Sydney Airport was decorated for a victory party on Monday afternoon, as I joined the passengers lined up for the first Qantas commercial flight from Sydney to London in 20 months. The check-in desks looked like souvenir shops, strewn with Union Jack bunting, Beefeater bears and Churchillian bulldogs.
It felt like a war ended and we had won.
Our flight, QF1, was routed through Darwin for the first time. As we shuffled towards the document checks, newspaper reporters and camera crews stopped everyone to ask their stories.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” said one young journalist, twice, as she was told that the women waiting on either side of me were returning home for their parents’ funerals.
I doubt that there were many people travelling for pleasure, but it was a pleasure to be travelling at all.
A smiling woman in a lanyard asked me where I was flying. It turned out that she was Nicky Davidson, head of Sydney Airport for Qantas.
“This is so exciting,” she said. “An airport isn’t a great place without passengers, and it’s not a great place without people. We can bring all our people back – and I’ll finally get to see my mum and dad, who I haven’t seen for two years.”
I had not visited my own family in England since 2019. It felt as if customers and staff were all escaping the same trap.
In the day’s first concession to the pandemic, our international vaccination certificates were verified at a row of dedicated desks. We also had to show a Passenger Locator Form for the UK. However, we were not required to take a COVID-19 test before departure and only unvaccinated passengers with exemptions were expected to turn up four hours before the flight.
The economy-class check-in process was quicker than in the days before COVID-19. I could have arrived at the airport with only 90 minutes to spare and still got on the plane.
The crew posed for press photographs. As they peeled off, I asked service manager Ingmar Bulk how he felt to be back at work.
“I cried when they called me,” he said. “I burst into tears. I’m honoured that I can be on this flight.”
Mr Bulk used to be a nurse. During the long layoff, he had worked for 16 months with cancer patients at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. “It was an amazing reminder of what life is about,” he said, “and how lucky we are. I appreciate even more being in my uniform again, after what I’ve seen in the last 16 months.”
As the crew made for the Border Force counters, a hostie whooped, “Here we go!”
There were no queues at Immigration. We were virtually the only people in the airport.
I was astonished to bump into one of my neighbours who was on the same flight. Almost all the airport shops and restaurants were closed, along with all the lounges except for Qantas First and Business.
I felt the tiniest twingette of guilt as I left my neighbour at the Sumo Salad outlet (which, at least, was open) and used my media contacts to gain entry to the luxury lounge.
The lounge’s Neil Perry-inspired menu was a la carte. I ordered paprika and garlic chicken, a bowl of chips, the remarkable signature pavlova and four glasses of G H Mumm Cordon Rouge. It felt decadent but slightly unsettling, since I couldn’t convince myself that I wouldn’t be given a bill at the end.
Our plane was a Dreamliner 787-9, compact, comfortable and desperately clean. We all applauded when the pilot took off, like passengers on a charter flight in the 1970s.
There was a choice of meals – I picked a tasty beef-noodle salad – but no printed menu. In credibly, Qantas has finally solved the last great problem in aeronautics and found a way to deliver a bread roll that is not still frozen in the middle.
It took about four hours and 25 minutes to fly from Sydney to Darwin and I barely noticed the time pass. The inflight entertainment system has lost its unique romance since we all subscribed to streaming services, but many of my fellow passengers watched F9: The Fast Saga. I realised I had only ever seen a Fast and Furious movie on the back of somebody else’s airline seat.
The biggest discomfort was having to wear a mask whenever we weren’t eating or drinking. After about an hour, the cords of my mask felt like a small child tugging at my ear. Then I discovered – and this is my biggest travel tip for 2021 – that an AMD CE2 FFP2 mask will stay on your face (or, at least, my face) while fastened at only one side.
As transit passengers, we were not allowed into the terminal at Darwin Airport. Most of us had to wait for an hour in a seated area with a couple of vending machines, but a surprising number of frequent fliers filed into the Katana Lounge for unspectacular refreshments.
The second leg of the flight was scheduled to last 17 hours and 25 minutes – the longest commercial flight in the world. My third dinner in eight hours was a beef stew (although vegan options had been offered at every meal). About halfway through the flight, passengers were presented with a set of three rich and flavoursome party pies. It felt as though I had sneaked out of bed in the middle of the night to raid the pantry.
There were 45 empty seats in the 166-seat economy-class cabin. Most solo travellers had a vacant seat place to them.
Qantas had expected a fuller flight. “We thought we’d have them on the wings,” joked customer-service supervisor Emma Twyby.
Ms Twyby, like most of the second-leg crew, had been working on repatriation flights. She estimated that she had spent a total of four months in the past two years in quarantine at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory.
“Our last trip, we were flying Afghani refugees from Pakistan,” she said. “It was definitely one for the history books and so is this.”
I had forgotten how cold a plane can be. I had brought an outfit for the First and Business Lounge and another for the flight, but I ended up wearing them both at once – and I still wished that I’d packed a pair of fluffy socks.
The cabin lights were turned off for most of the flight. Seventeen hours is a long time to sit in the dark, but the thrill of flying again seemed to cancel out the discomfort for most people. Strangers spoke to each other and crew members were keen to chat, too.
Five hours before touchdown, a toddler stood up in his seat and bawled out “Heads and shoulders, knees and toes!” about a thousand times, while performing the (in)appropriate dance moves. This put an end to my attempts to go back to sleep.
The cooked breakfast was welcome – at least it wasn’t another dinner – and it signalled that the end was in sight.
We landed 22 minutes early and it took less than an hour to clear customs and immigration at Heathrow Airport, and wheel out our luggage into VE Day maelstrom of hugs and tears.
The war was over.
We had won.