Travelling amid a pandemic from Belgrade to Hong Kong

TRIP REPORT | INDEX


In late August I finally made my long-awaited move to Hong Kong. The trip has been in the works for a while, and in normal circumstances I would have booked the flights months in advance. But, as we all know, circumstances have not been normal lately, and I made a booking only a few days before the flight, anxiously examining which routes were still operational. 

When I started planning the trip in the Spring, there were still quite a few options available, including a flight with Aeroflot via Moscow and the usual assortment of Middle Eastern carriers via Qatar and the UAE. But pretty soon the options dwindled: Aeroflot no longer served Belgrade and the Gulf carriers either stopped flying altogether or reduced the number of flights so radically that no suitable connections were available. By the time I was ready to book, I could opt to fly with Lufthansa and Cathay Pacific via Frankfurt, with Swiss via Zurich, and with Turkish via Istanbul. The problem with the Frankfurt connection was that it involved a self-transfer which I found too complicated as we were flying with kids and lots of luggage, not to mention the possible immigration issues for non-EU citizens. Zurich was better, but the connection was tight, Swiss’ baggage allowance was quite a bit less generous than Turkish’s, and the flight was to arrive in the morning, which I wanted to avoid (more on that in a moment). 

So, Turkish it was. My experience with them has been very good in the past, and the 30kg baggage allowance per passenger helped, but I was nonetheless worried about all the Corona-related cancellations. In fact, I still haven’t received my refund for a different trip Turkish cancelled this June. However, FlightRadar24 was showing that all the recent flights both to Istanbul and to Hong Kong actually happened, so I was reasonably optimistic. It was an 8:25 PM departure from Belgrade, with about two and a half hours in Istanbul, and then the ten-hour flight to Hong Kong, arriving around 5 PM local time. Total travel time is just under fifteen hours. 

We arrived at Belgrade Nikola Tesla a couple of hours before the flight, only to find the airport largely deserted. This was no surprise: with all the cancelled routes, our 8:25 to Istanbul was in fact the last departure of the day. As I expected, the ground staff had some questions about our immigration status. Hong Kong has closed its borders to all non-residents, except those arriving on work visas for the first time to take up employment, and their dependents. This included myself and my family, but with only a visa in my passport and no Hong Kong ID card yet (those are issued only upon arrival), I was worried how familiar the ground staff was with the rules, especially since I heard a number of horror stories from travelers who were denied boarding over immigration issues. Consequently, I was quite anxious when Turkish Airlines staff disappeared with our passports for about twenty minutes. Luckily, however, they knew what they were doing. They explained that they just needed to make a call to make sure we are allowed in; after that the boarding process proceeded quickly. An added bonus was that, because of the pandemic, Turkish doesn’t allow large carry-on bags onboard, so all five of our 8 kg suitcases were checked in all the way to Hong Kong, and we could go to the aircraft with only a few smaller items. 

The flight to Istanbul was quite full. I don’t have the exact figures, but I would estimate the load factor at 80% or so. Obviously, many travelers were using Turkish to connect to destinations that were suddenly inaccessible from Belgrade, including, for instance, Russia. I have little to say about the short hop to Istanbul on an A321. It’s an uneventful experience in normal times, but now even the in-flight service was missing. We were given some water and then sat in the dark with the lights off for most of the flight, as if the flight crew wanted to keep the passengers as passive as possible. I suspect that this was an attempt to minimize interactions and cabin movement in order to reduce the risk of infection. It was a preview of what was to come on the much longer second leg of our trip. 

We landed in Istanbul late that evening and were bussed to the new airport building. Last time I flew on the Belgrade-Istanbul route, I transited through the very aged Ataturk airport. It was likely the most dated, run-down airport I ever used, and I have been around the block a few times. This time, however, the new Istanbul airport was something else: airy and spacious, although unfortunately crammed with all sorts of shops. Although it was almost midnight—our flight to Hong Kong was scheduled to depart around 2 AM—there were still quite a few travelers (I wouldn’t call it busy, but it was far from deserted), and many of the food outlets were working. We found a remote area where we could eat and get some rest. The free WIFI helped. 

When we arrived at the gate—it was quite a walk! —we found the ground crew busily examining the passengers’ documents. In addition to general travel restrictions, Hong Kong also imposes particular requirements for travelers coming from what it deems ‘high-risk countries,’ which currently include Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Africa and the US. Travelers from these countries are required to do a COVID test no more than 72 hours before the flight; moreover, they need to bring with them a document proving that the lab where they tested has proper accreditation and proof that they have booked a hotel for their 14-day quarantine upon arrival. Clearly, the ground staff was making sure that all the papers are in order. As for us, not being from a ‘high risk country,’ we received little attention. They looked at our visas, made sure that mine was valid for employment, and that was it.

View from the gate of a Turkish 777 at the new Istanbul Airport

Already at the gate I realized that the plane will be empty, but it wasn’t until we boarded that I realized just how empty. Turkish’s 777-300ER can carry around 350 passengers. There was no more than 50 people at the gate. Having heard many stories about the planes flying with a much-reduced passenger load, I booked us some seats in the back of the aircraft, hoping that there might be a few empty spaces where we could lie down during the long flight. Well, ‘few empty spaces’ was definitely an understatement: in the final section of the aircraft (rows 40-53) which can seat around 110 passengers, there was a total of eight people, and that includes myself and four more members of my own family. Now, I had the fortune of flying on a few empty planes here and there. For instance, I once slept through the entire journey from Boston to London because the two seats next to me were unoccupied and I could lie down. But this, this was something else.

The empty cabin of TK 070 during the safety demonstration prior to takeoff from Istanbul


Just like on the BEG-IST leg of the flight, the service was minimal. Soon after takeoff, we were given what was basically a lunchbox, and that was it. No hot meal, nothing except another round of water bottles later in the flight and a ‘hygiene pack’ with masks and disinfectant. Once again, we were kept in the dark for more or less the entire trip. Now, having travelled intercontinentally on many occasions, I am aware that cabin crew manipulates the cabin atmosphere (closes the lids, turns off the lights, etc.) in order to help passengers adjust to a new time zone upon arrival. This, however, was not it. Although we were arriving in Hong Kong in late afternoon, the lights were off almost until landing. It was almost as if they wanted to keep us asleep and strapped to our seats for as long as possible. Unsurprisingly, we did get quite a lot of sleep.

The lunch box we received instead of a hot meal on the flight to Hong Kong


Once in Hong Kong, we were facing a fairly complex procedure. On arrival all passengers were directed to the part of the terminal converted into a temporary testing center. Before the flight we were required to fill in a form stating our travel history, a contact phone number, and the address where we will quarantine for fourteen days (a mandatory measure applicable to all inbound travelers). At the airport all this information is doublechecked: first someone checks if the phone number is right. They literally call you on the spot to see that it’s ringing. After that, they make sure you have installed the app which they use to monitor your movements, and issue you with an electronic bracelet with the same purpose. The mechanism, as we were to find out soon, is that when the app prompts you, you use the phone to scan the barcode on the bracelet. (This all sounds rather nightmarish, but in reality, the government staff was quite kind throughout the process.) 

Finally, we were given written quarantine orders, and sent to do the saliva test. This brings me to something I mentioned at the beginning—namely, the fact that I didn’t want to arrive in the morning. Travelers who arrive in the morning and early afternoon are normally asked to wait for the test results in the airport hall for anywhere between 7 and 12 hours. They are given food and water, but little else, and sitting in an airport waiting room for such a long time (and with three children!) cannot possibly be fun. This is why we wanted to arrive in the evening. Travelers arriving later in the day are put on a bus and sent to a hotel, where they will spend the night at the government’s expense; their results are communicated to them the next day, and if their tests are negative, they can go to the place where they will quarantine. After the long trip, and with three tired children, we were pretty sure that the second option was more reasonable. 

So, after the test we were finally allowed to go through immigration (which was a breeze), pick up our luggage, and queue for the government bus to take us to the hotel. That was the worst part: we spent something like an hour in that line. In the morning, after testing negative, we took a taxi to our quarantine apartment. It turns out, taxi drivers everywhere like to overcharge those unfamiliar with the city. As I write this, our mandatory fourteen-day quarantine has ended, and we are enjoying our new Hong Kong apartment. We also hope that our next trip—probably along the same route—will be a bit more conventional and less complicated. Although, of course, I wouldn’t hold my breath.


Share your travel experience by submitting a trip report to exyu@exyuaviation.com


Comments

  1. Anonymous09:20

    Nice trip report. It's a real shame what TK has done to its service under the excuse of the virus.

    The procedures at Hong Kong are interesting to say the least.

    Good luck with the move :) all the best

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nemjee10:37

    Interesting trip report, thank you. I am not surprised about the flight to IST having good loads. I was at the airport this morning to take a family member who is flying to LCA (full A320) and there were so many Turks at the airport. Worth noting that there were both Turkish Airlines and Pegasus departing within two hours.
    Hopefully tourist numbers keep on improving so more flights are added.

    As for TK's treatment of their customers, it's a disaster. All the money they invested in building their brand is destroyed now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous12:04

      :)

      BEG-LCA 12/130
      LCA-BEG 11/120

      Pozdrav druze!

      Delete
    2. JU520 BEGLAX12:51

      Brand new LX A321 NEO on the way to BEG LX 1416 with 202 Passengers

      Greets fm ZRH

      Delete
    3. Nemjee12:53

      Thank you both! JU520 do you know if they have passengers in business because if they do then it should be pretty close to being 100% full ... in that configuration.

      As for Cyprus, if JU can play its cards right down there they can push OS out just like they thrived after MA went bankrupt. JU currently has more seats in LCA than OS which downgraded it to just 4 weekly flights on the E95.

      Delete
  3. Anonymous11:36

    Nice to hear about BEG loads.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous12:51

    Great report. Thanks

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous17:11

    Nice report
    Flew TIA-IST-WAW-RZE 2 days ago. All flights had more than 90% flight load, maybe a bit less IST-WAW which was operated by an A333. With TK, we had to fill forms during the flight. Pens and papers being passed all over the plane, definitely not very practical

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous19:13

      How much was it?

      Delete
  6. Anonymous21:19

    Nice one

    ReplyDelete
  7. What an unnecessarily disastrous inflight service... Not good for their brand!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous06:44

      Absolutely agree with you!

      Delete
  8. Anonymous18:27

    Actually, I certainly wouldn't call Atatürk one of the worst airports in Europe.

    It was very well maintained and unlike the new one was much closer to the center and had a direct rail connection to the city.

    The new airport is in the middle of nowhere, has no proper infrastructure and normal transport links and taxiing times are horrendous.

    TK's expenses increased a lot since the moving.

    Staff are (mostly) idiots at both airports, not speaking English, so that doesn't change.

    ReplyDelete

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