Issue #80 - What's it Like to Fly From KL to London in April 2022?
Departing KLIA and landing at Heathrow is like traversing parallel universes.
Welcome to issue 80 of Asia Travel Re:Set…
Greetings from Oxford.
I’m a little jet lagged, and reacquainting with non-tropical temperatures - but it’s lovely to be back in the Fine City for the first time since December 2019.
Since I landed on Friday morning, both Thailand and Singapore said they will remove testing requirements. Malaysia will remove more SOPs this week.
With most countries in South East Asia fully open from May, we will discover - over the coming months - the full extent of ‘pent-up’ demand.
As for the UK, Heathrow Terminal 2 was as busy as I have ever seen it.
Thanks for being onboard.
The Sunday Itinerary
- “IN THE NEWS”
- What’s it Like to Fly from KL to London in April 2022?
Taking the 11,200km overnight flight is both similar and different than before
- Talking All Things Travel & Tourism in Thailand in 2022
Discussing the outlook with Bangkok-based travel insider Vincent Vichit-Vadakan
“IN THE NEWS”
What’s it Like to Fly from KL to London in April 2022?
The ‘baggage drop’ line at KLIA with three flights merged into a single line.
The sun is setting to the west. Glowing layers of orange illumine the skies above Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The angular glass facade looks magnificent.
The drop-off driveway in front of the terminal counts few cars.
My Grab driver selected a place to stop. That never happened before. He wishes me a safe flight. It feels like the old days, but without the pre-pandemic frenetics.
A fairly non-sentimental traveller, I am unusually excited. And surprisingly apprehensive.
This will be my first international departure from Malaysia since a one-day trip to Singapore to give a presentation about the potential economic impacts of COVID-19.
That was on 26 February 2020.
26 months ago.
A Return to KLIA’s Long Check-in Lines
In some ways, little has changed. And that is disappointing.
The official advice is: “Arrive 4 hours ahead of departure and check-in online prior to arriving at the airport.”
And while KLIA has more people inside than expected, it is a mass of empty check-in desks. This, though, is not a pandemic outcome.
Yes, there are certainly less flights. But the long lines for Malaysia Airlines’ “baggage drop” are drearily familiar.
The national carrier long ago merged several flights into a handful of snaking check-in lines. This means - whether you check-in online, or not - you have no choice but to wait. And wait.
Some 53 minutes later, I dropped my suitcase and received a boarding pass.
It should not take this long - and the airline should have revisited its “multiple flights crammed into a handful of check-in lines” policy.
Passengers are admirably patient, calm and well disciplined. “Match fit” for sure.
It is a legal requirement in Malaysia to wear a mask in public spaces and indoor locations. Everyone abides by the one-metre personal spacing stickers on the floor.
Having navigated Malaysia Airlines’ long baggage line, there is one person ahead of me in the passport queue. Two people at the hand-luggage scanner. People fan out across the giant terminal, and airside seems far less busy than the departure hall.
Within a few short minutes, I have disembarked from the skytrain, and grabbed a beer.
Then I got a phone notification that my gate has changed. Reassuringly, some things never change.
The Malaysia Context
Malaysia reopened for quarantine-free travel on 1 April, so it is still early days.
KLIA is certainly busier in people numbers than expected, but a long way below “usual” capacity.
Expectations, though, are mixed for 2022. Malaysia Airlines expects to restore 70% of 2019 capacity by the end of 2022. AirAsia targets 100% of its “key routes” by year end.
Various projections range from “2 to 5 million” tourists visiting Malaysia in 2022.
Resident outbound air traffic, though, has started strongly since the borders reopened.
Beyond South East Asian cities, popular destinations being booked and flown include the UK, Australia, India and Bangladesh. A few people I spoke to on my flight were visiting family members in the UK for the first time since the pandemic.
Are Changes Imminent for Traveller Testing?
I called Malaysia Airlines a few days before the flight as it was unclear whether a pre-departure PCR test was still required. For passengers departing from Malaysia on Malaysia Airlines, there is no pre-flight test requirement.
But, as it currently stands - and this could change, perhaps this week, after Thailand & Singapore decided to remove the on arrival / pre-flight PCR text - travellers to Malaysia must take a PCR test within 48 hours of departure, and a managed rapid test within 24 hours of arrival.
Visitors must also, for now, upload the MySejahtera health tracking app.
Who’s That Guy?
Malaysia’s Health Minister, Khairy Jamaluddin, is a ubiquitous video presence at KLIA.
Malaysian Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin is a virtual presence at KLIA.
Formerly the Science & Technology Minister, he took charge of Malaysia’s vaccine programme in spring 2021. It was very successful, and he rightly took the credit. He was promoted to Health Minister, when a new government was installed last August.
Now, he's fronting a video shown on several specially positioned screens. In it, he walks through KLIA explaining the health and safety protocols for travellers.
Travel has become heavily politicised over the past 2 years. But this looks and feels like an outdated concept. No-one wants to see politicians at an airport.
Boarding & In-flight
Having lived in KL for 11 years, I rarely fly to the UK direct. I prefer transiting in Doha or Dubai to break up the journey. There is a mesmerising energy in both airports as as they come alive after midnight with flights connecting east and west.
But my KL-London flight was originally booked for December 2021, when the UK’s testing rules were easier for direct flights from Malaysia. The arrival of Omicron meant postponing my trip, and meantime the UK dropped all entry requirements,
Anyway, my flight took off nearly 2 hours late. “Operational reasons” according to the phone message. Further questioning of staff revealed the original plane had technical issues, and the replacement had not been cleaned.
When it eventually took off at 1.20am, flight MH2 ( an Airbus A350-900) was full.
I did an unscientific head count - and estimated 90% of passengers were Malaysian.
We settled in for the 11,200km journey.
Malaysian Airlines requires passengers to wear masks - except when it serves two meals. It no longer serves pre-meal drinks, which is officially attributed to “current protocols.” Read: cost cuts.
London Heathrow Arrival “Experience”
Thirteen hours and 8 minutes later, we pulled in alongside Air India and Singapore Airlines planes at Heathrow Terminal 2.
This is unfamiliar territory compared to pre-pandemic arrival
London Heathrow is operating 3 of its (formerly) 5 terminals. Terminal 1 closed in 2015. Terminal 4 reopens in July. Hence, Malaysia Airlines now lands at Terminal 2.
Inside, it was absolutely hopping.
The scene reminded me of Wembley Way an hour before kick off. I joked with friends on WhatsApp that I’d seen less people at Glastonbury.
The passport queue snakes in several tangents around the terminal. For much of the 60 minutes it took to navigate, the end point remained invisible.
Given Brexit, I was (pleasantly) surprised that UK and EU passport holders still join the same line.
Part of the Heathrow passport line. This was the view after 45 minutes.
By contrast to KLIA, maybe 40% of passengers wore masks (and that is a generous estimate). There was zero social distancing.
It felt like a giant Covid transmission centre.
It seems remarkably disrespectful to cough, splutter and talk vociferously in such close proximity to other people during a pandemic. But all occurred.
And hugely neglectful of Heathrow to essentially outsource the responsibility for preventing virus transmission to passengers themselves.
The difference in protocols, passenger traffic and human behaviour between KLIA and LHR was startling. As if the two hemispheres have, for now, entirely diverged.
On the bright side, I streamed the Burnley vs Southampton and Mumbai Indians vs Chennai Super Kings match highlights from the night before while waiting.
By the time I cleared the electronic passport gate, Carousel #4 had discharged 5 flights worth of luggage. I found my suitcase next to a wall.
And then… long, long lines in front of the 5 elevators to the car park.
But at least I’d bought a coffee without having to use a QR code to check into a cafe for the first time in recent memory.
Swings and roundabouts.
Talking All Things Travel & Tourism in Thailand in 2022
Will removing the pre-flight PCR test revive Thailand’s tourism sector? On this week’s The South East Asia Travel Show, Bangkok-based travel journalist Vincent Vichit-Vadakan helps us assess the emerging outlook.
We also reflect on progress and (mistakes) made in the 10 months since the Phuket Sandbox began on 1 July 2021. Some fascinating insights from Vincent, who has been travelling around Thailand and observing South East Asia’s most visited nation in flux.
Listen to Talking All Things Travel & Tourism in Thailand in 2022, with Vincent Vichit Vadakan, here:
Or search for The South East Asia Travel Show on any podcast platform.
And, that’s a wrap for Issue 80.