Itchy throats and empty seats: Thai carriers restart domestic flights as coronavirus cases ease

A passenger arrives at Ubon Ratchathani airport on May 2, 2020. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

UBON RATCHATHANI (Thailand) - My taxi sped past Don Mueang airport's dimmed, deserted international terminal in Bangkok on Friday (May 1) to stop at a domestic terminal slowly coming to life.

Domestic flights are restarting in the city even as inbound international commercial flights remain barred.

With new Covid-19 infections across Thailand tailing off, carriers like Thai Lion Air and Thai AirAsia are flying again to provinces like Chiang Mai, Surat Thani and Khon Kaen from Friday.

Both airlines had grounded their fleets after Thailand declared a state of emergency in late March.

To someone too familiar with the squalls of tourists at Don Mueang, its check-in hall was surreally serene.

A handful of passengers shuffled along each queue according to spacing markers taped onto the floor, lost in their thoughts and muted by their masks.

It took just five minutes to check a bag in for my AirAsia flight to the north-eastern province of Ubon Ratchathani.

New aviation rules will depress the number of passengers for now.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand requires carriers to keep at least one empty seat between passengers, and enforce social distancing when boarding, disembarking, and even queuing for toilets.

A passenger arrives at Ubon Ratchathani airport on May 2, 2020. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Passengers must wear face masks at all times, and cannot eat or drink on board. Cabin crew must wear surgical masks and gloves at all times.

Protective gear was hardly a problem for people who have spent the past few months imbibing increasingly sinister news about the Covid-19 virus.

On Friday, some people turned up at Don Mueang in tear-gas masks and face shields, and slapped alcohol gel onto their knees like they would moisturiser.

While waiting for the flight, a mother led her fidgety son to a far corner to eat their breakfast.

A man with the sniffles nervously paced the corridor, trying to locate the safest place to blow his nose.

It was only after I had boarded the plane that it struck me that nobody - not the check-in staff, security officer, nor boarding gate staff - had asked me at any point to remove my N95 mask to ascertain my identity.

Reporter Tan Hui Yee sits in her empty flight from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

I peered around in the hope of spotting cabin crew dressed in the protective red-hooded jumpsuit designed by Filipino designer Puey Quinones unveiled with much fanfare by AirAsia last week.

Alas, the attendants on this one-hour flight were dressed in their normal black and red uniforms, which they covered with disposable plastic overalls after take-off.

One steward announced that food and drink were strictly prohibited during the flight.

A Thai AirAsia flight attendant wears a disposable plastic overall over her uniform during the flight. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

But the dry air tickled my throat and made me cough, which alarmed the woman in front so much she changed seats. Chastened, I took some illicit sips of water.

Before the pandemic, this flight would have been filled with travellers drawn to Ubon Ratchathani's cultural and natural gems and Laos, which it neighbours.

Now, with land border closed and reigning panic over Covid-19, the Airbus A-320 was barely one-third filled. My fellow passengers appeared mostly to be Thais heading home.

Ms Kanjana Arkkachat, a lawyer based in Bangkok, was told by her employer to work remotely. She decided to stay with her elderly parents in Sisaket province next to Ubon Ratchathani.

"It will be really bad if someone is ill on the bus journey to Sisaket, which takes eight hours or more," she reasoned. "A plane ride of one hour is less risky."

Ms Lalitpat Pakdeeto was heading to join her parents in Yasothon province near Ubon Ratchathani. Laid off from her job in Bangkok as a hotel housekeeper, she paid 3,000 baht (S$131) - about three times the normal price - for this one-way plane ticket, not knowing when she will return. "The situation may be getting better, but we still don't have tourists," she said.

The peaceful flight ended on a messy note at Ubon Ratchathani airport when disembarking passengers were funnelled into a series of checkpoints and made to download a mobile application to submit pictures of their identity documents and other personal details.

The AOT Airports app has been described on the Google Play app store as "buggy", insecure and overly intrusive in its permission settings, but officials say the information recorded is needed for contact tracing.

Ubon Ratchathani has now gone for over two weeks without recording any new Covid-19 infection.

Some 5,000 people remain under home quarantine. The resumption of many flights to the province is a good sign that its containment measures are working, says provincial governor Sarit Witoon.

Thailand will from May 3 ease rules to allow parks, small restaurants, flea markets and hair salons to reopen.

Still, the question is when everyone can resume business.

For Ubon Ratchathani, Mr Sarit thinks that will take at least two months.

"If even just one new case of infection is found, it may not take just two months. It could take us one year," he said.

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