In late April, the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) announced that some domestic flights would start to operate again, albeit with restrictions. The following is my experience flying on a domestic flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on 5 May 2020.
The trip started in an overall good mood, which did not last.
I heard a rumor late last week that anyone departing for a domestic flight should arrive three hours early. This is to ensure enough time for going through the proper screening protocols.
Normally, I’d aim to be at the airport about an hour before departure for a domestic flight. However, I understand that all of these regulations are new and will surely need some time to be ironed out as people start taking to the skies again.
To be safe, I arrived at DMK (Don Muang International Airport) at 6am for my 9am flight to Chiang Mai.
Though traffic in the city has picked up again to near-normal, once I arrived at the airport it was immediately clear that the people traveling to/from the terminals were much lower than normal. The taxi line was nearly empty.
There were a few doors to the domestic terminal that were open and equipped with thermal cameras for checking body temperatures. Much to my surprise, there were no questions asked, just one smiling person working at the table, watching the screen as people walked into the terminal.
The information counter was closed, and that makes sense. Most likely if you are at the airport, you already know which flight is yours, as the number of daily flights is drastically lower than before COVID-19 became a pandemic.
The terminal was emptier than I’ve ever seen it and the social distancing measures being put into place were noticeably inconsistent. Some airlines have tape on the floor for people to observe social distancing, and others do not.
I checked-in for my flight the night before, so I didn’t need to go to the counter anyways. I didn’t see anyone working at the counter or lining up to check in, so I assumed that people had either check-in online or were at one of the kiosks.
When checking into my flight I was only able to choose a seat either in the aisle or by the window.
As I proceeded to security, there was a tray where I was asked to put my boarding pass and my identification. I presented my Thai driver license for ID and my phone with the boarding pass displayed. I wasn’t required to fill out any forms prior to making it to the gate and I never had to show a passport, which I suspected I might have to do at some point.
The floor in the security line was marked with tape and only one person was allowed to put their belongings through the x-ray machine at once. This is where I think things will get really, really slow in the future.
The whole process of entering the airport, going through security and getting to the gate took about 20 minutes. I had some extra time to kill. I checked out one of the lounges, which was open and observing social distancing guidelines as the tables were all at least 1.5 meters apart.
The seats in the terminal waiting areas are not blocked off to prevent people from sitting too close to one another, as seen on public buses and trains in Bangkok. It was refreshing to see, though, that people are generally aware that there should be a seat in between themselves and the person closest to them.
Per usual, boarding started about 40 minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off. In the absence of normal air traffic, everything was very much on-time.
When boarding the flight, I was given a disposable seat cover “set” that is for the back of the seat, as well as for the armrests. I didn’t see any masks being handed out by the airline, but I think that if you didn’t have a mask you probably wouldn’t have made it all the way to the point of boarding.
If you had, for some reason, taken your mask off in the airport and misplaced it, I am unsure if they would have given you a mask or not.
There were no lines on the floor of the plane to remind people of the distance that they should be keeping while boarding. Surprisingly, there was also no hand sanitizer being offered to passengers while boarding the plane, nor once seated on the plane and no additional temperature checks were carried out after the initial check at the front door of the airport.
The flight attendants were all wearing masks, gloves and goggles.
I asked a flight attendant about the capacity of the flight. She told me that it was fully booked and that all 130 people had shown up for the flight. Seating was as pictured in the screenshot above- everyone sat with one (middle) seat empty in between each other.
During the flight, there was no food or beverage served and surprisingly none of the announcements (that I heard) mentioned COVID-19 restrictions/changes in service. This gave passengers plenty of time to fill out the following form, which was to be collected upon arrival in Chiang Mai:
And yes, the toilets were open.
Upon arrival to CNX (Chiang Mai International Airport), I swiftly deplaned and upon going downstairs into the baggage claim area, was greeted by a slew of immigration police – and they had a lot of questions.
But first, they waved me off to the side, which I anticipated after I saw a police officer holding a sign directing foreigners to the right:
First- what is my nationality, and where am I coming from?
Considering that there are limited flights and that everyone coming into the arrivals hall had filled out the form shown above with all of the flight and personal details, one would assume that they should have already known where I came from.
However, they either didn’t look at the forms or they needed to hear it again.
Second- who do I know?
They said that the only way I’d be permitted to come into Chiang Mai is if I knew a local “Chaing Mai person,” who would come and pick me up. They elaborated that this person would need to sign a document stating that they would be responsible for making sure that I will be quarantined.
Third- what if I don’t know anybody?
They insisted that if I didn’t know someone who can assume responsibility for my whereabouts, that I would be placed in a “Local Quarantine” for 14 days – even though I have a return ticket to Bangkok in three days from now.
This is the form citing the regulation that they were referring to:
According to the box nearest to the bottom, if a person doesn’t have accommodation, there’ll be a 14-day quarantine.
However, I came to Chiang Mai with accommodation already arranged that was not with a local person. They insisted that if I could have the owner of the hotel come to pick me up, that they would let me go. They also told me that if I could have my Thai wife come and retrieve me, that would be acceptable.
For the record, I don’t have a Thai wife.
They then passed me around a bit before bringing me back into the arrivals area to wait some more. Eventually, they sent another immigration officer to reiterate that I could either find a Thai person to sign a document stating that they would be responsible for making sure that I will be quarantined, or that I’d be going to a “Local Quarantine”.
Enter: the guy sitting next to me on the plane.
We had chatted a bit before takeoff and upon landing. Having seen the ordeal I was going through, he stepped in and agreed, as my friend, to take responsibility for me- and that was totally acceptable to the immigration police.
He signed the bottom of the above-pictured form, and they released me under his supervision.
Up until the very end of this experience, I planned to write about how easy this was to do. I had the idea that I was going to be able to announce that the Thainet was wrong all along, that there was absolutely no additional inconvenience involved in taking a domestic flight in Thailand.
However, what I experienced at the end leads me to believe that the biggest obstacle for making air travel convenient is discrepancies in provincial regulations.
Even though I was being tracked from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, had provided documents proving my identity, and had been temperature screened, as well as followed all of the guidelines while in the airport and on the plane, I was met by immigration officials telling me that I would be subject to the rules of the province of Chiang Mai.
They were not concerned with the fact that I haven’t left the country in three months, nor did they seem to care that I did actually have proof of where I was going to stay.
The bureaucratic hassles that most people are familiar with in Thailand are exacerbated by the fact that there is no consistency between the provinces in their communication of what is and isn’t “the rules.”
I could go on, but the point would be the same: the skies aren’t clear just yet. Unless you’re traveling in the company of a Thai person, you should probably reconsider flying domestically until local governments have come up with more standard guidelines for who is (and isn’t) allowed to pass without issue.