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How to take an intercontinental trip in Covid-19 times


Further to their closure caused by the pandemic, African skies started to gradually re-open to passenger flights in October 2020.

After thorough planning, I decided to embark on my first intercontinental business trip in 7 months.

Despite the painstaking organisation and logistics involved in making long-haul flights in these extraordinary times, it has been an absolute thrill and joy to re-visit customers after months of remote-only interactions.

Here is my experience of business travelling during a global pandemic. 

Preparation is key 

Once embassies resumed issuing visas, I started looking into the best route for my multi-country trip to Africa.

As one can imagine, this usually simple exercise turned into a headache! This was down to three reasons:

  1.  Fewer airlines were operating in the countries that I wanted to visit
  2.  Covid-19 tests had to be taken 72 - 96 hours before boarding
  3.  The test results had to be negative!

After long hours spent researching flight combinations, I eventually booked them. After this I had to find a local Covid-19 testing facility, and here I came up against another problem…

It turned out that, unless I was displaying symptoms, no hospitals or clinics would allow me to take a test. I had to travel to a town 70 km away where such service was offered to travellers.

Back in the office, half day later, I could fill in the online Covid-19 questionnaire for my first West African destination and pay in advance for the test to be re-taken in the country.

So far, so good…

    The journey: joy and pain 

    The next day, feeling very upbeat about my upcoming 2-week journey I made it to the nearby airport, an eerie and empty cathedral. Almost all businesses were closed. It was striking to witness first-hand the devastating effect of Covid-19 on businesses.

    After 2 flights and 14 hours of continuous mask-wearing, I landed in my first African stop and made it swiftly through the organised chaos of the Covid-19 airport checks.

    In the following days I was really impressed by people's discipline in abiding to the protective measures in all public spaces.

    It made me so happy to see the familiar faces (partially hidden by masks) of Comfone customers, and this really made the hours spent planning the trip, complicated logistics and long flights worth it!

    A few days later, I went to a dedicated drive-in facility to take a departure Covid-19 test. As I left the premises, I hoped that the paper with my details, left casually scattered on an outdoor table, would not be blown away by the wind. Luckily, everything worked out well and less than 24 hours later, I received my results by email. I could then proceed in filling in the online Covid-19 questionnaire for my second country in West Africa.

    This one happened to be much more complicated. The whole process was fully automated which made me a bit nervous… I knew that chances are high that bad luck with IT might arise.

    Unfortunately, my fears were proved correct as I was unable to submit my details, and after many attempts, I ultimately gave up and hoped I could sort out everything at the airport. 

    The smoky gate 

    Upon arrival, all passengers were requested to go through a spooky smoky disinfection portico. As I approached it, I wondered if I would be teleported somewhere! As it turned out, passing through this gate marked the start of a very tricky section of my trip… 

    The good, the bad, the ugly 

    After a long time queuing, I had to go back to a nearby counter to receive my Covid-19 QR code entry authorisation. I then queued up again and was helped by an extremely patient person (the good) who took 45 minutes to capture my online application. After several attempts, it finally worked.

    At the end of the process, the online payment was not functioning, and I was asked to pay cash in local currency, which I didn't have. The only solution was to go back all the way to the boarding gates where a bureau-de-change was located. This meant lining up again and going through the "smoky gate" yet again (the bad).

    I eventually made it back and was given a local SIM card (from a Comfone customer) with some credit on it. I was then able to connect and download the famous Covid-19 app, enter my details and receive the precious QR code to show to the immigration officer along with my second Covid-19 test results. 30 minutes later, I received my passport back stamped and I joined the line, one more time, for a Covid-19 test.

    As I was leaving the booth after my swab, I suddenly heard a loud scream. I looked back worried and saw a passenger on the floor yelling at the person in charge of his test. He had been unable to bear the nasty feeling of someone tickling his throat with a cotton bud (the ugly)

    The negative test results were promptly received by email less than 24 hours later. Impressive. I was so delighted I could meet my local customers. I was given a very warm welcome. So nice!

    My stay in the country was timed so that I could board my next flight by re-using the same test, as it was not older than 76 hours.

    As I was being checked at the immigration desk before departure, I hit another snag when the officer couldn't see my exit submission in the system. My luggage was already checked in! 

    I immediately scrambled to connect to the Covid-19 portal, and after 30 minutes and countless unsuccessful attempts , I started to be seriously concerned of missing my flight. Out of desperation I tried again and then it finally worked! Relieved I rushed through customs and made it to the gate.

    Flying safely 

    I was waiting for the completion of the boarding, comfortably seated in the plane which would fly me across the continent to my next destination.

    As I looked up to the aisle, a fellow passenger wearing a white hazmat suit just entered. People really took their safety seriously whilst flying!

    No Covid-19 checks, no problem 

    The next country in Eastern Africa required the usual Covid-19 test results. After landing, just next to the immigration desk, a dozen people wearing white lab coats were lined up, waiting for us. However, when I asked them what checks they needed to perform, I was casually told to proceed. That was good for me! 

    The next day, after more amicable in-person meetings with Comfone customers, it was time to return to Europe. Two more last flights and I was back home after 2 weeks on the road. Mission accomplished.

    Was it worth it? 

    People do business with people, not with organisations. And people do make important decisions with their gut, their "second brain"!

    I believe that no video call can ever replace the social cues exchanged during in-person meetings, as well as the other informal information shared before and after, which helps to shape business relationships.

    So, the answer yes. Although it involved significant additional planning efforts, some bravery, risk, and nerve-wrecking moments, meeting my lovely customers again has been the most refreshing and energising experience since the beginning of the pandemic. Terrific memories and hopefully some future business too!

    I stay positive and I'm confident international flight should resume soon, and gain momentum in some parts of the world (probably in some faster than in others). This will mean that the roaming traffic will return, for the good of Comfone customers! I look forward to visiting more customers as soon as possible next year.

     Stay safe

    Meanwhile please keep yourselves and your beloved ones protected as we approach rapidly the festive period. I can't wait to put 2020 behind us!

    Best wishes of good health and of new successes in 2021.

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