A man is coughing in the seat behind me on the plane. It's the type of cough which is hard to distinguish - it could be sickness, or the result of a lifelong smoking habit. Either way, it's not muffled enough to be confident he's wearing a mask, or coughing into his elbow, writes Juliette Sivertsen.

It was a snap decision to leave Auckland and fly to my hometown before the lockdown, and one that plagued me with anxiety. Was this an essential trip? Was it socially irresponsible for me to get on a plane? Would the airport and plane be filled with potential carriers of COVID-19? Who am I putting at risk in my quest to dash home before lockdown?

After receiving affirmation from family, friends and my editors, all understanding of my personal circumstances, I booked the flight. The cost of my Air New Zealand ticket jumped $100 within an hour of the lockdown announcement.

I prepared for chaos at the airport. News reports the previous day suggested a manic airport experience led by people panic-flying to their final destination. I expected it to be like flying on the Friday before Christmas, but without the promises of mince pies and brandy on my arrival. I was comforted by the promise of at least wine at my destination.

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At Auckland Airport's domestic terminal yesterday afternoon, on one of the last days available for domestic flights, passengers wheeled their luggage into the terminal one at a time, a clear two-metre distance between each person.

Inside, the terminal was quiet. The overhead announcement repeated the unprecedented demand for services. But there were empty kiosks. No queues for the bag drop. Eateries closed. Most travellers wore face masks. Surgical masks, dust masks, construction masks, whatever mask they could find. A few people sat in the food court, distancing themselves from others.

Most passengers adhered to the social distancing rules at Auckland Airport. Photo / Juliette Sivertsen
Most passengers adhered to the social distancing rules at Auckland Airport. Photo / Juliette Sivertsen

I checked-in using my knuckles on the kiosk touch screen, followed by a healthy slather of hand sanitiser, which I continued to clutch with a death grip throughout my journey. My sister messaged me, half joking and half deadly serious. "Don't touch anything! Don't breathe anything!"

I've flown this main trunk line countless times. But never had I seen the airport so quiet. Security clearance was a breeze. Only two lines were operating. I waltzed on through to put my laptop and handbag in the trays.

"This is weirdly quiet, isn't it?" I asked one aviation security officer. She agreed it was weird. "Especially as yesterday was so busy. I think a lot of people have cancelled their flights."

On the other side of the x-ray machines, there was just one other passenger waiting to collect their belongings - a dream scenario for most travellers. Usually it's a frantic gathering of bags and keys, trays piling up and the odd push and shove by a queue-jumper rushing to avoid missing their flight.

The seats outside the gate were mostly empty and I wished I was in need of an airport nap as this would have been the perfect opportunity to stretch uninterrupted across a row of seats for a doze. A family with young children sat in the distance, all wearing masks, all with at least one seat between them.

Boarding was a dream. It was orderly, measured, almost joyful with all the personal space as each passenger respected one another's bubble. Passengers stepped foot onto the plane from the air bridge one at a time, waiting patiently for the traveller in front to start walking down the aisle before entering and showing their boarding pass to staff.

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No one was breathing down my neck as I shuffled down the aisle, not a single person bumped my bag in an effort to push ahead to get the final overhead locker space above their seat. There was room for everyone.

It was almost relaxed, except for the fact everyone was looking at each other suspiciously, eyeballs popping up from above their face masks, almost with a look of terror.

Rows of empty seats at Auckland Airport's domestic terminal. Photo / Juliette Sivertsen
Rows of empty seats at Auckland Airport's domestic terminal. Photo / Juliette Sivertsen

The flight had no more than 60 passengers. The Airbus A320 usually carries around 170.
Each passenger had an entire row to themselves. Those, like myself, in the rear of the plane, were all in the window seats. The man behind me coughed periodically through the flight and I couldn't help but be suspicious and annoyed he was seated right behind me. It would have still annoyed me even if there wasn't a global pandemic.

The flight attendants didn't wear masks, just gloves. They still served coffee and tea with a choice of a cookie or corn chips. But I noticed few people were brave enough to open their tray tables, given it's widely documented as one of the dirtiest places on a plane. I balanced my coffee on my lap while completing my fifth slather of hand sanitiser on the 85-minute flight.

As we began our descent, the lolly basket still came around. Except this time, passengers weren't allowed to dip their hands in. The flight attendant asked what colour sweet they wanted, and handed them out herself.

Disembarking was also a joy. Landing on the runway is usually accompanied with a chorus of over a hundred seatbelts unclicking and a mad rush up to the overhead lockers. But not this time. Some people stayed in their seats. Those waiting in the aisle adhered to the social distancing rules. People left the aircraft with order and decorum, one at a time.

If only flying could be this civilised every time.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website