FRANKFURT — Last week I stepped aboard the subway in Frankfurt for the first time since February, the start of a 4,000-mile trans-Atlantic journey to rejoin my wife after a three-month separation.
The trip to the United States was one I’ve made dozens of times over the quarter century I’ve lived and worked in Germany. But this time, in the midst of the pandemic, it felt like a voyage into the unknown.
Crossing borders is no longer routine. Europeans are still persona non grata in the United States. I would be flying from a country just coming out of lockdown to one where the virus is still flaring in some communities.
By the end of a long day, I would be with my wife, Bettina. But the experience, sometimes frustrating, sometimes surreal, left me with the impression that flying would never be the same again.
It became clear that travel was more difficult these days as soon as I tried to book a flight. Lufthansa wouldn’t allow me to redeem a flight voucher from a canceled trip online. Instead I had to call the severely overloaded service center, which after a long wait took my reservation but then neglected to email me confirmation. I didn’t know whether I had a valid booking or not.
After numerous failed attempts to get through again, including one instance when I waited on hold for an hour only to be disconnected, I managed to confirm my booking. By then there were less than 24 hours until departure.
The day I was to fly, Lufthansa reported a quarterly loss of 2.1 billion euros, or $2.4 billion, as passenger traffic evaporated amid the coronavirus outbreak. A question for Lufthansa management: If you need all the customers you can get, why make it so hard to book a ticket?
About two dozen people were in line at check-in when I arrived at Frankfurt Airport on the morning of my trip. Usually flights to the United States are full of German tourists. But everyone in this line was speaking English with American accents. From their talk of deployments and their camouflage backpacks, it was obvious that many were military personnel on the way home with their families.
Then, to my alarm, an airline employee checking passports pulled me out of the line and told me to wait for immigration. After the hassles with Lufthansa, I was already nervous about what kind of administrative snafus I might run into on this trip.
To my relief, it turned out that immigration was looking for someone with a name vaguely similar to mine but half my age.
A few minutes later I had my boarding pass and was walking past rows of shuttered duty-free shops. I could hear my own footsteps echoing on the polished marble tile floor.
And here’s the weird thing. There was something strangely enjoyable about traveling through a deserted airport. So much of the stress of air travel comes from standing in long lines and fighting through crowds, yet Frankfurt was peaceful. Even the guards wrangling plastic trays at security seemed cheerful.
The feeling of odd contentment continued on the plane, a Boeing Dreamliner operated by United Airlines, a partner with Lufthansa in the Star Alliance. There was at least one empty seat between passengers, except for families. In other words, we weren’t packed in like sardines.
United offered assurances that the plane had been thoroughly disinfected. Still, I cleaned my armrests and seat tray with a disinfectant wipe. I also wore a mask the entire trip.
The only downer was lunch. No one expects much from in-flight cuisine, but in the name of sanitation the bland “spicy chicken” and fruit cup came in packages sealed with plastic film that had to be peeled off. Afterward there was no coffee or tea.
Somehow I have the feeling that small privileges like coffee and fresh rolls are never coming back.
About eight uneventful hours later we landed at Dulles International Airport near Washington, where I planned to get a connection to Burlington, Vt. That’s where I grew up and where my wife and our 24-year-old daughter were waiting out the pandemic.
Arriving in the United States was the part of the trip that worried me the most. The official form that my fellow passengers and I had to fill out before touchdown made it clear that people from the European Union were not welcome. There was no mention of an exemption for U.S. citizens like me, though I knew there was supposed to be one.
But it was a breeze. At Dulles, a woman in a nurse’s smock checked my form, asked me if I felt sick and held a sensor to my head.
It’s easy to imagine health checks like these becoming a permanent part of international travel, along with worse food. Travelers can only hope the pandemic will also bring some positive changes, like less crowded flights and more freedom to change flights without paying stiff fees.
The sensor said my body temperature was 98.1 degrees Fahrenheit. Good to go.
Dulles seemed even sleepier than Frankfurt. Rows of United jets were parked on a side runway, evidently waiting for a vaccine to revive air travel. All but a few airport restaurants were closed. I was glad I’d packed some energy bars.
The plane to Burlington, another United flight, was so empty that the pilot asked the flight attendants to move passengers to the front of the plane. “We’re a little tail heavy,” he said over the intercom.
Vermont requires people arriving from out of state to quarantine for 14 days. But there was no one taking names when I landed, just my wife’s friendly face. It seemed the only enforcement was a sign at the exit to the airport, like the kind highway crews use to warn of roadwork ahead. “Stay home,” it said.
I underestimated Vermont state government. A few days later I got a telephone call from an amiable woman at the Department of Health asking if I felt all right, reminding me of the quarantine rules, and offering information on where to get a coronavirus test if I wanted one. I’m fine, I said, but thanks for asking.