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Air Travel Is Opening Up Again, But That Doesn't Mean The Pandemic Is Over

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Around the world, air travel is opening up again in fits and starts with a lot more restrictions and often confusing regulations. We should note that the CDC still recommends people forego travel if they can, even those who are fully vaccinated. But if you must travel, what do you need to know ahead of time? What's it like? And is it worth the hassle?

Well, we're going to hear now from three of NPR's international correspondents who have recently embarked on international travel to give us their impressions. Frank Langfitt is in London. Philip Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro. And Carrie Kahn is in Cancun.

Good to have you all here.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Thank you.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Carrie, let's start with you. You got the tough assignment of Mexico's Riviera Maya, where it is spring break. So tell us what it was like getting there. You went from Mexico City, right?

KAHN: I did, and the plane was packed, Ari. Airlines have less flights going to Mexico, and there were all sorts of travel deals and package discounts. So planes are full. Mexican officials do not ask for much about COVID. You have this questionnaire that you can fill out on your phone or by hand. It's like this half-sheet of paper and basic questions. But no one took mine or even looked at it when I checked my bag at security or boarding, so it really isn't that crucial.

What is new is that all travelers need to show a negative COVID test taken 72 hours or less to get back into the U.S. That's when flying in. No such test is required crossing land borders into the U.S. or into Mexico. The CDC has warned strongly against travel to Mexico, but neither that or the COVID test requirement seems to have deterred Americans from traveling here.

It was interesting - I did meet all these - a lot of U.S. health workers vacationing in Cancun. Like Jaime Arratia - he was at this curbside van where you can get a quick COVID test for U.S. travelers. He's a respiratory therapist from Kansas, and he says it's just been such a difficult year, and he just wanted to get out of the U.S.

JAIME ARRATIA: It's just - you can't do anything in life. It's just not normal, so it just sucks (laughter).

KAHN: There are rules here. You do have to wear a mask when inside. Social distancing stickers and signs are everywhere, and temperature checks abound. But the party is definitely raging in clubs and on the beach - not a lot of masks, big crowds and little enforcement.

SHAPIRO: Does that worry Mexican officials that there might be another wave brought in by all these crowds of vacationers?

KAHN: Yes, there is concern about a third wave. That's especially since the second wave here is just tailing off. And it was so deadly. It was really worse than the first. But tourism is huge here. So many people depend on it. And I heard that sentiment from workers over and over again - that they just don't want to be out of work again.

Here's Candalerio Noh Noahaut. He works in an international hotel chain in Cancun, and he was out of work for eight months during Mexico's brief lockdown and then the dearth of international tourists.

CANDALERIO NOH NOAHAUT: (Speaking in Spanish).

KAHN: He says he gets why he was laid off, and luckily, the hotel chain hired him back. But it was brutal being out of work for so long. And he does the best he can to protect himself from maskless tourists, but he's just so grateful to be working again. Some of the tourists coming here are vaccinated, but a lot of Mexicans aren't - only about 4% of the population. And next week is Easter vacation here in Mexico when national tourists are on the move, and workers and authorities are really concerned about them also spreading the virus.

SHAPIRO: All right, so that's the picture in Mexico. Let's turn now to the U.K.

And, Frank, I know you just flew to the U.S. from London and back. So tell us about what the requirements were.

LANGFITT: Yeah, Ari, it was quite different from what Carrie's describing. First thing you had to do was go to Heathrow Airport and get a COVID test. And it was one of those deep swabs. I almost threw up. It was really thoroughly unpleasant. And then when I got on the plane, there were maybe 20 people on a plane that would fit over 300.

The big problem, though, Ari, was getting back. I had to get a test to get back on the plane. Walgreens were giving free tests, which was great. But the rules to get into the U.K. seem to keep changing. And so I had to fill out, like, a 20-screen passenger locator for a 10-day quarantine to come back here. And I learned at the last minute that I also had to set up two more tests when I got here. So I actually was really flustered, and my wife had to set it up for me, which was very helpful.

But in kind of running around - Ari, I'm embarrassed to admit this - I actually left my luggage at the hotel.

SHAPIRO: Oh, no.

LANGFITT: (Laughter) I had to drive all the way back...

SHAPIRO: Oh, no.

LANGFITT: ...To the hotel to get my luggage. You would think that I had never done this before. The great thing is the British Airways folks were terrific. There was hardly anyone on the flight, and they helped me re-fill out my locator form, and they ran me to the gate. And I have never been quite so relieved to get on an airplane.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Well, what does this whole experience suggest about what travel might look like as things open up more, looking to the future?

LANGFITT: Based on my conversations with the airlines and my own experience, I think vaccination is the likely solution to all of this. British Airways is launching an app, which will store vaccine data to facilitate travel. They're saying it's the only way they think that airlines can reopen, sort of, and be able to carry people lots of places.

SHAPIRO: All right. Now let's turn to Brazil, which is one of the hardest hit countries in the world. And, Phil, I know you recently flew from Brazil to the U.S. and back. Was it obvious that that country is in worse shape through your travel?

REEVES: Yes. And I should say that I had to do this journey for family emergency reasons. It wasn't a journey I would have chosen to take, I can tell you. Yeah, there's - you can see there are new rules that are there, you know, that certainly weren't there before the pandemic. You have to present proof of a negative COVID test to the Brazilians within 72 hours of traveling. And you have to fill out a health declaration form for the Brazilian Health Ministry. But you're not required to quarantine in coming into Brazil.

But you know, the thing that really struck me, Ari, is that flying is so different right now. I feel - and I'm sure you might feel very similar to me about this - that I've spent much of my working life getting on planes, trudging down to my economy-class seat full of jealousy past all of those business- and first-class passengers quaffing their flutes of champagne and wearing their comfy airline socks. But not this time. Both my flights in and out of Brazil were pretty empty, so I've got three seats to myself - very selfish, but it meant that I could stretch right out. And people on the plane - you know, they seemed pretty good about wearing masks. You don't really see other passengers a lot of the time. They're, you know, a long way off in the shadows. Although while I was waiting for the flight in Miami, at the Miami airport, I was accosted in a bar by a young, maskless American who was heading for Rio, saying that he wanted to go there to party. I'm afraid this guy may have been a bit disappointed because beaches and clubs here are now closed. The country is in big trouble with the pandemic, and big gatherings are supposedly banned.

SHAPIRO: Given that more people are dying of COVID-19 in Brazil than in the U.S. right now, can you give us an idea of what this means for the future of Brazil connecting with the outside world? This is a time of year, ordinarily, lots of people would be visiting that country.

REEVES: Yeah, that's a great question, actually, Ari, because the Brazilians are worried about that. I mean, I hear them on the TV and on the radio expressing concern about the fact that they are generally well-received around the world. They're liked. And now they're worried that because of the uncontrolled pandemic here and because of the dismal failure of the government -, the federal government to respond in the correct manner to it, that that reputation's getting a battering and they're not going to be welcome. And there's, you know, actual evidence of that in the sense that Colombia and Peru have actually stopped flights from Brazil. And I think - and Chile as well. You have to have - you can go, but you have to have a negative COVID test before flying and get another one on arrival while you're in quarantine. And I think psychologically, that is impacting Brazilians quite severely.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro, Frank Langfitt in London and Carrie Kahn in Cancun.

Thank you all for your time.

KAHN: You're welcome, Ari.

REEVES: You're welcome.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF DREAMCAST AND SASAC SONG, "LEO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.