JAKARTA: “What? Why? But flying is dangerous. Are you not afraid?"
Such was the response from my family members when they heard about my upcoming flight - the first since COVID-19 hit in Indonesia in March.
Travelling by air is part and parcel of my job as a journalist in this huge archipelagic country.
But when COVID-19 broke out and my hometown Jakarta implemented a partial lockdown to curb the spread of the disease, I had to stop travelling.
In early June, the restrictions were lifted gradually and people started going out again. I, on the other hand, continued to work from home as I was still concerned about the growing number of infections in the capital.
However, when the chance arrived at the end of July to fly to Riau province, just under two hours away from Jakarta, I took the chance.
My family was shocked when I informed them about the plan. Their response was understandable, considering the fact that I am the one who constantly uses up our hand soap at home thanks to my excessive hand-washing routine.
Even though I have dined in a restaurant once and went to the mall once after the COVID-19 curbs in Jakarta were eased, was I really ready to be up in the air with strangers for almost two hours?
The idea was a bit frightening, to be honest, but I analysed the risk - Riau, unlike Jakarta, is not a COVID-19 hotbed.
Also, if I made proper preparations, it should not be that scary.
PREPARATION IS KEY
To prepare for the flight, I started by researching the health requirements to fly to Riau’s capital Pekanbaru because every airport in Indonesia has slightly different requirements.
Generally, if a person wants to fly out of Indonesia, one has to undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or a rapid test to show that she or he is most likely COVID-19 free.
For those who just want to travel domestically, a rapid test would suffice.
In Indonesia, it takes a few days for the PCR test result to be out. Priced between 1.5 million (US$103) and 3 million rupiah, it is a bit expensive for most people.
A rapid test, on the other hand, is more affordable and widely available in health clinics and hospitals in Jakarta. The test result will be known in minutes.
I decided to take a drive-through rapid test at a clinic for 150,000 rupiah.
An employee of the clinic stuck a needle in my finger, took a sample of my blood and 15 minutes later informed me that my test result is non-reactive, meaning my blood sample did not display symptoms of COVID-19.
Since I was planning to be away for just three days, I only needed to take the rapid test in Jakarta because Pekanbaru’s airport accepts a rapid test result obtained within 14 days.
After taking my rapid test result, I took a self-assessment screening test as required by the Jakarta government.
The Corona Likelihood Metric (CLM) is available online and assesses a person’s likelihood of being infected with COVID-19 based on the health-related answers of the respondent.
My self-assessment indicated I belong to the category "Level 1 low risk" of having COVID-19, with a score of 28.5 per cent which is valid for a week.
I then filled in the Health Alert Card, another self-assessment e-form, which has to be presented at the airport of destination. This is mandatory for all passengers travelling within Indonesia and arriving from abroad.
On top of these, I also followed the government’s recommendation and downloaded its tracing app.
THE BIG DAY
Having been fully prepared for the big day, I felt at ease if not a bit excited to get on a plane again after a five-month hiatus.
On the day of my flight, I showed up at the airport wearing a N95 mask, a pair of goggles and a face shield.
Even though it meant I could potentially offend the fashion police, I wanted to minimise the chance of me catching the virus by covering my face fully.
National carrier Garuda has only one flight daily from Jakarta to Pekanbaru at 8:25am, and travellers are advised to arrive at the airport three hours before the flight.
Hence, I arrived at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport at the break of dawn.
I was happy to see the airport again, though this time it was not the usual sight.
When I travel domestically from Jakarta, I usually take the first flight and despite the early hours, I would encounter crowds.
This time, it was different. The airport felt deserted. There were not a lot of people.
Upon entering the airport, I had to get my rapid test result checked. It was done very quickly, in about five minutes including queuing time.
Since I already checked-in online, I proceeded to the security check counters.
As I strolled through the airport, I noticed the quiet atmosphere.
The boutiques were still closed, and only a handful of restaurants and cafes were serving customers.
It has just been an hour, but I could not bear it further and proceeded to switch my N95 mask out for a surgical mask as I had difficulties breathing. I also took off my goggles but maintained my face shield.
I arrived at my boarding gate two hours before my flight and the waiting room was still empty.
I took the opportunity to just gaze at the airplanes parking, cherishing the moment I initially thought would not happen this year.
It felt a bit surreal upon entering the aircraft. The crew members who greeted me all had surgical masks and plastic gloves on.
For our row of three seats, I sat by the window while a man took the aisle seat. The middle seat was left empty to adhere to social distancing protocols.
The airplane was about 50 per cent empty, even though aircraft are allowed to fly with up to 70 per cent of its capacity. I cannot remember when I was last in such an empty plane.
I buckled my seat belt, sat back and tried to relax.
READY FOR MORE FLIGHTS AMID PANDEMIC
As the plane started to take off, I was suddenly overcome by emotions.
I was happy I could fly again and grateful that I was still alive amid the pandemic, yet sad that COVID-19 has hit the airline and travel industry and there is no sign of a full recovery in the near future.
I looked at other passengers. Only a few wore face shields, and most seemed relaxed, breathing through their cloth or surgical masks.
I normally like to enjoy the in-flight entertainment while flying, but this time I refrained from it since I want to avoid touching shared surfaces as much as possible.
When the plane finally landed in Pekanbaru, I felt relieved that everything went smoothly.
My return flight to Jakarta two days later was even emptier and I was definitely more relaxed.
To be on the safe side, I will get another COVID-19 test in Jakarta in two weeks' time.
With this experience, next time when duty calls, I will worry less about flying amid the ongoing pandemic.