“We’re back in the air!” The emotion in Captain David Morgan’s voice is palpable as the first easyJet flight to take off after coronavirus forced the airline shut down lands in Glasgow.
The plane’s 51 passengers break out in cheers and applause. You can understand why.
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Most are easyJet crew, grounded for more than 11 weeks and taking the flight to familiarise themselves with the new measures in place.
While there may not have been many paying passengers on board, it marked the return to flying for the low-cost giant after almost three months where their entire fleet of 344 planes were grounded.
With most staff on furlough and with the airline burning through £5m a day, yesterday saw the tentative first steps back to normality with flights taking off to and from eight UK airports.
I was onboard the very first – the 7am EZY883 from Gatwick to Glasgow. It’s the same destination as the first flight easyJet ever flew when they launched in November 1995.
At 5am, the UK’s second largest airport is a ghost town. Riding the moving escalator to departures, there is not a single other person in sight.
What is clear is the need to wear a mask – signs are everywhere asking you to cover up.
With my boarding pass already on my phone, there was no need to stop by the single easyJet groundcrew working from behind a perspex screen.
Scanning my boarding pass to enter security, staff in masks and gloves firmly order you to add your own belongings to the trays while maintaining a very social distance.
With everyone wearing masks it does mean voices are raised as you are encouraged to take out laptops, remove high heels and push your own trays onto the conveyor belt to send them through the X ray machine.
But with more staff than passengers the whole process takes less than 30 seconds and I’m through into the departure lounge.
And that’s the next surprise. No snaking through endless aisles of duty free perfume and booze.
A short cut route normally reserved for passengers requiring special assistance means you pop out instantly next to the one and only shop open in the North Terminal.
Here, the shelves of Boots are surprisingly well stocked with sandwiches, wraps and sushi – I grab a sarnie and a drink having been warned there will be nothing on sale on the flight. Again, I am chatting to the Boots staff through a Perspex panel – and paying with my phone to avoid using cash.
It’s eerily quiet. The Weatherspoons sits silent, chairs on tables where normally the chatter and clink of glasses would signal the start of millions of holidays.
Every other shop in the departure hall remains shuttered and in darkness. But there are additions to the space – banks of hand sanitising stations and endless signs reminding you to stay socially-distanced.
After a couple of laps of the departure lounge where less than ten people are sat, I head to the gate. When the flight is called, you scan your boarding pass via a little window cut in the plastic guards around the gate staff.
Even with just a few passengers, we’re told to make use of both the front and rear doors to avoid queues forming on the plane.
My mask, in place since I stepped into the airport, is hot and every breath steams up my glasses but everyone understands the reason for wearing it.
Once seated, social distancing is of course an impossibility so masks are protecting us from each other. I’m sat opposite easyJet’s chief medical officer, Dr Mike Fonso, who has been at the forefront of initiating the new measures to ensure planes can fly again.
He explains the plane’s specialist system filters out 99.97per cent of viruses and bacteria with the air pushing downwards to vents in the floor, replacing the air in the cabin every three or four minutes and minimising the risk of particles passing among passengers.
Every day, each plane goes through a disinfection process that protects all surfaces from viruses for 24hours.
Our cabin crew welcome us onboard but the usual patter about onboard drinks, snacks and duty free is now replaced with an appeal NOT to clean our own tray tables but to request the special wipes carried on each plane that contain the same chemical as the daily disinfection process.
Masks and more than 800 wipes are carried on each and every flight, available for passengers and crew.
The crew rattle through the standard safety briefing, but of course when describing how to use the oxygen masks, there’s an extra reminder to remove your face mask before putting it on.
The flight flies by, with many getting up from their allocated seats and moving to empty rows.
With no trolley service, I dig out my sarnie and take surruptious bites moving my mask up and down for each one.
Helped by a frisky tail wind and of course virtually no other air traffic, our flight lands 40minutes early in Glasgow.
As I’m heading back to London, we disembark and head straight to the departure gate where 20 or so paying passengers are waiting to take the flight to the capital.
It may be a small start, with only a handful of flights on a tiny number of routes but Britain is back flying again – and I for one felt safe, secure and would happily do it all over again.
Hopefully somewhere hot and sunny next time!
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