Flying During Covid - AC 8 Flight Report
(Hong Kong - Seoul)

This trip was a last minute booking that originally was a round-the-world itinerary heading westbound from Hong Kong, but with COVID rendering this unpredictable and risky with stops in multiple countries, I decided to simplify the trip in the end and change it to Canada in and out only. The key concern was the PCR test before every international flight, as infected people would be barred from flying even if they are asymptomatic or fully vaccinated, and it could take quite some time for that PCR positive test to clear out, which would mean being stranded in the meantime.

Canada has been reopening its borders in the lead-up to this trip. In August 2021, it re-opened to vaccinated Americans for non-essential reasons, and then extended to all vaccinated international travelers on Sep. 7, allowing them to skip quarantine.

About 2 weeks before departure, I started searching Air Canada's redemption engine for a free flight. Unfortunately, things have gotten a lot more expensive following its program revamp (devaluation), although taxes and fees have gone down as a result. What surprised me was that the cheapest redemption on this long international journey doesn't include checked baggage, whereas buying the cheapest ticket would still include a decent allowance. Adding a checked bag would cost a few thousand more Aeroplan points.

Air Canada flies to both Vancouver and Toronto from Hong Kong, albeit on a reduced schedule. Unfortunately, one of their fully vaccinated pilots had tested positive upon arrival in Hong Kong in early September, prompting the airline to add a crew change stop in Seoul so their staff would no longer layover in Hong Kong. This added a few hours to the already long transpacific crossing, so I was extremely picky with my flights to put an overnight stop in Vancouver to rest my legs.

Not deterred by these multiple complications, I made sure my hotel could be cancelled in case the extraordinary happens.

When I last tried this same flight in 2017, Air Canada had offered a stopover program with heavily discounted hotels. But due to COVID, they didn't offer this deal anymore, but I was able to secure another redemption booking using Asia Miles to get a decent hotel in Richmond that offered free airport shuttle service. 10 days before departure, I confirmed my flights and hotel and was ready to head to Canada.

COVID has added quite a lot of additional pre-departure steps. Luckily, these instructions are clear and I got reminders from the airline via email on what to do. I needed to do a pre-departure COVID test within 72 hours of the flight. This was easy with 2 operators at Hong Kong airport offering PCR tests. I ended up making the trip to the airport a few days before departure to get that quick nasal and throat swab test done.

In addition, I also had to complete a questionnaire on the ArriveCan app/websiteto provide details on why you are visiting (citizen, study, tourism, etc), flight details, health declaration, and to upload your vaccination proof to qualify for quarantine exemption.

With an 8:50am departure, I didn't have much option to get to the airport cheaply. COVID has decimated international travel, so the airport bus comes only hourly while the express train was slightly better at 30 minute frequencies. To play safe, I opted for a taxi to arrive at the airport 2 hours ahead, expecting a huge crowd and a full flight amidst Hong Kong's latest immigration exodus to Western countries.

Sure enough, there was a long line that snaked out of Air Canada's counters, while the rest of the airport was eeringly empty. Part of the reason was because staff only set up a proper queue for check-in assistance passengers and not the bag drop line. As a result, people lined up in a long L-shape pattern, hence extending far beyond the check-in desks. But with Hong Kong-style efficiency, I only waited about 20 minutes for my turn.

The check-in agent was very knowledgeable of what needs to be done. Show the PCR test and ArriveCan receipt and off goes the bag into the belt. With some time left, I went downstairs to the medical centre to pick up a paper copy of my PCR test report even though I had received an email version already.

Observing the departure entrance, I saw friends bidding farewell to each other and families in tears at their departing members. This crowded oasis in the empty airport was an emotional highlight, a sign of the times, and of things to come.

Security and immigration didn't take long, and I emerged air-side for the first time since February 2020. The airport has undergone some big renovations since my last flight, but first up is a sanitizing break.

Most eateries in the food court have closed, although the seating areas have been spruced up with more wood finishings.

Welcome to flying during COVID.

Many shops were also closed as well.

Nevertheless, plane spotting was still decent, although there weren't many foreign birds here anymore.

A major change I wanted to see is the new bridge to the satellite concourse. The structure looks pretty much done although the terminal entrance is still boarded up.

Seating has also improved with more work stations for the busy business traveler. I particularly liked the desks at the window with tarmac views.

Automation is also coming for boarding, but I wonder how do they verify the passenger's identity? Is it because we have biometric passports now?

Boarding was timely and despite an almost full flight, we settled in quite quickly and were able to push back 10 minutes early.

The Dreamliner is a welcome sight compared to Air Canada's high-density 777s. I happily parked myself at the last row where the 3 seats become 2, with lots of storage space and leg room under 2 seats ahead of me. Crew announcements included the requirement to wear a mask throughout the journey and the languages they spoke. It was a quick 13 minute taxi to the other end of the airport and we took off at 8:53am for the short flight to Seoul. Compare that to the half-hour taxi before the pandemic.

Reclamation works for the new 3rd runway are complete but it will take some more time to finish this expansion.

The weather above the airport was quite decent with good visibility, but clouds rolled in above the city so I couldn't capture skyline views today.

The first meal of the trip was a snack sandwich. Not totally awaken yet from my early departure, I declined it. I browsed around the IFE, which had a surprisingly good selection, an improvement from my previous flights. Soon, we were flying over Taiwan's west coast and I could even spot Taipei's airport.

Strangely, the flight map got the trip wrong, still believing we were departing Vancouver instead.

The flight to Seoul takes just over 3 hours and there would be a crew change. It took about a half hour from sighting the Korean peninsula to landing.

Yikes! Asiana, which will disappear into the Korean Air brand soon, and 2 mothballed A380s!

During the transit stop scheduled for 1 hour and 40 minutes, all passengers had to stay on board. The crew did try to reassure us they would get out as fast as they can after the crew change.

So many of us got up to stretch and chat a little bit.

I browsed around the amenities and noticed there was no longer an in-flight magazine and menus were not distributed. I continued to browse the IFE to add content to my playlist, but noticed this stop had re-set the system and cleared out my previous flight's data.

The short flight was uneventful, but symbolizes how flying during the pandemic can change quickly and unexpectedly. Air Canada had to come here to skirt around Hong Kong's tight rules for testing and quarantining air crew. Nevertheless, this additional travel time did not impact the Aeroplan points I paid for the journey, and the Dreamliner was comfortable enough to spend a few extra hours on. This was a vast improvement to their high-density 777.

Continue onto the Seoul - Vancouver leg

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