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Flying Back to Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic – Airport Mayhem and Stranded Travellers in Santiago (Part 2)

The storm was coming and I would be riding it out in Canada. It was as if I was choosing my warfare vessel—good luck Chilean and French ships, I’m boarding the HMS Ottawa!

That is…

… if AC 93 to Toronto wasn’t cancelled.

… if it wasn’t overbooked.

… if nothing else happened in the next few hours.

My flight was at 8 p.m. and I decided to go to the airport around 3:30 p.m., so I had plenty of time.

I walked aimlessly in Santiago for a couple of hours, already missing the sun, the atmosphere, the smell of South America. Shit, should I buy some food for the trip? There were lineups outside most supermarkets with the new COVID-19 measures. Never mind, let’s get cigarettes instead.

I took a quick shower, finished packing, left the keys on the kitchen counter as agreed and shut the door without looking back.

It didn’t take long to find a taxi—streets were eerily quiet for a Wednesday afternoon.

“To the airport, please. And don’t worry, I’ve been here for three months, I’m not coming from France or Italy,” I added.

The driver laughed. “Sí, po, I’m not scared! Plus, I need to work and you’re only my second customer of the day. El virus is bad for business…”

Mayhem at Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, Santiago

I didn’t know what kind of airport experience to expect. Would it be empty because borders were closed and most flights cancelled, or would it be packed because it was time to leave for most foreigners? Santiago isn’t a top tourist destination this year because of the ongoing protests, but it’s a hub in South America.

The airport was quieter than usual but packed with European, North American and Asian-Pacific travellers trying to get on the next available flight. It was mayhem at the LATAM counter—the airline had just cancelled 90% of its international flights, leaving passengers in limbo.

I chatted with a nice Australian couple who were on hold with Qantas. They were hoping to buy a last-minute ticket back to Sydney and eventually Camberra, just like in movies. That’s how desperate people were.

“Our respective governments are urging us to go home… but we left weeks before COVID-19 started spreading in Italy! It’s not that easy to go home and it’s not going to get any easier.”

Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, the beginning of the lineup at the Air Canada check-in counter
Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, the beginning of the lineup at the Air Canada check-in counter
Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, Santiago
Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, Santiago
Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, international travellers trying to go home
Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, international travellers trying to go home
Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, international travellers dealing with LATAM Airlines (the company cancelled 90% of its flights)
Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, international travellers dealing with LATAM Airlines (the company cancelled 90% of its flights)
Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, international travellers trying to go home
Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, international travellers trying to go home

The Air Canada check-in queue

I joined the Air Canada queue. It was only 4 p.m. and counters would only open after 5 p.m., but “better safe than sorry” seemed to be everyone’s motto as if seats were going to be assigned on a first-come first-served basis.

The young couple in front of me had the longest trip ever—Santiago-Toronto-Vancouver-Taipei. “We didn’t really have the choice,” he shrugged. “We bought the tickets last night.”

“Are you even allowed to fly to Canada?” the girl behind me asked. “Borders are closed to anyone who isn’t a citizen or a permanent resident.”

“Transit through Canada is okay,” I said. I had just translated the latest updates the night before.

I tried to call Feng but too many travellers were connected to the free airport Wi-Fi and I couldn’t get through. A friend messaged me on Whatsapp. “Can you call Feng and tell him I’m at the airport?” I wrote.

Just then, Air Canada staff opened the check-in counter and the queue started moving.

“Sorry, can’t board this flight,” I heard.

“Sorry, unfortunately you’re not allowed on this flight,” I heard again two minutes later.

“Wait a second before you call,” I wrote to my friend. “Not sure what’s going on…”

Turned out that passengers in transit through Canada were being denied boarding, including the Taiwanese couple in front of me.

I was next. I’ve never felt so lucky to have both a ticket (March 19 was my original travel date) and a Canadian passport.

“Any difficulty breathing, any fever…”

“No.”

Boarding pass issued.

“By the way, the plane is delayed…”

Yeah, least of my worries right now…

Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, I have my boarding pass!
Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, I have my boarding pass!

Waiting to board AC 93

I grabbed some coffee and waited for as long as possible before going through security because I didn’t feel like being trapped in the crowd at the gate. Besides, there was no gate yet for AC 93 that kept on being delayed.

Eventually, around 6:30 p.m., I got my exit stamp from Chile and did the “put the laptop in the bin” X-ray scanner routine. Both steps only took a few minutes, the airport was quiet. There were only three flights—Lufthansa to Frankfurt, Delta to somewhere in the great United States of America and Air Canada to Toronto.

I wandered around the duty-free shop, then walked from one end of the gates to the other. I bumped into a nice Chilean couple (I found out later they lived right across the Ottawa River!) who were behind me in the check-in queue. We sat down for a bit and the woman told me the story of how she gave birth in Santiago on September 11, 1973, the day of the Chilean coup d’état—not exactly an uplifting story but an interesting one as the couple and their son had lived through the dictatorship before settling in Canada.

The gate was never announced but at one point, passengers started to gather where a giant Air Canada plane was parked and boarding started.

We were all joking around, clearly relieved.

“This is so fucked up,” a German backpacker noted. “I had to cut my trip short, I don’t even want to go back… yet I’m happy I’m going back to Germany where I’ll be placed in quarantine.”

Considering the number of COVID-19 cases in Germany, it was also like walking into the lion’s den.

Yet we all felt the same. It wasn’t so much about leaving Chile—the country didn’t do anything to us—it was about going home.

There was another weird moment seconds before boarding the plane—we were searched. I still don’t understand why—one by one, all passengers were directed to a “table” where carry-on bags were thoroughly inspected. Some people had to throw away their bottle of soda or water, always allowed past security. I had a bottle of Coke Zero in my hand and no one said anything.

“What the hell was that…” someone muttered, as the inspection was conducted rather unpleasantly.

“Looking for the virus, maybe?” another passenger joked.

(To be continued…)

... now I can grab some coffee...
… now I can grab some coffee…
Waiting for my exit stamp from Chile at the migración
Waiting for my exit stamp from Chile at the migración
Final lineup before boarding flight AC 93 to Toronto
Final lineup before boarding flight AC 93 to Toronto

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