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A traveller wearing a mask enters the international departures lounge at Pearson Airport in Toronto, on March 13, 2020.

CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Until last week, it had been 85 days since I was on an airplane, a personal statistic I never thought I’d calculate. When you’re a frequent flyer, your fixation is the future, the next business trip or holiday. But as the global pandemic took its toll, I wondered if I would fly again this year. It was bittersweet to see a meme circulating repeatedly through social media: “Can’t wait for the day I walk down the aisle and hear those magical words ... this is your captain speaking.”

Last week, I took my first flight since March to fly from Toronto to Vancouver, a flight I’ve done repeatedly for more than 20 years. But this time, I wondered how different the flight experience would be.

Usually, my travel day checklist consists of packing snacks and downloading books and TV shows. But for this trip, I was fixated on how many masks I should bring, where to stash my wipes and sanitizer, and how to minimize what I touched until I could get to a bathroom to wash my hands. Would I even feel comfortable using the airplane toilet?

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Checking in online now includes a health questionnaire and reminders of new procedures, such as wearing a face covering while on board. Picking a seat was a bright spot – all middle seats were blocked.

I was accustomed to hearing a chorus of goodbyes when I arrived at the airport as vehicles double-parked. But that day, my car was the only one at the curb. My driver mentioned there used to be 350 to 400 limos waiting for passengers – now, there were just 20. Pearson airport’s terminal doors are now home to the first of many signs informing travellers of new rules.

On May 31, Toronto’s Pearson was the first airport in Canada to require passengers to wear face coverings and limiting airport access, including terminals, sidewalks and parking areas, to passengers and employees only. “We want to be seen as a leader in considering the health and safety of our passengers,” says Ryan White, external communications manager for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA). Passengers who need assistance or minors travelling without adults are permitted someone to help them within the terminal.

Transport Canada recently announced that passengers and employees of rail, marine, transit and air services would require face coverings, and, in addition, all air passengers will have their temperature taken prior to boarding in Canada. Air Canada was the first airline in North America to adopt temperature screening in May.

According to the GTAA, there’s now an average of 5,000 passengers a day, compared with 130,000 at this time last year, which means there are no lines. There are signs, hand sanitizer stations, and airline and airport staff to guide travellers through every part of the journey to the gate.

My temperature was quickly taken before I entered security; passengers are spread out between screening areas to maintain physical distancing. The only airport item I touched was a security bin, sanitized after my use.

Several airport stores and restaurants remain closed, but there are a few for last-minute travel necessities and takeout meals; on domestic flights, Air Canada isn’t offering food to purchase on board.

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The terminal was unnaturally quiet, the constant stream of air travellers I was used to seeing was non-existent. Before security, I saw only three other passengers, and afterward a few more, acknowledging each other with a smile or hello. I felt like I had become a member of a new exclusive club, those who choose to fly now. In all, it took me 20 minutes to get from the Air Canada check-in desk, where I dropped off my luggage, to the gate where I chose my seat.

Waiting at the gate reminded me of previous trips: Passengers were relaxed and you could hear a soundtrack of overheard conversations, Pearson’s eighties music and airport announcements. The difference was that everyone was spread out, something that’s easy to do right now when there are fewer flights.

While several U.S. airlines have returned to boarding the back of the plane first, Air Canada continues to board by zone number. But passengers are instructed to remain seated until their zone is called, unlike pre-COVID, when crowding the gate was an airport pastime despite gate agent announcements.

Airline crew members were dressed in PPE and some travellers, too, including three fellow passengers in PPE jumpsuits, and many wearing face shields. My plane was clean, as if it were the first flight of the day despite being a midday flight. I flew on a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, which at capacity would have 248 passengers. Middle seats are now empty to provide more space between passengers and, as I looked around after boarding, the plane was around 65-per-cent full. Although you’re unable to choose middle seats when checking in online, when asked, crew will still tell passengers they can’t sit in those seats, even if they’re travelling together.

Air Canada, through its new CleanCare+ program, offers every passenger a package after boarding, which includes a mask, gloves, sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer and water. The majority of passengers remained seated during the entire flight and I was one of the few that used a spotless airplane toilet. But after landing, old habits kicked in with passengers crowding the aisles, despite a reminder announcement by the crew to maintain a physical distance.

For those of us who went to claim suitcases, coronavirus manners returned, with many standing on the YVR airport floor signs reminding passengers to keep space between each other while waiting at the carousel. The arrival waiting area was empty, with no cars or shuttle buses lingering outside the terminal, and I was the only passenger walking to the SkyTrain. But catching a sight of B.C.’s coastal mountains still gave me a thrill of arrival.

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