Flying During Pandemic – My Journey Home from Vancouver – Los Angeles – Singapore

ZY Vancouver Los Angeles Singapore

After successfully completing my studies, I waited for the first wave of the pandemic to ease before I started to look for a flight home. Here’s my journey from Vancouver, Canada back home to Singapore, transiting through Los Angeles, USA.

Searching For A Flight

Despite the talk that flights were mostly empty, it was still difficult to find a one back home. A flight that was available on one day would be filled up the next. And since there is no non-stop flights between Vancouver and Singapore, I had to look for transiting flights.

AC554 YVR to LAX (6) Looking Out of Plane Window over Richmond Canada
Looking out of Air Canada’s Airbus A320 onto Richmond, Brtitish Columbia, as my flight AC554 took off from Vancouver International Airport

Back in June, there was only a handful of countries that allowed transits. I had to refund my ticket bought last year on China Airlines, because Taiwan was still closed for transit passengers. Hong Kong started its pre-Covid protests early in June, which reminded me of my cancelled flight last year due to the same reason. While Japan is open for transit, there was no viable flights, since most international flights arrive in Narita and Singapore-Tokyo flights operate out of Haneda.

My last 2 options were on Korean Air, transiting in Seoul, and on Air Canada and Singapore Airlines, transiting in Los Angeles. The latter was cheaper, and had an earlier flight date, so I grabbed the opportunity to book a ticket on Singapore Airlines’ system.

After 2 weeks of research, I finally got myself tickets back home. My journey would take me from Vancouver, Canada to Los Angeles, USA, on Air Canada’s AC554. I would have an 8 hour transit at Los Angeles International Airport following the 3-hour sprint on an A320. I would then leave LA shortly after midnight on Singapore Airlines SQ37. That would be a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Singapore, on a spanking new A350!

Air Canada’s Airbus A320, AC554 taking off from Vancouver International Airport, British Columbia, Canada

Leaving From Vancouver International Airport (YVR)

By end July, the pandemic showed little signs of easing. In fact, there were talks about second waves in Canada and Singapore when July came around, I was worried I would get stuck in Vancouver for another few months!

However, the second wave (seemed to have) held out as the month progressed. When the time came for me to catch my flight, I donned my mask (I kept 3 of them in my carry-on), tucked my hand sanitiser in my pocket, and strode into Vancouver International Airport.

Checking In

Vancouver International Airport was split into 3 areas – Air Canada flights, International flights, and flights to USA. Since my first sector was to Los Angeles, I was at the northeastern end of the terminal.

Vancouver was already in Phase 3 of opening up by the time of my flight in end July, in which entertainment outlets like restaurants are allowed to open for dine in. Even then, it is still unusual to see crowds in public spaces, as Canadians are in general, more socially responsible than their neighbours down south.

Therefore, when I reached Vancouver International Airport, the terminal was markedly quiet. Air Canada had set up self service check in kiosks to minimise human contact. The check in kiosks and bag drop were “common”. Everyone leaving on different flights would still use the same check in and bag drop facilities.

The only difference was that the bag drop was located at the entrance to the transit area. Over there, I have to get my boarding pass scanned, before I was allowed to drop my bags, and then enter the transit area.

Clearing Immigration and Security Screening

The immigration counter followed immediately after. Canada and USA, being close neighbours had convenient immigration processes set up. In this case, the US border control was right in Vancouver’s airport and we had pre-clearance before entering USA. This means that there was no need to clear immigration again upon arriving in the US.

There was a back up at the security screening, despite the pandemic. Physical distancing was not emphasised over here, though. I guess everyone was just eager to clear the screening and get out as fast as possible.

AC554 YVR to LAX (3) Gate E83

Waiting For Flight

There is so little news and update on the situation on flying during this period, that I thought it would be safer to arrive at the airport 2.5 hours early. I mean, although it was expected that the number of travellers are like 1% of pre-pandemic, we can’t assume the check in process timing would be cut. The number of staff could have been reduced correspondingly.

That being said, I went from curb to transit in a matter of half an hour. If you ask me, there was no change in the time taken.

I still had 2 hours before boarding commenced. However, barely any shops were opened in the transit area. I did a quick shopping at the souvenir shop just after the security screening. After that, it was a quiet walk to my gate at E83, where only a Tim Horton’s was open.

From the crowd in the waiting area, it looked like there were a lot of passengers on my flight. It was not surprising, since the booking system showed few empty seats onboard. Therefore, I went to the adjacent holding area which was almost empty.

Yup, I wonder why those people chose to cram themselves into that small space, when the terminal was almost empty.

AC554 YVR to LAX (2) Airbus A320 C FGYL
Air Canada’s Airbus A320, C-FGYL, which would take me from Vancouver to Los Angeles on AC554.

Flying Air Canada AC554 On Airbus A320

Boarding

Since I booked my flight on Singapore Airlines, I was on codeshare flying with Air Canada. As such, I couldn’t choose my seat until 20 hours before the flight. By then, I was left with the last few rows. I could also see that the passengers seated in front had an empty middle seat, so the flight was not as full as I thought.

Being seated at the tail had its perks. I was one of the first groups of passengers to board the plane. This also gave me a chance to watch the others seated at the front to board the plane. People watch, onboard a plane!

Since the flight wasn’t full, boarding was quick. I was also quick to realise that in the last few rows, we all had the whole row to ourselves. It basically meant that the passengers who selected their seats early and chose the front seats had it worse. All of them had to share the row with another passenger. But not us!

I could say it was a blessing in disguise!

AC554 YVR to LAX (1) Seat Map at Check in
Seat map of Air Canada AC554 at point of check in.

Seated at 31A

I wouldn’t say I hated being seated at the back too. From experience, I have grown to love the part of the plane after row 23, if my flight was a single aisle plane, like the A320 I was on.

Small planes fly at lower altitudes, which meant I would be able to see the geographical features below clearly. Being seated too far in front in the Economy section meant that my view would be blocked by the wing. My seat being at row 31 gave me an unblocked view of the wonders of Mother Earth!

That aside, the seats had sufficient space for an Asian like me. I had spare space between my knee and the seat in front and the seat wasn’t too tight at the sides. And since I had the whole row to myself, I could manspread without worrying I could incur the wrath of a neighbour!

The Inflight Entertainment System was rather old – not only was the screen small, they were still using LCD. For a day flight, it was difficult to see the screen without shutting the window shades.

AC554 YVR to LAX (1) Seat Location on A320

At the same time, the touch screen was of an older generation. The technology was of those where it’s easier to make selections with your fingernail or the corner of a card. The response was also slow. It took me such a long time to arrive at the movie selection page, I gave up using the IFE.

After all, I had the view to admire!

AC554 YVR to LAX (4) Air Canada Care Pack

Air Canada Care Pack

But I think the highlight of any flight during pandemic is the care pack. They were distributed like blankets on a long distance flight, so you can choose not to take them. But why would anyone reject a care pack??

When I first checked out my care pack, I was shocked at the size of the hand sanitiser. After spreading out the contents on my tray table, I realised ermmm… It was a bottle of water!

That is, they combined the flight’s snacks and beverage into the care pack. So those of them who declined them would have nothing to snack on during the flight. Call me a scrooge, but snacking and drinking on a flight is part of the experience, OK?

AC554 YVR to LAX (1) Flight Details

Situation on AC544 – Vancouver to Los Angeles (YVR – LAX)

Throughout the flight, the flight attendants donned gloves and face masks. That was good protection for themselves and the passengers, I think. However, they did not appear in the cabin for most part of the flight, except to distribute the care pack, collect garbage and close the overhead compartments.

As mentioned, the flight was slightly more than half full, with most passengers seated at the front. Their middle seats were empty, while the few of us at the back had the whole row to ourselves.

I’m not sure whether it was due to the short flight time, or the lack of proper meals served; the toilet, which was situated at the back, was not utilised that much. With the cabin crew also hidden in the galley, there was minimal movement in the aisle at the back of the plane.

AC554 YVR to LAX (5) Air Canada Economy Class Cabin

Some people might think sitting at the back of the plane is bad, but in this case, it was more advantageous. Therefore, whenever possible, select a seat from rows 31 and onward.

In this period, it’s amazing that people would still prioritise getting off the plane earlier over their personal health!

Air Canada’s Airbus A320, AC554 landing at Los Angeles International Airport, California, USA

As usual, everyone stood up and crammed themselves in the aisle to wait for disembarking. It seemed like the idea of physical distancing was thrown out of the window when it comes to getting off the plane! For me, since I had 8 hours of transit time at Los Angeles, I was in no rush to disembark the plane. Therefore, it also didn’t matter to me if I became one of the last ones to leave the plane. In fact, while everyone was sharing breaths at the front, the few of us were chilling at the back practising social distancing!

Looking at the scene, I sort of get why there are reports of infection on board Air Canada flights every week.

I think it’s better to chill and wait at our seats, while those anxious people risk close contact to get out of the aircraft fast. Contrary to common belief, the air in ALL commerical aircrafts, though recycled, went through HEPA filters. This meant the air in the cabin would be cleaner than that outside of the aircraft. That means the most likely way to catch the virus from an infected person would be through disregarding physical distancing, not donning a mask and failure to clean our hands properly and regularly.

AC554 YVR to LAX (7) First Sight of Los Angeles International Airport
First view of Los Angeles International Airport and control tower.

Transiting At Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

My adventure, or misadventure to be exact, at Los Angeles International Airport is a loong story. Since this post is about the experience of travelling by air during the pandemic, I shall leave this story for another day.

In my long transit time, I had the “luxury” to explore Terminal 6, where I landed, Tom Bradley International Terminal, where my SQ flight was, and everywhere in between (Terminals 4 and 5).

My exploration was so thorough that I could tell you Terminal 4 was the most bustling most of the time. By bustling, I meant more crowded that the other terminals. However, the crowd was definitely not at the level of pre-pandemic. Let’s just say it it was still possible to maintain physical distancing while moving through Terminal 4, while the other terminals were mostly empty.

SQ37 LAX to SIN (1) LAX Departure Driveway Outside Terminal 6
Sunset at Los Angeles International Airport, taken outside Terminal 5.

Most people in the airport were wearing face masks. There were brainwashingly periodic announcements to remind people to wear their masks. In fact, I had to find a stretch of space in between Terminal 4 and 5, at the curb of the departure driveway, to catch some moments without my mask. I was hot and sweaty from walking around the terminals and I needed to breathe some of the cool outdoor air to regulate my internal temperature. That space I mentioned had few people walking by in the 15 minutes I was there. Therefore, you can consider going there when you need a breather!

In the public area, the only retail I could find was the Starbucks in Terminal 4 Arrival level. That was quite disappointing, because I was famished. I only had breakfast before I left for Vancouver International Airport, and Air Canada only served a small packet of pretzels. I had no choice to but fill myself up with some overpriced burger and cake from Starbucks..

SQ37 LAX to SIN (1) Departure Hall of Tom Bradley Terminal

Tom Bradley International Terminal

When I first went to recce Tom Bradley International Terminal after I landed, it was empty. There was a few youngsters who decided to camp there to wait for their flight.

However, come evening time, the crowd swelled.

I returned to the terminal at about 8pm to start queuing up to check in for my flight SQ37. To my surprise, the terminal was busting. BUSTLING.

Since I had to cross the terminal’s length to get to my check in counter, I walked past the snaking queues for Xiamen Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Air China Eva Air and Philippines Airlines. The longest queues were for Xiamen, China Southern and Asiana. The first 2 airlines’ queues stretch the length of the terminal. It looked like there wasn’t going to be physical distancing on board these flights.

I suppose that was also the reason why many passengers were wearing PPE-ish attire! (I said PPE-ish, because I got to observe one close up. The material looked porous, so I am skeptical about the protectiveness of the full body suit!) I believe if you had to be crammed into the aircraft with so many people, being “properly attired” would be the only sense of security you can get.

Scene at check in counter at Tom Bradley International Terminal, Los Angeles International Airport

Check In

Nonetheless, I was still early for check in. They were supposed to open the counter only at 8.30pm. However, there was already a queue (of about 6 pax) and I had nothing else to do. When the counter was finally opened, our temperature was taken before we were allowed to proceed to check in.

From then, the check in procedures were the same as before, except that the counters had plastic shields installed and all the staff were donning face masks. The added barriers did make communication more challenging. A lot of times, we had to move towards the side, so that we could hear each other without the plastic shield between us.

Clearing Immigration and Security Screening

The queue for security screening was even longer and more elaborate than that in Vancouver. We first had to walk past a dog sniffer, before queuing up for the usual screening.

The screening itself was speedy, but I had one tray that needed further inspection. Unfortunately, the person before me had a humongous bag of car parts that took the inspector a long time to go through. If not, I would have left the security in less than 10 minutes, I guess.

SQ37 LAX to SIN (2) Queueing up for Panda Express

Transit Area of Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles Airport (LAX)

There weren’t many shops opened in the transit area either. Therefore, I went straight to the only food place still open – Panda Express. Well, I had not had proper food since morning!

Since there was no other food options available, and there were many Chinese flights, the queue took me 30 minutes! Nonetheless, I still got my Panda Express fix. A Chinese cannot claim he went to America without eating Panda Express >.<

To be honest, if there was any spot that was highly dangerous, it would be the dining area at Panda Express. Even those passengers who donned PPE took off their masks and goggles and became relaxed. I think food has a magic aura over virus infections… Just kidding! Please don’t take this seriously!

SQ37 LAX to SIN (1) Flight Details

Flying on Singapore Airlines SQ37 On Airbus A350

It was obvious from the waiting area that the load for SQ37 was very low. Additionally, the waiting area in LAX was open concept, with plenty of different kinds of seating available. Therefore, it was easy to find a seat which was far enough from the other passengers.

SQ37 LAX to SIN (4) Gate 133

Boarding

Boarding was also swift with such low loads. Usually, it took eons for the staff to board the premium passengers and passengers with special needs. Today, it took mere minutes before I got to board the plane.

Although I was not seated at the last few rows, I was the last row of passengers for the flight. My seat was in the middle of the Economy aft cabin, which also meant I got to be the first Economy class passenger to board the plane! (half hearted “yay!”)

During check in, the staff had told me there was around 20 passengers in the Economy class. Interestingly, there was about 8 of us seated in the aft cabin, which meant that the remaining 12 squeezed themselves in the smaller, forward cabin. I said “squeezed themselves” because those were supposed to be “forward seats” which one pays extra for. Under usual circumstances, when the flight is full, it made sense to pay more to be seated in front, so that you get to disembark earlier than the others at the back.

But when the load is like 20/187=10%?

SQ37 LAX to SIN (3) Airbus A350 9V SMZ
Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A350, 9V-SMZ, would be taking me back to Singapore from Los Angeles on SQ37

It was like, when my peers asked if I upgraded my seat, I explained that it would be very probable that I would get the whole row to myself. In that case, I would have plenty of space to myself, even though I paid less. Of course, I would not get the Business Class food or more pitch to stretch myself out in the seat. But I was still able to lie flat across the 3 seats I got to myself, albeit with with a little curling up.

It was not Business Class comfortable, but it was better than being cramped in the near-vertical position under normal circumstances.

SQ37 LAX to SIN (6) Seat Location

Seated At 55K

My flight being on 9V-SMZ, which was one of the newest A350 in Singapore Airlines’ fleet, I got the latest and newest hardware. In fact, the seat and Inflight Entertainment System was the same as that of their new A380 Economy class, which they started rolling out in 2018.

The first row (Row 47) of the aft cabin was right at the Emergency Exit. Therefore, for the window sections, instead of the usual 3 seats, there were only 2. They left the seat at the window (47A and 47K) empty due to the structure of the emergency exit. This meant that the window seat at row 48 (48A and 48K) had direct aisle access. In this case, 48A and 48K is also a “forward seat” one has to pay extra to seat in.

This arrangement is very similar to that of the new A380. In fact, the latter had 2 of such rows in the entire Economy class. I wrote a post before on Singapore Airlines’ new A380 Economy class and how to find out where the best seat in the class are.

SQ37 LAX to SIN (7) Singapore Airlines Care Pack

Singapore Airlines Care Pack

SQ also rolled out care packs for passengers in early June, when the Circuit Breaker ended. By comparison, there were less items in SQ’s care pack than AC’s. Singapore Airlines did not provide gloves. (The bottled water, earphones and pretzels in AC’s care pack was part of the usual amenities, and also provided by SQ outside of the care pack anyways.)

However, the disinfecting wipes were indeed better than that in Air Canada’s care pack. I mean, AC’s wipes were those we use to for injection and drawing blood. Singapore Airlines’ one allowed me to do a wipe down of the tray table, the IFE, the hand rests and the tray table of my adjacent seat.

SQ37 LAX to SIN (5) Singapore Airlines Economy Class Cabin Empty
Inside the cabin of Singapore Airlines SQ37 Economy Class

Situation On SQ37 – Los Angeles to Singapore (LAX – SIN)

Given how few Economy passengers there were, we literally had all the 4 crew to ourselves and received service that was almost equal to the premium classes.

For example, I got to choose my meal before take off – something that even the Premium Economy doesn’t get usually. Similarly, during meal service, the crew was constantly walking past and eyeballing me and asking if I need anything else.

I also got bottled water halfway through the flight. I know they started serving bottled water for hygiene’s sake during the pandemic. But BOTTLED WATER! It was a premium product only available for Premium Economy passengers and above!

SQ37 LAX to SIN (9) Supper Sweet and Sour Fish with Rice Vegetables Crackers Bun Orange Juice
Supper: Sweet and Sour Fish with rice.
SQ37 LAX to SIN (10) Breakfast Omelette Sausage Broccolu Potato Croissant Yogurt Apple Juice
Breakfast: Omelette with Sausage and mixed vegetables

There was also once, when I turned my head to check if the toilet at the back was occupied, a crew popped out from nowhere to ask me if I needed anything.

You know how bored the crew was when they devoted so much attention on an Economy passenger lol

In all honesty, at least they bothered. The crew on Air Canada, like I mentioned, totally hid in the galley to avoid interaction with the passengers.

However, I did feel stressed and awkward having so much attention on me. I just didn’t feel right to be treated so well when I was travelling in Economy!

SQ37 LAX to SIN (8) Overlooking LA at Night After Take Off
Final view Los Angeles at night, as Singapore Airlines SQ37 took off from Los Angeles International Airport.

Physical distancing was totally viable on this flight. The (bored) crew also made sure the toilets were always in tip top condition. As I mentioned earlier, the air in the aircraft is cleaner than usual. And with physical distancing so easy on SQ37, all I needed to do was to make sure I touch as little things as possible, avoid touching my mouth, eyes and nose, and cleaned my hands regularly.

Singapore Airlines’ Airbus A350, 9V-SMZ, SQ37, landing at Singapore Changi Airport

Arriving In Singapore Changi Airport

My 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Singapore finally ended on a Tuesday morning. In total, my journey back home took 26 hours.

Again, the lack of traffic meant that we reached the T3 aerobridge in mere minutes. Alighting the flight was also a breeze. I thought I would wait around in my seat, like I usually did. But I soon realised the crowd before me cleared quickly and I had to scramble to get my stuff out of the overhead compartment!

SQ37 was not the only flight arriving that morning, but the terminal was mostly lights-off on my way out.

SQ37 LAX to SIN (13) First Sighting of Singapore's Northeast
First view of Singapore mainland as we approach Changi Airport from the North.

Clearing The Last Hurdles To Get Home

An additional “station” was set up in the middle of the Arrival Hall. Over there, I had our temperatures taken and was personally briefed about the Stay Home Notice (SHN), before I could clear immigration. The self-service immigration channel was closed, so I had to go through the conventional way.

To be honest, it was unnecessary to do away with the self service channel. Contact with other humans would be reduced via the self service channel. I pity the immigration officers who were exposed unnecessarily to additional risks of infection!

SQ37 LAX to SIN (14) Arriving at Changi Airport Terminal 3

After collecting my bags and exiting the transit area, I was herded to a waiting area near the end of the terminal (outside McDonald’s). It would be difficult to go lost, since they cordoned up the area. There was only a single route to take after exiting the transit area.

The holding area was manned by auxiliary officers. They checked my name and directed me into the holding area. After gathering 12 people, we were led to the bus bay to take the bus that would bring us to our SHN Dedicated Facility.

It was at the bus bay where I got to breathe Singapore’s hot and humid air, albeit behind a mask. It had been a long and tiring, but interesting journey back home!

SQ37 LAX to SIN (11) Sky Approaching Singapore
Daybreak over South China Sea

Parting Words

My journey took place on the 5th month when the pandemic stalled air travel. By now, many procedures to safeguard staff and travellers were already in place. Except for the fact that I was consciously keeping my mask on (and making sure no one was around when I pulled off my mask), the entire journey did not feel like unyielding processes were forced onto us.

Upon arriving, everyone took care to remind me of the requirements and consequences of SHN. They were also very helpful in providing clarifications I had. The atmosphere was heavy, but never harsh. It made me feel glad I was back at home, in good hands!

If you are interested in my quarantine experience at the SHN Dedicated Facility, do check out my Instagram. I have been posting irregular updates about my life in a 38 square metres space. You can also read my other travelogues and aviation trip reports in this blog.

Till then, stay wanderlust!

2 thoughts on “Flying During Pandemic – My Journey Home from Vancouver – Los Angeles – Singapore”

  1. I also don’t understand why they have to shut down the self-service. Probably, too much hand contacts 🙂

  2. Pingback: Transit Through Los Angeles Airport (LAX) Like A Pro - Live. Life. Love

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