Domestic flights in Thailand slowly restart - with plenty of precautions against Covid-19
My taxi sped past Don Mueang airport's dimmed, deserted international terminal in Bangkok last Friday to stop at a domestic terminal slowly returning to life.
Domestic flights are restarting in the Thai city even as inbound, international commercial flights remain barred.
With new Covid-19 infections across the country tailing off, carriers like Thai Lion Air and Thai AirAsia on Friday started flying again to provinces like Chiang Mai, Surat Thani and Khon Kaen.
Both airlines had grounded their fleets after Thailand declared a state of emergency in late March.
For someone all too familiar with the usual squalls of tourists at Don Mueang, its check-in hall was surreally serene. A handful of passengers shuffled along in each queue according to safe distancing 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.
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 queueing for the toilets.
Passengers must also 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.
It was only after I had boarded the plane that it struck me that nobody - neither the check-in crew, security officer nor boarding gate staff - had asked me at any point to remove my N95 mask to ascertain my identity.
The attendants on the one-hour flight were dressed in their normal black and red uniforms, which they covered with disposable plastic overalls after take-off.
One attendant announced that food and drink were strictly prohibited during the flight.
But the dry air tickled my throat and made me cough, which alarmed the woman in front so much that she changed seats. Chastened, I took some illicit sips of water.
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... It was only after I had boarded the plane that it struck me that nobody - neither the check-in crew, security officer nor boarding gate staff - had asked me at any point to remove my N95 mask to ascertain my identity.
Before the pandemic, this flight would have been filled with travellers drawn to Ubon Ratchathani's cultural and natural gems and Laos across the border.
Now, with the 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, had been 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.
At Ubon Ratchathani airport, disembarking passengers were funnelled into a series of checkpoints and made to download the AOT Airports app to submit pictures of their identity papers and other personal details.
The application had been described on the Google Play app store as "buggy", insecure and overly intrusive in its permission settings, but officials said the information recorded was needed for contact tracing.
Ubon Ratchathani has now gone for more than two weeks without recording any new Covid-19 infection, and 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, said provincial governor Sarit Witoon.
From yesterday, Thailand started easing anti-coronavirus rules to allow parks, small restaurants, flea markets and hair salons to reopen.
Mr Sarit said that it will take at least two months for Ubon Ratchathani to resume business.
"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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