Flying in the Age of Covid-19: US to Taiwan

Out of the fire, into the frying pan

By: Gregory McCann

For anybody intending an airplane voyage from the United States to Asia, it used to be an ordeal, a 15-hour one-bounce nuisance sandwiched back in cattle class with 300-odd fellow sufferers. But all that changed with the onset of Covid-19, which now has affected 10.7 million people worldwide and taken a half-million lives.

The effect of the New Normal on travel has made the Old Normal look like bliss. That 15-hour flight from Newark, New Jersey to Taoyuan Airport in Taiwan turned into a 70-hour hopscotch not from Newark but from Buffalo, New York through four airports with long-drawn-out layovers and the obligatory quarantine at the end. For some destinations such as Hong Kong, the regimen at the end of the flight seemingly takes as long as the flight itself.

The journey actually began in January, long before I flew, with the confirmation of a full-time faculty position at a Taiwanese university. The virus was still a mirage somewhere in China. I had paid for a July 8 flight to Taipei in January aboard United Airlines, which was to originate in Newark. But once schools and restaurants began closing in March, I got into the habit of calling the airline every two weeks to check on the status of the flight. In mid-May, the flight was canceled.

Distraught, I spent more than two hours on hold to United while the agent searched for other flights, and finally paid another US$150 for a new July 15 routing from New Jersey to San Francisco to Hong Kong to Taipei.  The flight was my way out of a dead-end adjunct professorship in the US to one with paid summers off, with the ability to be promoted, with full health insurance and a retirement program and more.

In late June, I could see that the window of opportunity was closing—if I didn’t get out now, I wouldn’t. Could I just book a flight for tomorrow or the day after? Why not? After all, I reasoned, that might be the safest way to book. If they’re selling a ticket leaving in two days then the flight ought to really be departing. I jumped on and found a one-way ticket to Taiwan for US$700, shunting from Buffalo to Detroit to Seoul to Taipei. I’d deal with United later.

Because of my previous stint as a university professor in Taiwan, I hold a Taiwan Alien Permanent Resident Card (APRC), and as of my departure date, only Taiwanese passport holders and APRC holders were allowed into the country, although the government is now working on relaxing rules for inbound travelers.  The Buffalo airport was almost completely empty, the floors shining and squeaking beneath my feet. The Delta Airlines representative relaxed when I told her that I had an APRC. But a manager brought things to a stop by asking for the expiry date. The “P” stands for “permanent,” I implored. Finally, with a warning that Detroit would check the document, they let me onto the flight.

My layover in Detroit was 23 hours, the kind of thing you deal with when you buy the cheapest ticket available. I had transferred in Detroit many times before, and I have fond memories of the place as a bustling launching pad of restaurants, pubs, shops, and bookstores. Nearly everything was shuttered. PC Chang’s, closed. Every pub except one, closed. Gates, fences, bars, wooden boards, everything shuttered in this mammoth airport. I had the distinct feeling that I was walking through a post-apocalyptic scene. I checked in at the hotel, passed out, and woke up early for my flight.

I looked at my phone and saw the most horrifying message I have ever seen in my life: all travelers to Taiwan, including APRC holders, MUST PROVIDE A NEGATIVE COVID-19 TEST TO ENTER THE COUNTRY. There was no way I could get that in time. A friend advised me to rush to downtown Detroit, find an Urgent Care, and get an expedited test. There was no way that was happening with my flight departing in three hours, and probably not even within three days if I wanted to. I was now at the whims of chance, and I could do nothing more than to try to exude a little charm and be brave. I went down to the Delta check-in.

The agent took a quick look at my APRC and smilingly waved me through. I vowed to find that one open bar and have a drink, which I did. What could go wrong now? I had to deal with Seoul, where I would need to obtain a new boarding pass. Detroit checked my luggage all the way through to Taiwan, but because I had an 18-hour layover in Seoul (the whole trip was a whopping 59 hours) they couldn’t issue me the boarding pass.

I had a feeling that the Koreans could be stern. What would I do if that was the case? I would emphasize my APRC and inform them that mine was a one-way ticket and they would just have to deal with me!

The Detroit-Seoul flight must have been 90 percent vacant. Everyone had their own aisle with aisles between us. I lay down and passed out and didn’t wake up until we were beginning our descent to Incheon. The Incheon Airport, long considered one of the best in the world, was eerily empty, its marble floors and metallic rails shining and sparkling as if they were brand new. I headed straight for the Korean Air Transfer desk. It was 6:30 pm but there was still an agent on duty. I showed her my itinerary and my baggage claims for Taipei and told her I simply needed that last boarding pass.

From behind her mask, she told me I needed a negative Covid-19 test to enter Taiwan. I politely told her that the latest news said this was for Hong Kong refugees fleeing Chinese oppression (there was truth to this). She repeated herself. So did I. She said she would have to call the Taiwan office. Whether that was the Taiwan consular office in Seoul or some other office there in the Incheon airport, I didn’t know, but I waited calmly.

Before departing Detroit, an American friend in Taiwan who is a devout atheist, when learning about my situation with the required negative Covid test, advised me to pray. As I stood there waiting while the Korean Air agent whispered to someone on the phone in her language, I closed my eyes, put my hands in my pockets, and pleaded with every long-gone relative I could think of.

“OK,” she said, her face glowing. “They said the negative Covid test rule begins on July 2. You arrive on July 1, so you’re OK to enter.” She handed me my documents back with the boarding pass. I nearly flew down the escalator, but I was unable to find a bar. I messaged all my friends who knew about my situation. The Incheon airport has a nice “sleep lounge” with sufficient spacing between recliners with stylish dividers, and I snoozed there for a bit.

I did find a bar in the morning, and posted a pic to Instagram: breakfast in Korea! That showed my fried dumplings, a small side of salad, and a pint of Kloud Beer.

The short flight from Seoul to Taiwan was about 85 percent empty with everyone having their own aisle again. I sat back and opened my new copy of Birds of East Asia by Mark Brazil.  The flight attendants came down the aisle with their carts and I was determined to order a Cass Beer. Before she reached me, the pilot’s voice came over the intercom: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, this flight originated in Seoul, and we are bound for Taoyuan Airport, Taiwan.” I don’t know what it was exactly, but when I heard those last eight words I was overcome with emotion. I had to grab my napkin and cover my face and do a little mop-up. I was sufficiently gathered to collect my meal and order the beer.

Touchdown in Taiwan. I had been informed that I would need my old Taiwan mobile phone—something about the authorities needing to keep daily tabs on me to make sure I was not feeling any Covid-19 symptoms and that I was staying put in my quarantine hotel. Tables and teams of masked and medically-covered staff awaited us. I was immediately—but very politely—asked for my phone. I coughed it up and paid for a new Taiwan SIM card, and they were happy about that. I had apparently filled out my health form incorrectly, and a representative helped me fill it out in the friendliest manner possible. I tapped into the airport Wi-Fi with my US phone while they were setting up my Taiwan phone, and I showed them my quarantine hotel reservation. My documents were checked a couple of more times on my way to Immigration, and that was that. The Taiwanese were totally prepared to deal with us, and they did it all in the friendliest and most welcoming way possible.

The taxi stand outside the airport was also notable. They sprayed down all of my luggage with alcohol, and sprayed me down as well, even asking me to lift up my feet so they could spray the bottom of them (the drivers even learned the English words ‘left’ and ‘right’ for this procedure). I got into my assigned taxi and I immediately began to practice my worn-out Mandarin.

We arrived at the hotel. The meter read NT$615 ($20). I had a NT$1,000 note, and I felt that the day called for a generous tip, and I told him to keep the change. The trip, portal to portal, had taken the better part of three days. The time on the planes was the best part because they were almost empty.

I like my room, where I will need to spend the next 15 days as per the government-mandated quarantine rule. I’ve got a huge curved window with a glorious view of Taoyuan City, which never looked so good. I can see a bit of the river, and there are several nice rooftop gardens nearby. Best of all, I bought a new pair of binoculars just before I left, with Amazon Prime getting them to me in a day. Different world from up here with those binoculars, and what did I just see? A white-vented myna—my first bird for Taiwan. And there goes an egret, and there’s a swift. What’s that little stinker bouncing around in the rooftop garden across the way? I can’t get a clear look at the moment, but I have plenty of time.

Gregory McCann is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel and he is the author of the Cambodian wilderness epic Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.