Notes & Essays

How This U.S. Graduate Student Finally Made It Back Home to the Philippines

It took her two days.
ILLUSTRATOR Warren Espejo
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I'm back home in the Philippines and I couldn't be happier. 

So much angst and anxiety had gone into waiting, planning, and preparing for the trip that I had no energy left to celebrate once I actually got back that last week in May.

After nearly two days of traveling from my current home base in Boston, I was so tired, I felt like I was wading through a vat of slime when I walked out of NAIA Terminal 2.

Even then, I knew I was one of the lucky ones—several friends had been trying to make it back to Manila for weeks, but flights were scarce and prone to being canceled at the last minute.

So I thought to share my crazy adventure of returning to the motherland in the hopes of demystifying the process for anyone else who may be wanting to try. I hope this helps folks navigate the topsy-turvy world of international travel in this time of COVID.

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Booking a Flight

The hardest part of this trip was finding a flight that could get me halfway across the world, avoid sudden cancellations, and was allowed to even enter Philippine airspace. Finding the perfect combination drove me nuts.

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My first booking was an EVA Airways flight scheduled to leave Boston for Manila on May 14, transiting through Seattle and Taipei. This was canceled on April 23rd when Taiwan extended its transit ban indefinitely. This meant that no foreign travelers were allowed to pass through Taiwan, even for just a layover.

I booked a second flight on Asiana Airlines for May 11, transiting through New York and Incheon. I made it to the evening of May 10th without a cancellation notice, so I thought I was good to go. I was having my final dinner and getting ready for my early 6 a.m. flight to JFK when I got an email at 9 p.m. informing me of a sudden cancellation.

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After some investigation and a few calls to NAIA, we found out that the Philippine government had made a late announcement on May 9th that only 400 passengers would be allowed to enter the country on commercial flights every day. As a result, several incoming flights had been told they could no longer enter the country.

I rebooked a ticket on Asiana for May 28—a full two weeks out—and crossed my fingers. In the meantime, it was a headache and a half to try to figure out the new protocols that were being put in place at NAIA to limit and monitor incoming flights.

Layovers

There seem to be a number of airlines that continue to operate flights to the Philippines. The list currently includes EVA Airways, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Asiana, Singapore Airlines, Jetstar, Emirates, Etihad, Cathay, and of course, Philippine Airlines.

But even if this list may seem lengthy, only a few airlines can realistically operate a trans-Pacific or transcontinental flight, especially since several Asian countries have imposed transit bans similar to Taiwan’s. This completely cut off any potential layover cities.

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So even if Singapore Airlines or Emirates continued to operate, for example, I was not able to get a flight on those airlines because both Singapore and the U.A.E. did not permit transit passengers to enter their countries. And nobody runs a direct flight from the U.S. to the Philippines except Philippine Airlines. Unfortunately, at this time, PAL had decided to cancel all of their flights until May 31, so a direct path from either JFK or LAX was not an option either.

At one point, I considered buying flights on two separate airlines just to make it home. I could fly from Boston to New York on a local American airline like Jetblue, travel from New York to Dubai on KLM, then Dubai to Manila on Emirates. This was risky, though, because if one flight got canceled, then I would either be stuck somewhere or unable to request for a refund. Plus, what would I do about my checked bags? It would be impossible to get through immigration to recheck bags on a different airline, so I’d have to travel with only a carry-on.

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Korea was/is the best bet for a stopover if traveling to the Philippines from the U.S., so Asiana was my pick.

Permitted Flights

When the government decided to institute a 400-passenger entry limit, it left room for only a few planes to land every day and thus required airlines to lobby for their flight to be allowed in.

Apparently, airline representatives would gather around a table with MIAA officials and “bid” for their flight to be granted permission to land. At times, this involved choosing only one of several flights they were meant to operate that week (for instance, Asiana had three Incheon to Manila flights over the week, but could only select one to land). Some airlines were also forced to decrease the number of passengers they had already sold tickets to (Etihad had to rebook several of its passengers on one flight to meet the headcount quota).

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Remember that Asiana flight I had originally booked? Turns out that another Asiana flight later that week on Friday, May 15 was given the green light, and my trip was simply an unfortunate casualty of that choice. NAIA was not going to allow Asiana to land more than one plane in the Philippines out of “fairness.”

Nabbing a flight subsequently became a ridiculous guessing game. When I rebooked my Asiana trip, I had to take a wild guess as to which flight that week would be allowed to enter the Philippines. Chances were slim that I’d be allowed to rebook for the correct flight later on due to the passenger quota.

I took a stab and booked the flight option on May 28th, reasoning that it was the same day as the previous one that had already been approved the week before. Three days ago, I found out that the winning flight was on May 25. I got an e-mail later that night saying that my May 28 trip had been canceled. I had lost the guessing game!

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The worst part about all of this? We would not have known which flights were actually permitted to land if my Mom had not made calls to the MIAA operations department. What about folks who don’t know who to call? Or who do not know to even begin to ask? Here are some important numbers to know

To this day, government officials do not release approved flights until the morning of their scheduled arrival, on their Facebook page no less. Airlines are similarly not transparent with their passengers on flight cancellations. The government must work together with these airlines to set a designated schedule way ahead of time, so that passengers can plan their travel better.

Connecting Flights

After losing faith in commercial travel, I was fortunate enough to land a ticket for a Philippine Airlines special repatriation flight leaving LAX on the evening of May 21—direct, no stopovers.

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This seemed to be an airtight solution. The flight was government-approved and every PAL hotline I called assured me that it was pushing through. The next step was to make it to Los Angeles. I chose a Jetblue flight that left Boston at 8:50 a.m. on Thursday, landing in LAX at noon and giving me 10 full hours to make my PAL flight. I gave myself this huge buffer in case of cancellations and delays—I wasn’t taking any chances on this trip! By God’s graces, it went without a hitch.

Preparing for the Trip

After I was confident that my flight was pushing through, I began preparing (mentally and otherwise) for how I would manage myself and keep safe throughout the entire trip. I even put together a list of COVID Travel Precautions for myself which included reminders of what to do and what not do.

Go Extra on Supplies

I made sure to have all of the necessary disinfecting materials and back-up supplies in my carry-on bag. Here’s what I had:

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  • 1 spray bottle of rubbing alcohol
  • 1 bottle of hand sanitizer
  • 1 bottle of handwashing soap
  • 1 bottle of Listerine
  • 3 pairs of latex gloves
  • 2 bandanas (as back-up masks)
  • 2 cloth masks
  • 1 N95 mask
  • 3 Ziploc bags (for passport, masks, etc.)
  • 1 container of alcohol wet wipes
  • 1 container of surface wipes (sprayed with disinfectant)

I also carried extra snacks in my bag in case airport shops were closed and I couldn’t find food.

Find a Sponsor for Your Trip to the Airport

I had the kind assistance of my sister and her boyfriend in driving me to the airport on the day of the trip. This took a load off because I knew they had both been strictly quarantining, and I didn’t have to worry about grabbing an Uber and being in a car in close proximity with a stranger. If you need someone to drop you off, who can you call? Do any friends owe you a favor? Do you have any family close by? In times like these, anything helps to calm an anxious mind.

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Surviving the Trip

Time for some real talk—a ton of Internet trolls have been poking fun at people who are taking their COVID precautions very seriously, especially while traveling. But I think these people are simply being smart and pragmatic. The chances of contracting the virus are as high or even higher at the airport and in an enclosed plane cabin. So, hazmat suits and goggles? Bring ’em on! 

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Unleash the Power of Disinfectant

Whenever I decided to settle somewhere in the airport, I would first clean down the seats and armrests with alcohol wipes. It felt a bit extra, sure, but it made me feel so much more at ease. I didn’t have to think twice about what I was touching or where I was placing my things. I also kept my spray bottle of rubbing alcohol in my purse for easy access, disinfecting my hands as often as I could.

Mask On or Mask Off?

I kept my mask on throughout my trip, double-layering while on the plane. I would only take my mask off to eat at the airport, and only if I was clearly out of range of people. I deliberately looked for deserted portions of the airport so I could take my mask off without worry.

There was an empty seat between me and the next passenger.
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It was definitely tough to wear two masks on the plane—I didn’t eat, drink or go to the bathroom for the whole 14-hour flight. At times, sweat started collecting inside the mask and things got really muggy in thereBut both to protect others and myself, it was necessary.

The strange thing was watching people take their masks off to eat on the plane. PAL served us twice during the 14-hour trip and people definitely did not think twice to partake. Didn’t this negate the effect of wearing masks in the first place? All the more reason to double up my own protection, I thought.

One thing regarding planes: Once they take off and before landing, if you aren’t sitting directly next to someone, they are relatively safe. The danger time from disease spread is during takeoff and landing.

The airflow in flight comes from outside the plane, not fellow passengers. It’s “bleed air” or extra air that is compressed for the jet engine. The compression adiabatically heats the air to 250 degrees before it enters the cabin.

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Once it’s in the cabin, air flows vertically from top to bottom and then is pulled out.

In other words, between takeoff and landing the plane has airflow equivalent of being in an open outdoor space, drastically reducing the risk of contagion spread in-flight, provided you’re not directly next to a person with it.

So once airborne, flying is actually one of the safest places to be.

One still must take precautions when touching surfaces, so bathrooms do become hazardous.

Sleep through the 14-Hour Marathon

On the plane, they assigned us to every other seat. I was by the window, with an empty seat next to me, and someone by the aisle. There was also someone in the seat right in front of me and in the seat right behind me. It didn’t feel like six feet of distance (and it definitely wasn’t), but it had to do.

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To make it through the journey, I tried to get as little sleep as possible the day before so I could pass out on the plane. I split my time up into two movies, followed by an eight-hour sleep, and then another two movies. This somewhat worked to distract me. By the end, my cheeks had deep indentations from where two masks were pressing into my skin, but I got to relive Pitch Perfect and Legally Blonde!

On The Ground

After touching down in the Philippines, we were told to stay in our seats and wait for instructions. Over the PA system, the doctor in charge explained that we would all need to undergo a mandatory swab before being released to go to a pre-approved quarantine center.

Soon after, two men in full hazmat suits and protective gear began making their way through the cabin to check our forms before allowing us to go into the waiting area. Before leaving the plane, I passed another health official holding a temperature gun to check for a fever. Then—assuming you weren’t showing signs of a high temperature—we were told to sit in the (completely empty) Terminal 2 departures area and wait once more for further instructions.

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Forms, Forms, Forms

We filled out four different health forms to hand over to the Coast Guard at the terminal:

  • Health Declaration Card
  • Affidavit of Undertaking
  • Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases Declaration Form
  • Case Investigation Form

At one point, as we were waiting in the terminal for our swab tests, one of the members of the Coast Guard got on the microphone and even led us through filling out each of the forms.

Quarantine Hotel Roulette

As I was waiting for my turn to get swabbed, I was handed a sheet of paper listing all of the accommodations that had been pre-approved by the government as quarantine centers. Luckily, even while I was still in the U.S., my Mom had already helped me make a reservation at a hotel that was not on the list but had also been pre-approved. I wrote this address on the form and did not encounter any problems.

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We were told we would have to cover our own stay, but that there were a few places the government would pay for. Presumably, these were the motels other Filipinos have been complaining about.

Respect the Test

The Coast Guard began the swabbing process by asking the senior citizens to come to the front of the waiting area. This caused a bit of commotion as several of the older passengers brought their entire families with them to the line. It reminded me of how families at Disneyland would skip the line for rides if they had someone with them on a wheelchair or scooter.

After that, any sense of order quickly devolved. People who were seated at the back of the waiting area preceded to take the seats of those who had vacated near the front of the line. Of course, this irritated several other passengers (including me) who had dutifully stayed in their seats and waited for their turn. A better process would have been to hand us all seat numbers to avoid the Hunger Games that ensued. Of course, everyone was tired and cranky, and I couldn’t even blame them.

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The nose swab felt very invasive. The RN inserted a thin, bendy swab into one nostril and I felt it reach all the way back to my throat. I had to hold my breath to avoid coughing. The throat swab was even worse for me. I had to stick my tongue out and prevent myself from gagging as the swab reached all the way to the back of my throat. The poor RN had to try three times before he managed to get it!

I didn’t have to pay for the test, though we were told to give our PhilHealth number.

Shuttle Troubles

The last series of steps went by quickly—I passed through immigration without a hitch then picked up my bags, which had been lined up neatly and nicely in the baggage claim area (probably because we had taken so long)

The very last step would have been to wait for a shuttle to take me to one of the quarantine centers—which I heard would take another hour or two as only a limited number of vehicles were dropping passengers off at various places. But, once again, my hero Mom came to the rescue and I was able to take a separate ride to make my way to the hotel. If you make a reservation at a BOQ-approved hotel, you can have the hotel send a shuttle to pick you up as well.

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Wait It Out

As I write this, I am spending my third day at my quarantine hotel waiting for my test results to come back from the Philippine Red Cross. The hotel has told me that they will not allow me to leave until I show them an official negative test result. They have also told me that I cannot leave my room for whatever reason, so I have been living happily in my private space for the last few days.

Essentially, there is nothing to do at this point but to wait it out, and hope for a negative outcome so I can rejoin my family as soon as possible.

Final Word

I acknowledge that privilege plays a big role in this journey. I managed to get on that PAL flight only because of the kindness of an individual who decided to help me. Being able to find and afford that repatriation flight, then have a choice as to which hotel to quarantine at, are liberties and luxuries that I am incredibly grateful for and realize many others may not have. So while this was a stressful ordeal for me, I cannot imagine what it would be like for others.

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I’ve heard of friends who have been stranded at random airports all over the world because the government failed to make announcements on time or were not clear about their protocols. I’ve also heard of folks being made to share beds with strangers and live in dismal conditions at quarantine centers. Hearing these stories makes me so sad and, frankly, angry.

It is crucial for high-level officials to remember the inequities that their policies and mandates exacerbate, and the psychological implications some of these rules may have on individuals going through the process. In a crisis like this, the government must take its responsibility to care for all of its citizens with utmost gravity.

Needless to say, this entire process was difficult and energy draining. But while I would not like to go through it again, I feel incredibly happy to be back in my home city with the prospect of seeing my family very soon. For that, this was all worth it!

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Update: On May 29, 2020, the Philippine Coast Guard officially released results for my flight at 8 a.m. today on its Facebook page. That makes it seven days of processing time for the test. This is definitely much better than prior delays with earlier batches of OFWs entering the country. I finally headed home to my family.

Michi Ferreol is a graduate student at the Harvard Business School in Boston. This article originally appeared on Medium.com.

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