Flying back to the Philippines during the COVID-19 pandemic: what to expect in the “new normal”

by Emily Manuel
Contributor, Eagle News

Seafarers check-in at Schiphol Airport for their repatriation flight to Manila on July 3, 2020. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Embassy in The Hague.

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands (Eagle News) — With no end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to join 391 stranded Filipino seafarers, workers, and tourists in a repatriation flight organized by the Philippine Embassy in the The Hague last July 3, 2020. KL 875 would take us from Amsterdam to Manila via Bangkok in approximately 15 hours and 45 minutes.

– Check-in –

A lone passenger walks to the check-in desks in an almost empty Schiphol Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic. July 3, 2020.

Schiphol Airport stands eerily quiet. The check-in counters normally bursting with activity in the summer months are empty. Most of the passengers are queuing in the Schengen zone of the airport with flights that would take them to the rest of Europe. With travel restrictions still in place, flights from outside Europe remain limited. One KLM staff shared that “more and more people have been coming in and we expect to see more people in August.”

Check-in desks at Schiphol Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plastic sheets separate crew from passengers with everyone required to wear masks. July 3, 2020.
Directional signs on the floor at Schiphol Airport and hand sanitation stalls during check-in. July 3, 2020.

Masks are required during check-in, security, immigration, boarding, and the duration of the flight. Passengers need to bring their own masks. Several disinfection stations with hand sanitizers are located around the airport.

Arrows on the floor indicate a one-way direction. Some shops like bookstores were closed. However, several food concessionaires and duty free shops remain open.

– Security check –

Distancing of 1.5 meters was enforced in the queue for security checks. Signs were placed on the floor where you need to stand. Security protocols remain the same with restrictions on liquids (100 ml and below only) and the number and size of bags you can carry. There was still a manual pat down but the security officers wore masks and gloves. Even with distancing enforced, lines were short and the process was swift.

– Boarding –

Overseas Filipinos at Schiphol Airport waiting to board a repatriation flight organized by the Philippine Embassy in the Netherlands on July 3, 2020. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Embassy in The Hague.

The flight was completely full and consisted mainly of seafarers who have been stranded since March in ports in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and neighboring Antwerp and Hamburg.

One seafarer who didn’t want to be named said he and some crew members have been stranded in Barcelona for 3 months and flew into Amsterdam just to join this flight. Another seafarer has been stranded in a ship in Rotterdam since it docked there in early March. Their contracts had ended and they were just waiting for a flight home.

– Flight –

With fewer flights in the runway, KL 875 departed on time. The purser gave an apology at the beginning of the flight that they will not be providing a “normal” service due to the current circumstances. Hot drinks will not be served but a hot meal will be handed out. There were no special meals available. Flight crew were hardly visible during the flight.

This is the future of travel in the “new normal”. Pre-packed meals were distributed to minimize contact between passengers and crew. July 3, 2020.

Toilets were designated, with some being shut, and passengers were reminded to maintain a distance when queuing. Passengers were also reminded to keep their masks on for the rest of the flight.

One flight attendant shared her experience, saying “I’ve been with KLM for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.” She is “sad that they can’t provide the service they usually do but happy to be flying again and being part of a flight that brings people home.” Although she wanted to see the world one last time before she retires, she says “this will be my last year”.

During a brief layover in Bangkok, passengers were told to remain in their seats as a new crew came on board. After an hour, the plane took off on its final leg for Manila.

The crew distributed Immigration cards (brown) and Health Declaration cards (yellow). Everyone was required to fill out both cards.

– Arrival –

Inclement weather and a hole on the taxi-way marred what would have been an early arrival. The plane had to be towed to the gate.

Upon disembarking, passengers were directed to submit their (yellow) health declaration cards which shows the countries they’ve been to and whether they’ve experienced any COVID-19 symptoms.

– QR Code and Briefing –

Process upon arrival. Secure QR Code, receive verification and take the swab test. July 3, 2020.

A number of Philippine Coast Guard directed passengers to follow signs for non-OFW, OFW and seafarers. Passengers were then led to an orientation area and told to sit one seat apart. The Coast Guard assisted passengers to connect to the airport wifi and fill out an online Red Cross form to obtain a QR code.

All passengers are required to have a QR code. It is highly recommended that a passenger fill out this form prior to travel. The form can be completed online at It is also advisable to take a screenshot of the QR code.

The Coast Guard then gave a briefing on the procedure for the swab test and quarantine. They explained that the swab test results would normally take 3 to 5 days, 7 days maximum. Passengers will receive notice through their mobile or email which they indicated in the online form. However, if no notice is received, the Coast Guard advised monitoring the Coast Guard Facebook page where results are published daily.

The passenger is allowed to go home only after receiving a negative test result. There is no need to stay in the hotel for 14 days.

Briefing upon arrival for all passengers by the Coast Guard and DSWD. July 3, 2020.

A representative of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) also explained that passengers who are emotionally distressed can seek counselling with the DSWD. They will distribute flyers containing details of their counselling services.

– Verification –

Verification desk near the briefing area. Personnel will scan the QR code, check the passport, and hand out 3 barcode stickers for the swab test. July 3, 2020.

Once the briefings were over, passengers who successfully obtained their QR codes are led to a verification area. The verification desk scans the screenshot of the QR code, checks the passport, and hands 3 barcode stickers to the passenger. The stickers will be handed over to the Red Cross personnel during the swab test. It is advisable to write down the barcode number for personal reference.

– Swab test –

The COVID-19 RT-PCR test, or swab test, is given for free even for non-overseas Filipino workers. It involves personnel in PPE gear behind glass inserting a 6-inch cotton swab up both nostrils and inserting another swab near the throat. The experience is uncomfortable due to the depth of the swab. However, it is quick and considered the most effective way of testing COVID-19.

Once the swab test is complete, the passenger can head to the Immigration area and collect their luggage.

– Leaving the airport –

DOT assisting non-OFW passengers with their booking during the mandatory quarantine and processing their Affidavit of Undertaking. July 3, 2020,

Upon clearing Customs, passengers are directed to their respective desks for mandatory quarantine. Seafarers are asked to coordinate with Marina, land-based OFWs with OWWA, and non-OFWs, including non-Filipino citizens, with the Department of Tourism (DOT).

Each passenger must be booked with an accredited hotel and is required to stay in the hotel until the test results come out. All passengers must also sign an Affidavit of Undertaking on quarantine measures and indicate the hotel they’ll be staying at.

Once the test comes out negative, the passenger receives a certificate. The passenger is then free to go home but must observe the quarantine guidelines set by their respective local governments. For example, even if the passenger already has a negative test result certificate, the local government can still require another rapid test and/or further quarantine. It is best to check these guidelines from the local authorities to know what to expect.

The cost of the hotel for OFWs is covered by the government. Non-OFWs need to shoulder their own expenses. Non-OFWs may book their hotels in advance or request assistance from the DOT on arrival. The DOT needs to see a copy of the pre-booking and verify if it’s in their current list of accredited hotels.

Once the booking is confirmed, non-OFWs proceed to the transportation desk for assistance. A passenger may choose to board a yellow taxi, coupon taxi, or car rental but can only leave the airport with a Coast Guard escort. The Coast Guard personnel takes the name and number of the driver and also collects the Affidavit of Undertaking from the passenger.

– Quarantine –

In accordance with the quarantine guidelines, passengers are not allowed to leave their rooms until they receive a negative test result. Once they can show the hotel staff the certificate of negative test result they are free to leave.

The future of travel in the “new normal”. The author in the photo. July 3, 2020.