by William Stupp

With people in the Netherlands spending more time at home, either out of personal concern about becoming infected by the coronavirus or obedience to lockdown regulations, international travel almost seems like a fantasy. Even now, with the country preparing to loosen distancing measures, a quick trip to the supermarket or brief walk on the beach almost seem adventurous.

Yet even during the peak of the pandemic, most aspects of modern life continued, including air travel. Though the number of daily flights crisscrossing Europe in March was about 90% lower than normal, people were are still flying.

José recently touched-down in an eerily empty Schiphol Airport after a flight from Lisbon. His journey illustrates the difficulty of traveling in the time of corona, something we shouldn’t forget once society has settled into “the new normal”. It also highlights critical differences in how Dutch and Portuguese society have responded to the pandemic.

A project manager who has lived in the Netherlands for six years, José was visiting his parents in Portugal when Dutch authorities first introduced restrictions back in March. His weekend away ended up lasting five weeks.

Able to work from home and enjoying the company of his parents, José was comfortable at first. He was unconcerned when his flight home, scheduled for March 14th, was postponed by Transavia. A week later, it was canceled a second time. Then a third time, and once more after that.

José speculated that the airline kept cancelling his flight because not enough people were booking and that Transavia didn’t want to burn expensive jet fuel on a mostly empty flight. Though he enjoyed his mother’s cooking, José found that after 5 weeks he had reached “the moment when you need to go back to your own routines, your own place.”  

He gave up on Transavia and booked a flight with KLM. After that too was delayed, he realized something: “I fly when they want, not when I want.” Anyone with plans to fly in the near future is likely to find themselves in a similar situation, their plans altered or derailed by airlines, companies which are themselves struggling to survive the pandemic. 

But José kept his spirits up. In the end, he found his sojourn enlightening, highlighting as it did the differences between the country of his birth and the land in which he now lives. 

His flight, due to depart at 11:40 a.m., was the first scheduled to leave Lisbon that day. Most seats on the plane were occupied; keeping distance was impossible. To make matters worse, a technical delay kept the plane on the ground for three hours before takeoff. A frequent flier, José found that despite the lack of turbulence, this journey was the tensest he had ever taken. Even though 90% of people on the flight wore masks, he could read anxiety on every face. He noticed that no one used the bathroom during the entire three-hour flight. 

Even from the air he could see that Portugal and Holland have handled the pandemic differently. Whereas he saw no more than ten cars on the highway during his one-hour drive to the airport in Lisbon, the Dutch roads looked packed as he approached Schiphol from above. 

In Lisbon, everyone going through security was made to sign papers stating that they had no coronavirus symptoms and would self-quarantine for two weeks once they reached their destination. Though he was told that authorities on the other side would need to see this document, no one so much as checked his temperature in Amsterdam.

The sight of an empty Schiphol did not surprise him, but José was shocked by the crowds of un-masked people on his train home to Delft. “People are much more self-aware [in Portugal],” he said. 

Considering the crowds he saw along the canals in Delft and the refusal of many people to keep their distance, he reckoned that simply spending time outside in the Netherlands is more dangerous than flying. 

Nevertheless, friends and colleagues viewed him differently. When you tell people you have flown, he said, “they look at you like you are contagious.” 

With the Netherlands prepared to lift certain restrictions, residents would do well to recall the extent and effects of the measures put in place to combat the pandemic. Next month will not see a return to normality. It will rather be the start of something new. It might be wise then to listen to José’s story and recall his warning:

“We need to get used to a new normal,” he said.