• Aisling Salisbury

Getting Home Isn't Easy Anymore

The cat is out of the bag. My plan to "fake it" to the world that I was still in the United States came to an end yesterday. No, no one let it slip, I did.


Yesterday was a devastating blow following the announcement that my home state of Victoria wouldn't just be extending its lockdown for Melbourne for another week but also that people from Melbourne wouldn't be able to travel to regional centres over the Queens Birthday weekend. That is the point that resulted in the final nail in the coffin for me. Even if the Lockdowns are lifted next week, Melbourne is still going to be under restrictions.


Last Thursday night at LAX airport I was lucky enough to be granted a boarding pass to get on a flight to Fortress Australia. So since Saturday morning, I have been locked away in the requirement of Hotel Quarantine in Sydney. The decision to fly to Australia was done within a week and basically dependant on clearing certain hurdles. If I passed one then it was still on, if I didn't, then it was off. As such it's why I kept it a secret. In the hope, I could surprise the people in my life when I showed up.


When my June roster came out in mid-May it was very heavily packed at the back end of the month. Needless to say, that made me quite angry because it was a case of "I'm going to be so exhausted in those two weeks" but a couple of days later when I was back at home, on my balcony over a glass of Jameson Cold Brew I had an epiphany.

"If I can find someone to cover my three-day trip at the start of June, I won't be due back at work until mid June. With the last four days of May off that's gives me two and a half weeks off. Arrive on this date and get out of quarantine there, it gives me four-five days at home. All whilst really only loosing about 4% of my monthly salary."

I smiled as I realised, I might be able to go home for a bit. See my boyfriend, family and friends (the ones who weren't telling me "to stay where I am" anyway).


When I was recalled to the US in July 2020 I had to leave Australia after three months in lockdown/restricted Melbourne. But as I left Melbourne it was simply like Tom Hanks in 'Cast Away' as I entered the Qantas Terminal at Tullamarine.

Despite the recall, I didn't see my company surviving past September. Why September? Because that was when President Trump's bailout package to my industry would run out. It was not easy to just resign. If I did, I would have to pay out my contract, which at the time was close to $20,000USD. But if the company goes under, I'll be free to return without any debts. Nevertheless, come September, my company survived whilst others didn't. Our salaries though were now 30% less, but we remained employed. I looked back at home and saw Australia constantly fearing and shutting down due to COVID, whilst the US was starting to reopen and find some normalcy. Payout my contract and return to unemployment or stay in the US? It was tough but the decision was made to stay in the US.


I left Australia in July 2020 with the belief I would be home permanently in three months. That was no longer the case. Now any return to Australia, even temporary, would be out of reach financially. In order to do such a thing, I would basically have to give up at least three-four weeks of income and pay the Quarantine fee. So here was an opportunistic chance to go home without losing my monthly income. I had to give it a go. May 27th 2021 would be my departure date, so time to set those hurdles.


By May 21st I had found a colleague willing to pick up my three-day trip. The only problem was the swap wouldn't be official until May 25th-26th. So assuming the swap would be approved, the next step was to get my pre-departure COVID test. On the morning of May 25th before work, I got up and got the PCR swabs done. By midday that day I had the negative result and the shift swap was approved. Now the next hurdle was to hope that the forecast week of thunderstorms in my base of Houston wouldn't cause any major delays that prevented me from boarding a flight to the West Coast. On the night of May 26th, the weather looked good for the next day. We should be fine. In fact, we finished 30 mins early, my aircraft is an Embraer and has the same control column as the Concorde, as such I always fly with the "afterburners" on.


But on that same night, in Bentonville, Arkansas I saw the headlines that Victoria was about to go into Lockdown. One of my biggest fears and in fact a hurdle I had anticipated. Call me a cynic but I feared that for the Queen's Birthday weekend Melbourne would be in some form of Lockdown. After all, they were the next major city to have their Long Weekend plans destroyed. As I stayed up to watch the Press Conference via the Australia Channel the question was raised.


Do I even attempt to get on a flight tomorrow?


I decided to leave it to fate. I mean there was still the possibility that I wouldn't even be permitted to get on a flight because of the ever-changing passenger caps anyway. It was also two weeks until I'd be actually in Melbourne. It was probably better they locked down now instead of ruining my time at home? Therefore I decided to continue my viewpoint that if I get on the flight to Australia I do, if I don't, I don't. It was going to be no skin off my nose either way, but obviously, one would be the preferred choice.


After finishing work in Houston it was time to get to the West Coast. Bugger! My plan to fly to San Francisco was destroyed. All flights were now oversold. When you book a ticket that basically only permits you to fly when there's an empty seat I'm not liking the chances of getting to San Francisco today, on any flight. Cue my ability/security clearance to travel in the Flight Deck known as "jumpseating" but that also wasn't a possibility. All flights to San Francisco already had other pilots listed for jump seat. They were also pilots who outranked me in seniority and company wise.


Flights to Los Angeles were also oversold But, the jumpseats were wide open. So thank you to the United Captain that granted me permission to sit there and keep them company to LA. We had some very interesting conversations about Australia. Simply they were both shocked at how Australia and Australians were so open to destroying their civil liberties so freely. The Captain was shocked when he heard about the passenger caps and quarantine. On hearing about this he goes "but aren't you vaccinated?" and I replied, "I'm actually not, but even if I was it would make no difference, I'd still have to quarantine". The First Officer of the flight when he heard about lockdowns etc. summed it up quite easily "I thought Australia shared our values but it seems they're more akin to a rogue state." Very true, especially when they found out my home state just locked down close to 7 million people for a handful of cases. They got me to LA for the chance of a flight to this new rogue state so I thank them for that.


I had a six-hour wait until the flight from LA to Sydney. Having been going non-stop since 3 am Central time it was a tough wait. But this was the biggest and final hurdle. Do I fall under the passenger cap?


Working for an airline in these times (besides the discounted ability to fly) I can see passenger loads and speak with staff at Houston airport of who I am now colleagues with. They confirmed the fact that there were about 10 seats left on the flight from LA. So it appeared that I would fall under the cap. I go to check-in for the flight and the agent says "good luck" and I replied "getting home or the passenger cap?" and she replied, "both, we are well under the cap for tonight but we just never know."


Way to go with that Australia. Keeping yourself safe at the sacrifice of your own citizens.

Thirty minutes before boarding my name was called. I had a boarding pass. Remember my discounted airfare means I only travel if there is a seat free. In this case, there obviously was. This flight fell well below the passenger cap for that night which meant I got myself a seat. In fact, I walked the plane and counted only 26 people on a Boeing 787. An aircraft meant to fly long distances with 250+ people. A lot of empty seats and don't for one second think Australia that if you build these "Camps" for quarantine that it's going to mean an end to the passenger caps. Just end the caps and let your people come home. isolate in a hotel for a couple of days with testing then let them out to finish the remainder of their isolation period at home.

Just after I got my boarding pass I got a text message from a colleague. A colleague who I had brainwashed to become a Melbourne Footy Club member and is so hooked on the game of Aussie Rules that I've created a monster. Despite me telling him I felt Queen's Birthday now is going to be played behind closed doors, he was still incredibly jealous that I had a chance to be there for a game. So he texted me asking if I got on the flight. I sent him the following gif:

He simply replied:

"Not quite the gif I would use."

How right would he be.


On day five of my Quarantine (technically fourth), the dagger to my heart came when it was confirmed that Melbourne would continue its strict lockdown for another week. It would end Friday week with my expected arrival to be on Saturday. Besides seeing my partner and family there were a number of other things I needed to get done in such a short period of time.


Obviously one of them was to go and see a footy match, but before you go "well that's a bit precious princess" you do need to understand that Footy is, and always has been, a massive part of my social life. So the ability to go to one game would tick the box of seeing as many friends as I could in just one day. But by day two of my quarantine, I had accepted that was not going to happen so I had basically made peace with that.


Further things were to see my GP and Dentist which both probably are not going to be permitted as it's not for Emergency Treatments. Although the GP would probably be permitted, the doctors in hotel quarantine could probably have handled what I needed there anyway. There was also the catching up with friends from other social circles. Social circles that were now likely to be closed under any restrictions.


When you looked at what regional Victoria's restrictions would be from this Friday, I would guess that if Melbourne is lucky enough by next week they would have similar restrictions. It meant that the chance of seeing other friends was probably not going to be permitted. Hell even under the current restrictions it would be either see/stay with my boyfriend or with my parents? But I would not be permitted to do both without breaking the rules. Remember there is no compassion when it comes to these rules because as they say at each Victorian Press Conference:

"People will die!"

It's the same reasons why even a funeral for an eight-year-old isn't given permission to have a proper funeral when there are no cases at all in the town the funeral is being held in. Talk about heartless.


As I said at the start of this piece, it was the announcement that Melburnians would not be permitted to even travel to regional centres for the long weekend. It was clear that Melbourne would be under some form of restriction as of next week when I am meant to be there. What those restrictions are or what they will permit of people is hard to guess.


Is it worth continuing this gamble or seeking an exit of the quarantine and go back to the US right away?


I broke the news to my boyfriend and parents who were both devasted about the Lockdown extension. To only then hear that I was only 900kms away. So close, yet so far. It was with a further devasting blow but they agreed, there was no point in me coming home to a locked-down and gloomy city of Melbourne. With that came the exemption process to leave Hotel Quarantine early and leave the country. NSW Health says that it will probably be approved as I wouldn't be leaving to "enter the community" but to be escorted to the airport and leave the country. So I am awaiting the response to that. Just before publishing this though, I got the call and a complication. Someone out of those 26 people on the flight had tested positive for COVID. As such, they need to confirm that the genomic sequence to see what strain it is. If it's any of the Brazilian or Indian strains then I'm going to be in Quarantine for the long haul. So watch this space.


Regardless though, I also made the decision that if my exemption is granted after this weekend then I may as well just stay and see out my planned release date. Might just have to return to the "hurdles" approach that got me here. But if I do get to return to the US then I might be able to pick up some overtime at work, or at a bare minimum have the freedom to sit on my balcony and enjoy the summer air, or go for a run along the waterfront in Seattle. It would be a resumption of basic freedoms.


Now before I close out I am going to say this.


I get it, there are many thousands of Aussies who can't get home and I am about to throw it away when I am fortunate to even get to set foot on Aussie soil again. I also get that my arrival puts me into the 17,000 or so people who have the "audacity" to fly in and fly out again. But this is the problem with Australia's border policy and the power crazy State Leaders. These decisions, the decisions to actively restrict Australians the right to come home when they need to. The right to go and hug a family member in times of need, the destruction of livelihoods when the rest of the world has found a way to live with this virus. Vaccine or not, the world was starting to get back to normal and accepted that people had the ability to decide for themselves how they wanted to live. Australia has gone down the path of "we [Government] only know what's good for you" and it seems the populous is happy to go down this path and it's a slippery slope.


The decisions being made are apparently due to "the best health advice" but it's failed to be shared with the public. I beg of our Government at all levels to wake up. You are affecting our lives in ways that will be seen as a dark chapter in the Nation's history. You may think you are saving people, but tell that to my friends who have taken their own lives in the last 12 months. The dozens of my friends who are unemployed, all for the sake of a handful of cases.


It's time to find your heartstrings guys, you are now so obsessed with numbers that you have forgotten who you are there to work for, the people. We have feelings, hopes and dreams and you keep crapping on them believing that you are in the right. Find your heart guys and girls, find your heart.


Ash

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