Quarantine is mandatory and government-funded for all incoming passengers into New Zealand.
During my quarantine, I was tested twice for Covid-19 – once on day three and again on day 12. I was allowed to take walks between 09.00 and 16.00 everyday within the fenced perimeters throughout. Masks were to be worn at all times, and no one was allowed to leave the premises.
On day 14, I had a final health check and was given a departure time. This was subject to being tested negative for both the Covid-19 tests I took during the quarantine (those who were tested positive during the 14-day quarantine would be immediately transferred to the nearest hospital).
During check-out, I was escorted out of the hotel by a military personnel before finally being released into freedom. For the first three days upon release, I received daily calls from the Ministry of Health to monitor my condition and ensure that I was feeling well with no symptoms.
This is certainly a once in a lifetime experience for me, and it is a big change from what myself and many regular business travellers are used to.
However, I believe that with adequate preparation in safety and procedures, along with the right expectations and mindset, business travel in a new normal will become possible again, especially as we start to see border restrictions slowly being lifted across many destinations around the world.
The return journey to Singapore
After an extended break to spend time with my family in New Zealand, it was time to book my return flight to Singapore. The application for return to Singapore was simple and quickly approved on the first try. I believe returning from the South Island of New Zealand made this process easier as the South Island had no Covid community cases for over six months.
My return flight was on a Singapore Airlines A350 on September 8 from Christchurch to Singapore. With a departure time of 10.50, I arrived at Christchurch airport at 09.00 to a very quiet check-in area. Other than having all airport staff in masks and doing a temperature test before being allowed to proceed for check-in, the process was quite straightforward.
I was required to present my printed copy of the approval to re-enter Singapore which was thoroughly checked before airport officials checked me in. The heath care kit containing sanitiser, wipes and mask was given to me at check-in this time instead of onboard.
I was surprised to hear that the flight was reasonably busy due to the repatriation of 130 Russian fishermen via Singapore who were booked in economy. At that point, I was highly relieved to find my points upgrade had come through to Premium Economy so I could avoid the crowd!
There were only eight passengers in Premium Economy, and I was fortunate to have a row of three seats to myself. Wandering back through the economy cabins gave me a sense of normality to being back in the air again as it was interesting to note there was no social distancing in economy. The cabins were buzzing with excited chatter from the jovial fishermen who were finally able to return home after what I presumed would have been months at sea.
On our arrival into Changi airport, we remained seated for several minutes while a group of health officials entered the aircraft to ensure passengers in transit were properly tagged before disembarking. Those of us who indicated Singapore as the final destination disembarked first and instructed to make our way directly to the arrival area.
In arrivals, we had to complete an electronic health declaration. This could be done via the SG Arrival Card (SGAC) e-service via a downloadable app. The app was easy to navigate and questions included details about your recent travel including all countries and towns visited. There were several assistants on standby to assist travellers through this process. Once completed, you are given an electronic pass status on the app which must be shown at the immigration desk before being whisked away for the Covid-19 test.
I was led to an immigration waiting area where I had to show my electronic receipt for the test (you can pre-pay for this before arrival into Singapore) and given a green sticker before being led to an area for testing. My temperature was recorded before being ushered into a small curtained-off area where the test was performed.
This was my third Covid-19 test and it does not get more comfortable over time! With my eyes stinging, I was then led back through immigration and allowed to collect my luggage and return directly home where I was to stay put until my result was sent electronically. This happened the next afternoon and I was thankfully negative, which meant that I could take a walk around the park within two days after arriving in Singapore*.
Overall, the travel experience was incredibly well-supported and as a New Zealander residing in Singapore, I was lucky to have had a simple and straightforward process for the travel journey.
Still, I couldn’t help thinking to myself as the cotton swab was pushed up into my nostril, with stinging eyes and jetlagged after a 10-hour flight – is this what travel looks like now, in its easiest state? And if so, how many people will volunteer to return to the skies frequently if allowed?
It is a tough question and one that would no doubt be answered differently by everyone. I have been in the travel industry for 15 years working in different cultures around the world. Having experienced the joy of sitting next to an adult who is taking his very first ever flight, watching his expression as we took off with hands gripped tightly on the edge of the seat, his eyes expressing the absolute wonder of it all, today still feels like a privilege to me and is a scene that will forever be etched vividly in my mind and heart.
So my answer is simple. I look forward to being able to return to the skies freely no matter what the departure and arrival process looks like. For me, the slight discomfort and additional processes will be well worth it.
*The above quarantine regulations in Singapore are accurate at the point when this article was written. New Zealanders who have obtained approval to return to Singapore and fulfilled all criteria are tested at Changi Airport on arrival; they are isolated at home until their test results are given and provided negative, only then can they move about freely.
Vicki Parris has extensive experience in numerous leadership positions in the 14 years she has been with Flight Centre Travel Group. Her knowledge in operations spans across New Zealand, India and South-east Asia.