Flying to Dubai during the COVID-19 pandemic: What is it like?

TOURISM: A short trip to Dubai from Tel Aviv is a rare travel corridor, but regulations and the need for more centralized information add stress

TRAVELING DURING the pandemic has often seemed like a mystery. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
TRAVELING DURING the pandemic has often seemed like a mystery.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Nine months after I flew back from Newark to Israel in the wake of the AIPAC Policy Conference in March, I boarded a flight to Dubai from Tel Aviv. It was the first time I had been at an airport since March. It felt surreal to drive toward Ben-Gurion Airport as though I were doing something naughty. It had been so long; the world had changed.
Traveling during COVID has often seemed like a mystery. While some people have been traveling frequently, most people have been hunkered down, in and out of lockdowns, or unable to travel to see family or go on their usual annual vacations.
It’s a strange world, and it has made the world seem chiseled, narrow, fearful, erratic. We’ve gotten used to only the essential things, and sometimes I have yearned to be back in the US where a car can give you access to an endless road trip of opportunities for thousands of miles.
BEFORE BOARDING the flight to Dubai we had to take a COVID test. Guidelines for Dubai said it had to be up to 96 hours before the flight. I went to Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, where I heard there was a drive-through COVID test. It was Thursday, December 3.
At first it was hard to find the drive-through, until I found the sign showing a little airplane and the word “COVID.” This was supposed to satisfy the requirements of a PCR test and result in a kind of “travel passport” for COVID.
I got to the drive-through, which was located in a temporary caravan covered in posters of pictures of air travel. The caravan had been set up with several temporary plastic barriers routing traffic around one side. But the cars didn’t move.
After 10 minutes a woman came with a form to fill out in Hebrew. She asked when my flight was, and I said it was on December 6. She said that it needed to be within 72 hours. I said it was to Dubai and that we were told 96 hours. She left.
She returned later and gave me the form. The cars still didn’t move.
Finally, after around 40 minutes, the medical professional performing the tests, in green smocks and plastic and protective gear, came back to the caravan. Apparently she had been away for some reason. Now the cars moved quickly.
I pulled up to the window of the caravan and handed back my form, with my passport and some modest payment of several hundred shekels. I was more focused on the fear of COVID and stress of travel than the cost.
The nurse asked me to pull down my mask and lean back in my car seat, the car in idle. Then she swabbed my nostril and mouth, broke off the end of the swab and put them in a vile and into a plastic bag with a bar code and details from my passport and payment and email address.
With my passport back, I drove away.
In the evening, around 10, an email came from the hospital saying the test was negative, and a light blue PDF that said I was negative and had been tested. The test said the lab received the results at 7 in the evening on the 3rd.
On December 5, 24 hours before the flight, I filled out a required Israel Health Ministry form and printed it. This was supposed to be done 24 hours before flying. Meanwhile I checked with the person who had helped organize the trip and asked if she was sure we didn’t need a test within 72 hours. She was sure. It was 96. I almost considered getting a second test just in case.
When I arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, Terminal 3 was closed. I wanted to park my car in long-term parking, but that was closed as well. So I went to Terminal 1, where apparently the flydubai flight was located, and parked. Unsure of how much I would be charged, I figured I would push on and find out what comes next.
With light luggage I went to Terminal 1, the old Israeli terminal that I had first flown into in 2004 when coming to Israel for the first time. There weren’t many people flying. At the entrance there was a line with men collecting the Health Ministry papers. I handed mine in.
At check-in I forgot to ask for a window or aisle seat or an upgrade to business class, as I had thought about how business class would be more socially distanced. Anyway, I had some travel points and wanted to check on using them.
The reason I forgot was that the man was busy looking through the COVID “travel passport” and saying that the 96 hours prior to flight was actually prior to landing, and I was very close to the time of landing. The paper said the lab received the results at 7 in the evening. The plane would land in Dubai at 5 in the evening. So if it was delayed, the COVID passport wouldn’t be valid. He glanced over the form, noted this, told me I should consider it next time, and gave me the boarding pass.
Quickly through the check-in, I went to passport control and then toward the gate. The coffee shops were closed in the distance, and I was disappointed I hadn’t eaten before coming to the airport. Then it turned out that the gate for the flight was actually a trip to a bus to take us to Terminal 3.
After the bus ride to Terminal 3, it turned out that about half the stores were closed, including the food court. Nevertheless, I got a sandwich and bought a powerbank for my phone.
I usually check the airport lounge, but didn’t bother this time. COVID seemed an overriding reason to simply be glad to be traveling but also concerned about what comes next.
On the plane there were no empty seats. It was completely full. This raised questions about the logic of how air travel is considered safe, but if the same 100 people gathered for an event, even with masks, it would be considered against most health guidelines to be in this close proximity.
For instance, when they brought around meals on the flight, most people removed their masks to eat. So it’s unclear how this is in line with guidelines. Airplanes have circulating air and filters, but if you gathered all these people in the same proximity for an outdoor wedding, would it be acceptable?
WE ARRIVED in Dubai after three hours and disembarked. After a long walk, we came to a long line of people in protective gear with chairs next to large computer panels. They each had a table, and people were asked to come and sit. Then a deep swab of the nostrils was performed and a small adhesive sticker put on the passport with a pixel to scan. One could supposedly check their results online.
The UAE has different regulations for the various states that make up the Emirates. Dubai has its own COVID app one is supposed to download. It is supposed to send a code to your phone to register, but I never received the code. It didn’t seem to work, and I couldn’t log in.
Going through passport control and customs in Dubai was relatively quick. This once busy airport, one of the busiest in the world, has become quiet. It seemed about a dozen flights had landed in the six hours around ours, including many from Israel. Most of the world was not traveling.
Now began the wait for the new results. This set up a lot of concerns. What if the test came back positive? Would I be stranded in quarantine in Dubai in a hotel? I checked the results in the evening and there was no record. It was unclear if we were supposed to isolate before receiving them. Finally, the next day in the afternoon, around 24 hours after the test, I got the text message. The test was negative. A sigh of relief.
For the next days I enjoyed Dubai and tried to maintain the guidelines. However, I wondered if we needed another test before leaving. A friend of a friend had wanted to go to Cairo but had been turned away at the airport for not having a test on time. However, Dubai has many ways to get tested, and some of them are quite quick, including drive-through, apparently. But apparently the need to get a test relates to which country you are flying to. Israel didn’t require a test, because the UAE was graded green.
There was a debate in Israel, when we were traveling to Dubai, about whether to change the requirements to quarantine on return. This produced a big question about the trip. When we left, the country was coded green, but it could have changed by the time of our return, and a three-day trip could have become a two-week quarantine. This uncertainty, along with concerns about getting a positive COVID result after arrival, put many concerning variables into play.
Nevertheless, on the way back, all the Dubai airport check-in asked for, twice, was to see we had filled out the Israel Health Ministry form. A PDF on the phone was enough. Then we were able to go through the airport normally and, unlike in Tel Aviv, almost all the shops at Dubai airport appeared to be open.
FLYING DURING COVID raises many questions and concerns. The different health regulations and lack of clarity about them mean that one takes tests and doesn’t know clearly if they are within the time needed, and each place seems to have its own unclear guidelines. There is no centralized place for information that appears easily accessible.
With changing regulations and classifications and testing times that vary, travel is possible, but if one is going to a foreign country it’s best to have flexibility regarding changes, because one can’t be sure.
When I returned to Israel on the 10th, passport control had been moved closer to the arrival gate, and the personnel checked that we had filled out the online Health Ministry form. Another health check assessed temperature.
Other than that, the arrival was a breeze, as most of the terminal appears closed. A shuttle back to Terminal 1 to get my car was the last step.