The Department of Homeland Security official scowled at the little clutch of weary passengers, recently disgorged into Terminal 5 of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport from Dublin on a hot August Saturday afternoon.
“Aer Lingus passengers,” the man barked. “Everyone up against the wall.”
I thought I was hearing things. Anger welling, I turned to my son.
“You remember all that Aer Lingus did to keep us safe?” I said, “the socially distant boarding, the careful distancing on the plane, the space all around us, our masks, the flight attendants with the wipes? This renders all of that moot.”
But what could we do but comply? Up against the wall we went, like cattle in a stockyards pen. “Got to write about this,” I fumed.
My annoyance had begun on the jet bridge, right after Aer Lingus Flight 123 had painstaking disembarked the roughly 50 occupants of its early arriving, 317-seater Airbus 330-300, only for a line to form behind a border protection official whose sole job appeared to be putting his initials on a public health form. That frustration would only grow when, after being unnecessarily corralled, we all were forced into yet another crowded area where we were asked if we had been to Brazil or Iraq.
The same questions four times, all while forcing people into a clump.
My local 7-Eleven has social distance markings on the floor. You’d think O’Hare International could at least manage the same.
This all was doubly absurd. Dublin Airport (where they say “welcome home” to everyone) has an efficient border preclearance system — always a good, time-saving reason to fly to Europe through that fair city. And the courteous border agent in Ireland had already asked these very same questions. In fact, everyone had this down better than O’Hare.
You should know two things about this trip. One, as a foreign-born immigrant of 30-year standing, I have two passports (and so, thanks to his dad, does my American-born 17-year-old). This made things easier. Second, this was not a frivolous excursion: I had to get to my 97-year-old mother, who needed help from her only child.
But, in short and notwithstanding all of the above reentry issues, everything really went very well.
Flights across the Atlantic from Chicago have been drastically reduced in number. In normal summers, London has nine nonstops a day: three on United Airlines, four on American Airlines and two on British Airways. This summer, there has been one on United, one on British and zero on American.
But Aer Lingus has retained one of its two Dublin nonstops. And the fares have been cheap. Very cheap. We paid $453 round-trip per person, less than one-third of the usual summer freight (trust me; I know these fares backwards). For another $480 on the outbound, I “bid” the lowest possible amount for business class, and we got it. There were two other passengers, far from us in our KN95 masks.
Better yet, the Aer Lingus flights were (and still are) totally changeable, without any fees. How I would have loved that flexibility when my father was dying and I was trying to do my job at the same time. But this is a unique summer.
At the time of our trip, the United Kingdom was insisting on a quarantine for all passengers from the U.S. Here in this story, we run into many ethical issues for you to judge. I can only recount what I decided.
Even though barely enforced, the fly-straight-there quarantine didn’t work well for us since we had nowhere to stay other than with the 97-year-old we most wanted to protect. So we decided to work for a week in France. (That plan only worked before the U.K. removed its “French air-bridge,” an exemption from the quarantine rule, which happened about a week later. But several other countries are still exempt, at the time of writing.)
Since France required a negative COVID-19 test for entry, we got ourselves a rapid test at Clear Wellness Group in downtown Chicago, which offers results in less than an hour, just before heading to the airport. We got the results by email before we checked in at Terminal 5. No problems there, unless you count having to remove your mask while showing your passport. Not necessary. Surely there is a way to study the top of someone’s face.
Dublin Airport was deserted and melancholy, with far more hand sanitizer stations than people. We filled out the Irish form saying we were leaving immediately, exited Terminal 2 and headed for the low-cost Irish carrier Ryanair in old Terminal 1. I’d booked two tickets for Biarritz, France.
For — wait for it — about $30 a ticket. Our bags cost more than the humans.
Ryanair was lightly populated too. In Biarritz, where the airport is tiny, nobody asked for the negative COVID-19 tests (apparently, that’s just in Paris). Hesitant to take a bus, we decided to walk from the airport all the way into town, clattering along with our bags. It was easy to have our own space.
And then for a week, we worked out of a tiny Airbnb studio in southwest France, walking on the cliffs in the morning and heading into the water. The case rate was very low in beautiful Biarritz (far less than Chicago at the time), but mask wearing was compulsory throughout the town. The French, of course, were not staying home, but living outdoors in glorious sunlight, socially distanced except for eating — when, it seemed, all rules were suspended as the streets closed and filled with outdoor tables of people laughing and eating Basque tapas, known as pintxos.
Our Airbnb was above a restaurant, and the window looked out on the roof of the kitchen, offering a soundtrack of kitchen noise and filling the single room with the most delicious aromas of cantabria (a fish stew) and cuajada, a cheese we’ve eaten in Central America.
It was, as you can imagine, a tonic. The light alone made you feel better. The spirit felt renewed. Everything went well — when online, I appeared to be in Chicago — until I joined a Microsoft Teams meeting and tripped a Tribune security feature, which declared me an “impossible log-in.” (Impossible? I just flew to Biarritz for 30 bucks! Nothing impossible about that!)
An editor got that fixed, and on we went. Work, and maybe a swim, in the morning and then work for the 9-to-5 U.S. workday, which is a luxury for a theater critic, albeit an insecure one. The week ended, health stayed good and off we went on a weekend Ryanair flight ($35) to London Stansted Airport and my mother.
Ryanair might well be the most detested airline in the world, and I’ve experienced my share of hate, but it handled social distancing superbly on three different flights, and we always had a row of seats to ourselves. In London, we went through the automated electronic passport gates, as usual. Nothing felt unsafe.
Always masked, we got some in-home and nursing help arranged for my mother, while staying away from her (not easy in her tiny house) and spending as much time as possible in her garden. The visit came to an end, and it was Ryanair back to Dublin (40 bucks!) and then back with our lovely friends at Aer Lingus.
I was so glad I went. I feel so much pain for those who couldn’t see their loved ones when they needed them the most. I wrote some obituaries, and I learned a lot.
Everything was great until we landed at O’Hare.
When is this country going to get these simple, life-enabling precautions together?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Chris Jones is chief theater critic and culture columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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