Traveling under Corona virus scare- what has changed, what to expect

March 11 Update: One week since I wrote this post, situation has got a lot worse- Italy Under lock down, New York declaring emergency, several countries banning entry of certain nationals, death crossing 4000 and more. Thus situation looks a lot scarier now is best to avoid travel for at least 2 more months and wait for situation to stabilize. China is reporting drop in spread-hopefully all over the world the peak has been reached and things begin to get better.

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I am back from a short trip to Muscat, Oman. This trip was bit different because of Corona Virus scare spreading rapidly around the world. In this post I will explain how this trip was different and impact/risk of Corona Virus.
How air travel has changed due to Corona Virus fear? If you have an upcoming travel, what to expect at airports? What extra precautions to take? This post answers all these, based on my recent travel from India to Oman.

Why I planned the trip?
I always wanted to visit Muscat and was tracking the prices for long term. Typical return fare between Chennai to Muscat was around 15000 INR. I had once seen it under 11000 INR on Oman Air back in 2017 but couldn't book at that time. Recently Air India ran a sale and I spotted a return ticket to Muscat for INR 12300, [details] which was a good deal for immediate travel, so grabbed it.

When I had booked the tickets mid-Feb, the Corona virus risk seemed to be contained to China primarily with few cases in other parts of the world- particularly South East Asia. Middle East seemed almost risk free- away from China, has hot atmosphere and direct flight meant I don't have to transit through international hubs.

But a lot has changed in 2 weeks since I booked the tickets- Italy, Iran and UAE have reported several Corona Virus cases. I had to assess the risk level and decide if I need to cancel or proceed with the trip. I decided to take a calculated risk and press on with my planned trip.

March 8th Update: Close Call
Apparently one person who flew to Chennai on 28th Feb from Muscat is now confirmed to have Corona Virus [News]- it was the same aircraft in which I traveled to Muscat from Chennai. I got off before he boarded and my return flight on March 2nd was 4 days away and most probably a different aircraft. (Air India seem to be using 6 different aircrafts on this route- older data not available for free, even if it is same, virus would have died in 4 days.
What has changed?
Compared to a normal international travel- check-in, immigration, security, boarding, get off, immigration, collect bag and leave, below is what was different during my trip.

March 8 Update: India has had 30+ new cases in past one week, so this now could mean more checks and restrictions compared to what I experienced.

At Chennai Airport Departure: No change. Crowd was very less on a Thursday evening. Barely 1% people wearing masks- most wearing 15 INR surgical mask, not the more sophisticated N95 filter ones. There were no thermal screening, no health advise or any kind of checks. It was business as usual at Chennai airport.
People were boarding Indigo flight to Bangkok, Air India flight to Dubai and other destinations as if nothing as changed.

Inside the flight: AI907 was almost full. Very few people wearing masks.

At Muscat Arrival: All passengers had to fill a medical declaration form, indicating which countries they visited in past 14 days, their flight and seat numbers, address etc. An official scanned it, put a seal and let us through. Because I had not visited any corona infected countries and our flight was direct from India may be we were let through. If anyone had indicated they had been to China or Iran etc probably there was a separate process for them- I don't know. But no medical checks/thermal screening was done on anyone.

Life in Muscat: Was normal. Hardly anyone wearing mask, business as usual

Return: Muscat departure: No change. No screening, no additional checkups- business as usual.
There were some display advising people to take precautions against the corona virus and report to authorities if they have symptoms.

Inside the flight: Cabin crew wearing 15 INR surgical mask this time. Flight was almost one third empty, probably 10-20% passengers wearing masks.
Return: Chennai Arrival: Passengers now needed to fill inbound passenger form, which was not needed for Indians till recently. No screening, no checks.

Thus there hasn't been any major delay/extra screening or process during my international trip to Muscat. But the process can be different depending on which airport/country you are visiting. Just as I am back, reading about new Corona Virus cases in Delhi and Hyderabad (from a Bengaluru techie)- this news will now put more focus on Indian passengers flying abroad. So situation next week could be lot more serious.

So can we travel as planned? or Should we cancel our trip?
There are two schools of thought here, you can decide based on what suits best for you.

School of thought 1: Play it safe- Don't take any chance, stay at home: Suggestion here is to cancel all your travel plans and stay at home. If people don't travel there is less risk of virus spreading- both passengers and people around them (colleagues, family, neighbors etc) will be lot safer, will be more easier for authorities to control the spread of corona virus. Business meetings you can do over phone or video conference, holiday can be postponed, any money lost in tickets booked already is OK as you can earn it back if you are alive and virus free.

School of thought 2: Taking calculated risks: It is easy to panic and take drastic decisions but life is also about taking calculated risks.
  • There is risk everywhere- one lakh people die every year in India because of road accidents. [Source]. You have a higher risk of death by accident on the street, than death by corona virus.
  • If everyone stops traveling, entire travel & tourism industry will collapse, world economy will suffer. 
  • Agreed Corona Virus has become a global crisis now. While almost 1 lakh people are infected with Corona Virus till date and about 3000 have died, in pure percentage terms this is still very little. At any given point of time, about 5 lakh people are in the air flying from one place to another [source]. It has been 2 months since Corona Virus outbreak- travel has reduced but not stopped. People are still traveling- may be they have some compulsion to travel or they are taking calculated risks or are being very careless, depending on how you see it.
  • Not everyone who flies get infected, not everyone who gets infected dies. Lots of people- those who have good immunity system and fitness have recovered after being infected. 
If you are inclined towards traveling as planned, consider following factors and possibilities:
Deciding Factors: 
  • Direct flight vs transit: A direct flight between two countries not affected by virus is lot safer than a one stop flight through a hub (where people from all parts of the world get mixed)
  • Changing dynamics:  Virus spread scenario is changing every day. Country deemed safe yesterday could be risky today as new cases get discovered. Are you determined to travel despite all the risks and uncertainties?
  • Risk vs reward: What are you gaining by this travel? It is super cheap? Are you making lots of money? Is it some super important event? Are the rewards outweigh risk of corona virus? Is the trip really worth and can't be postponed for few months?
  • Your physical fitness: If you have excellent immune system and physical fitness you have higher chances of surviving a virus attack. If you are hyper sensitive or old/weak and can't handle difficult scenarios you face a much higher risk.
  • Changing Visa rules: Countries are suspending already issues Visas- in such cases you will need a really strong reason and a fresh visa to travel.
  • Trade off- While traveling helps economy, it puts more pressure on health officials and administration tasked with containing the virus spread. I am not sure how to balance the two.
Scenarios to consider
Risk 1: Quarantine: If there's any one person found infected on a flight, authorities may decide to quarantine everyone on that flight. Even if you are not infected, you may have to spend 14 days in a quarantine facility- can your family/business/work handle this if you were to be locked up somewhere for 2 weeks?

Also what to do if one member of family/group is quarantined and others are free to go? Would you proceed as planned or stay with affected person and risk further infections?

Risk 2: Flight cancellation: You reach a destination, more cases get reported there and airlines decide to stop flying to that country. Do you have plan B? Can you stay for few more weeks (or till flight service resumes)?

Risk 3: Social Pressures: If you return from a high risk country, your colleagues, family, neighbors everyone will be scared you might be carrying the virus. There is no way to assure them you are clean. Can you handle this psychological pressures? Can you stay in isolation for 2 weeks to ensure you are risk free and don't transmit to others?

Risk 4: Countries banning Indians. Qatar and Kuwait have banned Indian citizens from entering their country temporarily to prevent spread. More countries may follow as India now has 40+ cases. If you are banned from entering a country, not sure how flight refund and rest of the process work.

General precautions to take while traveling for safety against corona virus
  1. Buy good quality N95 mask
  2. Wash hands regularly
  3. Drink lots of water.
  4. Do not touch your eyes, nose or other openings with hand
  5. Avoid crowded places as much as possible
  6. Avoid meat/animal products from unknown sources
  7. Maintain good physical health. Strong immunity of your body is your only defense against corona virus.
  8. Stay alert and look out for people with possible symptoms- fever, coughing etc and stay away.
  9. Be prepared in case you are quarantined or develop some symptoms that need medical attention. Do not try to hide it and make it worse.
Will I get refund if I cancel the tickets?
No. Airlines will not give full refund or free rescheduling as long as flights are operating. Regular cancellation charges will apply. If flights to a destination is cancelled then only your will be eligible for full refund/free rescheduling. This is because airlines are in the business of making money, virus or no virus. Unless there's a government directive or if the risk becomes too high or flights get uneconomical to operate due to massive cancellations, airlines will continue flying. If your travel date is couple of months from now don't rush to cancel. Watch how situation improves/worsen and take a decision closer to travel date.

What about domestic travel within India?
I think same risks apply. There could be international passengers taking domestic connections. An international passenger may come close to you in airport premises. There are confirmed cases in Hyderabad, Delhi etc- affected people might be on a domestic flight or even a bus or train, so same set of risks apply. Use your discretion.

The aircraft you fly domestic might have done international trips just prior.

Here's a useful report to read

Bottom line:
It is lot safer to avoid travel till situation gets contained. If you still decide to travel assess all the risks and possible scenarios and decide for yourself. There is always a risk in everything we do-life has to go on and we need to take calculated risks at times. Keep in mind the global impact and potential risks to people around you. Your risk taking appetite is your call- make an informed decision factoring all variables.

March 12 Update: Situation has gotten lot worse in past 10 days- so at the moment risk and danger levels are very high and rewards from travel if any are very very low. Thus it makes best sense to avoid unecessary travel and wait for situation to improve.

10 comments:

  1. A balanced take on the situation as always Shrini. Thank you for sharing this detailed analysis. IMO, travel can honestly wait, unless it's urgent and unavoidable. Hope things are better soon globally.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you. Hopefully summer will aid in containing the virus

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  2. Thanks for informative post.
    Hope all well soon.

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  3. Very well and complete write up, brother. Thanks. I have also purchased international return ticket to Jaipur via Delhi! Now time to rethink!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Rasha. When is your travel? Hopefully situation improves soon

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    2. SHRINIDHI HANDE, my travel date is 12th March.

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    3. hmm, tough call. Best wishes either way you decide.

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    4. I have cancelled my flights finally to avoid risk.

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