On 14 March 2020, I left my home in the Orkney Islands to drive to Edinburgh international airport. I was due to travel to Germany for a research trip. Full of nervous anticipation, and making frantic last-minute preparations, I hadn’t paid as much attention to the coronavirus crisis as I might have, but events were developing so quickly across Europe, it was dawning on me that international travel might not be an option for much longer.
By 5am, as I boarded the ferry, the radio bulletins seemed apocalyptic. On board, passengers sat separately, in their own private islands of paranoia. I wore a mask over my nose and mouth, and cleaned my armrests with a baby wipe soaked in Dettol. In the toilets, the ship pitching beneath my feet, I scrubbed my hands for 60 seconds and examined my own reflection. Grey, I thought. Anxious.
Four hours later, I stopped in at my parents’ place near Inverness, where I ate some lunch and checked emails on my phone. I had a lot of them. “Don’t come,” one of my German contacts said, simply. Another had cancelled our meeting due to childcare problems; all schools had suddenly closed. A hotel regretfully informed me that it would not be able to honour my booking. My flight, however, was still scheduled to depart on time.
Far above, thousands of planes were still pinballing around Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas. They crowded the airspace over London and Amsterdam and Paris, converging from all directions before spiralling down. They were launching over oceans with a cannonball momentum; weaving cleanly between each other in a mannered, balletic dance.
Normally, planes are in constant motion, massing with the daylight but never truly ceasing, moving in predictable patterns like currents over the Earth – the invisible infrastructure of the world. Regular routes – these passageways and corridors and elevated motorways through the sky – have grown more crowded and important as air travel has increased in popularity over recent decades, more tightly stitched into the fabric of our lives and the global economy.
Back in 2004, 2 billion passengers boarded flights over the course of a year. By 2019 that figure had more than doubled, to 4.5 billion. On an average day, 100,000 flights or more might take off; on 25 July 2019 – the busiest recorded day in aviation – there were 230,000.
In 2020, passenger numbers were expected to rise yet again – until the Covid-19 pandemic brought the aviation industry to its knees. Suddenly, all around the world, people were watching the news, clutching their tickets, checking for updates and wondering what to do.
Very soon, flights would be grounded on a scale never before seen. A year without flying – for many of us – forced major changes in the way we ran our business, family life, leisure time, and how we looked at the world.
As I uncertainly considered my flight to Germany, 9,100 miles away, in Perth, Australia, Daria Kuznetsova and Andrew Rodger were making their own calculations. For an international couple, “home” is a complicated proposition. They’d been in Australia for nearly a month, introducing baby Alexander to Andrew’s family, and they had tickets…