By Dom Serafini
Stuck at the departure sidewalk of Rome, Italy’s Fiumicino Airport (FCO) without being able to enter the airport nor go to the arrivals area. This is the scenario that this reporter faced during the first phase of his travels back to the U.S. in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Let’s start from the beginning. Alitalia flight 608 to New York City’s JFK Airport –– Alitalia being the only airline with direct flights to the U.S. at the moment –– was scheduled for an early departure, and in order to arrive on time from Giulianova (which is located on the coast opposite from Rome), it was necessary to book a hotel room near the airport the night before the scheduled flight. The hotel offered a shuttle service from the arrivals area, but the cross-coast bus taken to reach the airport unloaded its passengers at the departures area. Due to anti-COVID-19 procedures, travelers can only reach the arrivals area from inside the airport, which is accessible through a single door guarded by an agent who only allowed passengers with same-day flight boarding passes to enter. After wandering far and wide through the departure sidewalk looking for some external stairs without success, a soldier on guard permitted this reporter to use a hidden elevator and alerted another soldier guarding the arrivals area of the unusual presence.
A side note regarding the cross-coast bus to the airport. After submitting the self-certification (declaring passengers to be free of COVID-19 symptoms) and having their temperatures checked by the driver, passengers entered a comfortable cabin for a bus ticket fare that cost little more than the toll on the A24 cross-coast highway.
Back to the airport saga, checking in was easy (possibly because I arrived at 7:20 a.m. for the 10:40 a.m. flight, and few passengers were lined up by the entrance), but not confusion-free, since the boarding area for New York was located in a different zone than the one indicated by the signs (it was actually near the Alitalia check-in counter at Terminal 3, rather than the one near Terminal 1). A bit of confusion also arose for passengers with Italian passports since a visa or green card is now required in order to enter the U.S.
While boarding, gate agents were not required to collect the self-certification forms filled in at check-in (temperatures were taken at the entrance of the airport with a thermo-scanner and again before entering the aircraft) because the plane, a B777-300, had only 60 passengers, and was therefore large enough for social distancing. However, the concept of social distancing at FCO airport didn’t seem very clear since connecting passengers arriving from Milan were crammed into a shuttle to reach the terminal.
Boarding for JFK started from the back rows (not the usual by-zone model), while deplaning started from the front rows. The cabin crew was diligent in enforcing the use of masks. The on-board food service was basic: ravioli, cheese, dessert, and only water to drink.
During the flight, a “U.S. Traveler Health Declaration” form was distributed, which stated that those coming from the E.U. block were required to self-quarantine. Strangely, passengers coming from countries that are experiencing spikes in COVID infections, such as Russia, India, and Bangladesh, were not required to self-quarantine. This health measure was clearly not administered with much logic.
On the skywalk, an agent collected the “declaration” form from arriving passengers, while another agent outside the gate took people’s temperatures, which meant that they could not be written on the forms (as they had already been collected).
However, three days after returning to the U.S., a recorded telephone message reminded passengers of the guidelines for self-quarantine and provided a telephone hotline number for further information.
At passport control, due to computer malfunctions, passengers from Rome (together with others arriving from Asia) were held up for manual data entry, but because of the small number of passengers, there was no queuing for taxis.