Dodging National Closures – Last Plane to Bangkok

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Dubai Airport

I was in the USA for family reasons on a long arranged trip and was in the Northern suburbs of Philadelphia, USA. My Home base is in the northern suburbs of Bangkok, Thailand.

Having worked in public health, I monitored the virus carefully.  As the infections accelerated flight cancellations,  lockdowns and compulsory quarantined accelerated . I decided to cut short my US business and get back to Bangkok.
This was a rather nerve wracking trip as I tried to dodge the virus, country closures and airline shutdowns.

Booking

Finding a way home from Philadelphia proved to be problematic.
My original flight involved a leg with Virgin Atlantic from New York City JFK to London Heathrow. The Virgin Australia website would not let me change the booking date online. I had a few options to contact them with the airline strongly suggesting that instead of calling the overwhelmed operators, I message them on WhatsApp. This I did.
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After nine  hours, I decided to call. Getting through to an agent took four hours. The very calm helpful agent told me that it would cost $1500 extra to change bring the flight date forward because Virgin Atlantic was still flying that route. The flight had originally cost me $1400! Seriously. The agent agreed it was a very high change fee and said he would see if he could get a reduction from higher ups in the airline but that would take a couple of hours. After patiently giving him two phone numbers, I never heard from him again. I am still trying to get the original flight changed. Very disappointed with Virgin in this space.
Whilst on hold for many hours, I researched alternatives. Europe was being sealed off by the USA and Thailand was restricting access to more and more  countries. This meant that I had to find a flight that allowed me out of the USA but didn’t involve going through a hotspot that would result in Thailand refusing me access. I also had to think if I wanted to stay in that country if I was stuck
The cheapest options were via Japan but Thailand announced that passengers are required to obtain a medical certificate if you are visiting or transiting Japan. Plus I would be placed in Thai quarantine Centre on return
Qatar airlines (my favourite carrier) had a flight from Philadelphia to Doha and then on to Bangkok. Pricing was insane though. I tried to pick up a points flight but that didn’t work. Later, I found out that  Qatar has a massive number of COVID 19 cases so maybe it was good thing I didn’t go through Doha.
One World member American Airlines had a direct route from Philadelphia to Dublin with a fair price. Points would be credited toward my Qantas account but this was a minor consideration by now.  I could then connect to Dubai and onto Bangkok with Emirates. Both Ireland and the UAE were okay with Thailand health authorities. This turned my journey into a three leg hop connecting four countries but gave me a high chance of getting home.
This was booked and locked into place.
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Then the USA announced that Ireland was now included in its Europe wide travel ban. This was followed by American Airlines grounding most of it’s fleet and closing 75pc of its international routes. By a stroke of bizarre luck it turned that my flight  to Dublin was going to be American’s very last European flight out of Philadelphia. That aircraft would turn around in Dublin and form the last plane back to the USA from Ireland.
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Check in

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The American Airlines website would not let me complete the check in process online . Emirates allowed me to check in for the first leg but not my flight into Bangkok. Both those factors increased my anxiety about this trip. As a result, I decided to turn up earlier than I normally would for check in. My parents fearing that trains to the airport would be delayed and seeing the horrific crowds at Chicago airports insisted I go even earlier!
I rode from the house  to Philadelphia airport on empty regional trains.

Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station-normally way busy

Philadelphia Airport station-five of us got off

At the airport  I found virtually no one in the check in area. There was absolutely no issue with getting a boarding pass. I wished the check in agent “good luck” as he faced an uncertain future.
Security was empty and I was in the lounge eleven minutes after arriving at the airport
The pattern was repeated in my transfer at Dublin where a very quiet airport was evident. Fast track security took minutes.
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The last flight from Dublin to the USA were checking in here as I checked in next door at Emirates

At Dubai which was eerily quiet, I found airport security surprisingly chaotic compared to normal. The Fast track had been combined with normal passengers. It actually took longer than on my previous occasions with a lot more shouting.

Lounges

AA Admirals Club,Philadelphia
I felt very sad at the AA lounge when I asked the staff what happened to them when these Europe bound flights . With no rancour, they told me they would finish when the lounge closed and did not know when they would return.  As the time neared for boarding, the employees began packing up equipment in preparation for the shut down.
Food choices were limited with a bean soup, lots of cookies and an a la carte hot menu which I eschewed. Staff outnumbered customers for most of the time I was there
East Lounge, Dublin Airport

East Lounge Dublin

I got a warm welcome from the lounge desk and then a run down of all the changes because of COVID10:  there was no cold food, hot food was limited to a (horrible smelling) pasta and alcoholic drinks reduced. I wondered  how is alcohol related to the virus?
The woman serving in the lounge had absolutely no warmth at all. I observed her interacting with guests abruptly and unhelpfully. This was in contrast to my experience overall, where staff and customers interacted more than I had ever seen for a long time. Seems for most,  a crisis brings people together but not all.
I chose to eat little, enjoyed a nice shower and waited for the flight to Dubai.
Emirates First Class Lounge, Dubai
I have eligibility with my Qantas Platinum membership to access the Emirates Dubai lounge . I have never actually accessed it before as each time my transit time has been too short. Today I was determined to visit the Lounge. This meant I had just 15 minutes  into which I crammed a shower, a yogurt and half a bread roll with butter!  Even then, I had to hustle to get to the gate. (No my name was not called).

First Lounge at Dubai Airport

Breakfast Buffet at Emirates First Lounge

Boarding
I had a miscommunication with the AA lounge staff at Philadelphia, When boarding time, arrived I asked them  was it time to go to my gate. “Oh no” they assured me, “plenty of time yet. take a seat and relax”
I kept watching the monitor and my flight was still not listed as boarding. Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands and go down anyway. As I walked past the same person on the desk, I explained what I was doing and she looked shocked: “its on final call. You should have been there“, she exclaimed angrily. I did not argue.  I ran. It would have been too bad to miss the last flight to Europe!
For my next flight I walked through a  deserted Dublin Airport was deserted, buying some famous Butlers chocolates as I walked through.

A very empty Dublin airport

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My Emirates 777 from the Dublin East Lounge window

At Dublin, an older Pakistani woman collapsed  into a seat in the Business Class section of the aeroplane, one seat behind me. She announced she was having a medical  emergency and was immediately approached (at a safe distance by three Emirates staff). After a while she was removed from the plane by paramedic staff and the captain announced her bag was being removed, Then lo and behold she was back and escorted to her seat in Economy by three police. Turns out she had flown to Dublin and had been refused entry into Ireland and was now being returned. She didn’t want to go and had declared she was ill. The paramedics had decided she was not ill.
On Board
The American Airlines 330 is a three class aircraft: First, Premium Economy and Coach.
First and Economy were full as passengers had transferred from later flights but  Premium was almost empty. One passenger sauntered up from Economy and sat himself in Premium. It took the crew less than three minutes to spot him and send him back.
Despite being an almost full flight, the seat next to me was empty and I slept most of the trip.
Business Class on the Emirates 777 is arranged in a 2/3/2 layout. Most of us had two seats to ourselves such was the lightness of the load.
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777 layout….seat next to me was empty

777 seat

The 380 was equally empty. I would estimate it was a fifth full.

Pano view of Emirates A380 business class- most of the middle seats were empty

Meals
The AA flight attendant doing the meal service barked at me “Chicken or pasta“. There was not an invitation to enquire what the dishes actually were. Drinks included wine and soft drinks but I only took juice and water.
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Dinner on AA

The rubbery Chicken was served with a lentil and corn side. The salad was sad. The pasta looked equally horrible. The brownie cake desert was nice. Why can American Airlines not get food right?
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The “Chicken”

Breakfast on AA

The service and meal quality on Emirates Business was a world away.

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Emirates Business Class dinner from Dublin to Dubai

Dessert from Dublin to Dubai

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Mezze Platter from Dubai to Bangkok

Dinner from Dubai to Bangkok…..everything was perfect

Entertainment
To be honest, I slept pretty much the whole way although I watched a couple of episodes of Big Bang Theory on the excellent Emirates ICE entertainment system.
Emirates has good but pricey wifi available.
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Flying into Dubai

ICE system aboard Emirates

Overall

This was one of the weirdest travel experiences I have ever had. It really felt like I was flying through and around the shutting down of civilization.  I actually gave all of the flights a 5/5 rating.

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