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Flying Back to Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic – 22 Hours and 3 Heart Attacks Later… (Part 3)

AC 93 — “Is there a doctor on board?”

AC 93 flies a weird route. It’s a multi-leg flight that starts in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Two hours later, everybody must get off and hang out in Santiago’s airport, Chile, where more passengers are picked up. Then the boarding process starts for the final 10.5-hour leg to Toronto.

The flight wasn’t just late, it was very late. Maybe the plane was being cleaned after the Buenos Aires-Santiago leg but I doubt it because my window seat was covered with crumbs and other unidentified food bits. I was COVID-19-ready, so I cleaned everything with alcohol wipes (thank you, Carrefour supermarket in Buenos Aires) and offered a few to my seatmates, a Canadian couple from Victoria whose cruise had come to an abrupt end in Argentina—all the ports were turning the boat away as borders were closing.

They looked healthy enough, phew.

The Air Canada crew explained they had been flying this route for a week and this was their last trip. “We’re happy to go home!”

“… and so are we,” someone shouted.

“Cabin crew, prepare to take off…”

Seat belts buckled, luggage haphazardly secured—the aircraft was a mess, pretty much a flying chicken bus—we were finally leaving Santiago. The 8 p.m. flight had been delayed to 8:55 p.m., then 9:15 p.m. and when I checked my watch I saw it was already 10:30 p.m.

The pre-flight safety video started playing and…

And then the plane stopped.

Not as in “ready for takeoff” stop, it just stopped in the middle of the runway. Like, even I don’t park like this.

“Is there a doctor on board?”

We all froze in our seats.

There was no misunderstanding—the same question was repeated seconds later in broken French and in Spanish.

As “straight out of a movie” as it sounds, I’ve heard this question before, especially on Air Transat flights across the Atlantic. It’s usually a minor issue—a kid pukes, someone is having a panic attack, whatever. But considering the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact we were about to takeoff, this was the last question we wanted to hear.

“This is probably not related to the coronavirus,” the pilot said a few minutes later. “But… anyone with a medical background? Anyone?”

Apparently, no one.

I couldn’t see the sick passenger, he was all the way at the back.

Five, ten, twenty minutes passed, and eventually long enough for someone to pick up a medical degree from an unaccredited university.

“I’m sorry folks, we’re going back to the gate, the passenger must be removed from the plane.”

Fuck. Double fuck. Triple fuck. Fuck because, hey what the hell was going on? Fuck because we were back to step one. Fuck because it was now really late and we may have missed the takeoff slot.

The Chilean paramedics came on board, escorted the passenger out, then we had to wait for another hour because his checked luggage had to be retrieved as well.

I learned later that the passenger was Canadian and it was suggested he was displaying the early signs of heart failure. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in his shoes—missing what could be the last chance to go back to Canada and dealing with a major health issue alone in Chile…

Flight AC 93 to Toronto
Flight AC 93 to Toronto

AC 93 — Medical emergency #2

All the pre-flight steps were repeated and we finally took off, much to everyone’s relief.

Then we learned that there was no hot meal because reasons (apparently, they had run off of food), which really sucked because most of us didn’t have a chance to eat at all—most “restaurants” were closed at the airport and it had been a long, tiring day. I ate my own sandwich, like during a bus trip, then I doze off watching a French movie on my phone.

I woke up with a start halfway through the flight. Some passengers were leaving their seat, the crew was running down the aisle.

“Middle row,” my seat mate said. “A passenger is… really not feeling well.”

“Is there a doctor on—”

The pilot stopped in mid-sentence, as if remembering we had already established there was no doctor on board.

“This is probably not related to the coronavirus.”

Definitely the disclaimer of the day.

I moved to the back of the plane along with other passengers. The sick passenger was a very old gentleman.

“He’s not breathing!”

Oxygen was brought. A defibrillator was brought.

I don’t think it ended well.

I didn’t want to find out. We still had hours left in the air.

AC 93 — Medical emergency #3

We didn’t have dinner so logically, we didn’t really have breakfast either—a piece of bread, a “hockey puck” like my seatmate said.

But we were about to land, anyway. Here was Toronto, grey sky and patches of snow on the ground.

“Folks… I’m sorry, but we have a medical emergency. We’re calling paramedics and the passenger will have to be removed from the plane first, so it’s gonna take a while.”

Are you fucking kidding me?

“Oh, and this is probably not…”

Yeah, yeah.

Turned out that another passenger was having a heart attack.

I went to the bathroom and realized that many passengers were very old. Not as in “senior” old, but as in “you’re 90 and probably shouldn’t fly” old. I had never seen so many frail passengers in a plane, folks who couldn’t walk and just didn’t look healthy enough for a long flight.

The only explanation I came up with is that many of them could have been on a cruise and since all borders were now closed, they had to fly back to Canada. Still, South America is a long way from home…

Landing in Toronto
Landing in Toronto
Landing in Toronto
Landing in Toronto
Landing in Toronto
Landing in Toronto

Pearson Airport, Toronto — “You’re now under quarantine”

Paramedics took care of the lady, then dealt with the other passenger who didn’t make it (…I think?).

“Hi, this is CBSA talking… I’m here to inform you that as of now, you’re all under quarantine. Thank you.”

I had a moment of panic. Quarantine? Like, can we get off the plane or not?

Turned out CBSA meant “self-isolation,” i.e. what I already knew—all returning travellers to Canada were asked to self-isolate at home for 14 days. Phew.

Despite the dramatic statement, there was absolutely no screening at Pearson. Yes, I know, it sucks (note that it may have changed later, I came back on March 20). I was expecting temperature checks, like it was done in Santiago when I arrived from Buenos Aires, but nothing.

I was handed out a pamphlet about COVID-19 symptoms, another one about self-isolation, I acknowledged I knew I had to self-isolate and that was it.

The immigration process was extremely quick, maybe because all travellers to Canada were now either Canadian citizens or permanent resident. The vibe was “move along.”

Pearson Airport, Toronto — The baggage carrousel

“For once, I’ll get my backpack quick!” I had joked with Feng the night before. “No chance a Beijing-Toronto flight will hog the baggage carrousel.”

Ah, ah. Even though the hall was dead quiet we were informed that we would “experience a delay.” No shit. I was stuck there for over an hour.

I chatted with a few passengers, including a very young backpacker from Israel who told me she was going to spend a couple of nights at the airport before eventually getting on a London-bound flight.

“Wait… you can leave the airport, you know. See this door? That’s it. Once you get your backpack, you’re exiting and you’re in Toronto.”

“But I’m not supposed to be here, I’m not a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident!”

I shrug. “Well, you were allowed to board the flight, so…”

There was also a handful of German and Dutch backpackers who were similarly surprised to realize their passport hadn’t been stamped and that they were free to go.

I still don’t understand why some foreign passengers were allowed to board and others weren’t—but hey, good for them.

Toronto, Pearson Airport Baggage Claim
Toronto, Pearson Airport Baggage Claim
Toronto, Pearson Airport Baggage Claim
Toronto, Pearson Airport Baggage Claim
Toronto, Pearson Airport, washing my hands... again
Toronto, Pearson Airport, washing my hands… again

AC 452 — The bumpy flight to Ottawa

My connection to Ottawa was at 7:40 a.m. Obviously, I had missed it. We had all missed connections and there was a long, long lineup in front of the Air Canada counter to be rebooked on other flights.

I checked my email. I was already booked on the 1 p.m. flight. Fine by me. I gave priority to West Coast passengers—still a long way to go—and went out for a smoke.

At first glance, everything looked normal in Toronto. Starbucks was open, few people were wearing masks, it was quieter than usual but still busy.

I called Feng, then I called my mom and went to pick up my new boarding pass.

“Alright folks, it’s going to be a very bumpy flight to Ottawa and we’re not allowed to serve drinks and food anymore… but have a good flight!”

Look, as long as no one has a heart attack, whatever.

We landed forty minutes later.

I rushed out.

Feng was here.

I was home.

Waiting for the Toronto-Ottawa flight, Toronto, Pearson Airport
Waiting for the Toronto-Ottawa flight, Toronto, Pearson Airport
Landing in Ottawa
Landing in Ottawa
Landing in Ottawa
Landing in Ottawa
Landing in Ottawa
Landing in Ottawa
Landing in Ottawa
Landing in Ottawa
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