Passenger on 'terrifying' flight to YVR questions why physical distancing still a suggestion
VANCOUVER -- Kathleen Hamilton thought she had weighed the risks.
She and her husband were relocating to Vancouver from Toronto for a five-month temporary work contract. All the details had been settled before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even so, they considered driving and stopping at whatever hotels they could find along the way, but ultimately decided on a non-stop flight.
"This seemed to be the best way, and the least risky," Hamilton told CTV News Wednesday.
Air Canada cancelled their original flight on May 1, Hamilton said, and rebooked them on another non-stop the same day.
Everything at Pearson International Airport seemed seamless, Hamilton recalled, from check-in, to security screening, even with new temperature checks and a federal requirement for all travellers to cover their faces with masks.
But when Hamilton got to the gate, something didn’t feel right.
“I looked and I thought, 'oh these people must be here for another flight,'" Hamilton said.
Though it didn’t really register until the Hamiltons were on board and saw a sea of face masks with barely a single empty space.
"I was really angry, and here we are, we have to get on," Hamilton said.
Hamilton snapped some photos and recorded a short video as they boarded. First class was sold out. Economy was almost completely full. She and her husband, who hoped to have an empty middle seat between them in Row 14, ended up shuffling to sit together.
Her anger quickly turned to feelings of fear.
“Nobody moved, nobody talked (the entire flight),” Hamilton remembered. "I was the only one because I was still ranting to my husband next to me about how upset I was."
Like most Canadians, Kathleen Hamilton had taken physical distancing seriously. She had packed her disinfectant, paper towels, and bottle of water.
But Hamilton said she resented that after carefully considering the risks, she still found herself in a position where physical distancing wasn’t an option.
Because while airlines like Air Canada have come up with extensive plans and practices to increase hygiene and to minimize potential disease transmission both on the ground and on board, physical distancing up in the air remains a suggestion.
In a statement, Air Canada told CTV News, in part, that "gate agents already proactively reseat customers" and passengers "have an option to travel on a later flight" at no cost.
"It’s important to remember we are able to accommodate this on the vast majority of flights," a spokesperson wrote.
But greater distancing is still a work in progress: as part of a program it calls "CleanCare+," Air Canada says it plans to block every adjacent seat in the economy cabin and cap the total number of seats sold on each flight.
Those changes go into effect May 15, and will remain in place until at least June 30. WestJet implemented similar measures in early April.
Hamilton’s response: "Why is that a plan? Why aren’t they doing that right now?"
She added that perhaps the federal government needs to make physical distancing on board a requirement.
And as for what Hamilton would like to see when she boards her next flight back to Toronto in five months time, if she chooses to fly?
"I would like nobody in front of me, no one beside me and no one behind me," she laughs, before conceding that having an empty seat for a little extra breathing room and a lot of peace of mind would be "reasonable."