A gift of airline miles helped one woman get home to her mum on the last flight out
The Singapore-based graphic designer was desperate to get to New Zealand to be with her cancer-stricken mother as the country went into COVID-19 lockdown. This is her story.
None of us could have ever imagined our lives today: Holed up in our homes, cities turned ghost towns and much of the developed world effectively shut down – and loved ones kept apart.
At 23:59 on March 25, New Zealand officially went into lockdown in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19.
A week prior in Singapore, Patsy Ong* (not her real name) had made the difficult decision to fly back to Auckland to be with her mum who is undergoing chemotherapy due to a breast cancer recurrence detected in January.
“It was quite an emotional decision as it meant having to leave my husband for one or two months. We got married in 2016 and having my husband in Singapore and my parents in New Zealand, I felt torn between both places with loved ones in both countries.
“With New Zealand in lockdown and [Singapore’s increasingly stringent travel restrictions], I didn’t know when the next available flight back might be; if and when Singapore citizens would even be allowed to return to Singapore,” shared Patsy over a Zoom call from her childhood home in Auckland.
“With New Zealand in lockdown and [Singapore’s increasingly stringent travel restrictions], I didn’t know when the next available flight back might be; if and when Singapore citizens would even be allowed to return to Singapore.” – Patsy Ong
With the travel window closing fast, she knew she had to act quickly and promptly booked a flight for March 31 on Air New Zealand.
Recalling the highly emotional chain of events that ensued, Patsy said: “It was a stressful week as I was constantly worried the flight may get cancelled and what my Plan B would be in such an event. It’s always the what-ifs that stress you especially when it’s such a critical time.”
The night of March 24 – one day before New Zealand’s lockdown – the inevitable happened: She received a text message from the airline informing her that her flight was cancelled and they were refunding her in credits – with zero information on the possibility of alternative flights.
READ> COVID-19: Travel agencies’ advice on what stranded travellers should do
This triggered a mad scramble to book a new flight. To compound the chaos, Patsy’s aunt had been admitted to hospital for a non COVID-19-related issue in Singapore.
While she was busy tending to her aunt in hospital, Patsy enlisted the help of her brother in New Zealand to rebook the flight for March 27. But they almost immediately changed it to a day earlier on Singapore Airlines, which codeshares with Air New Zealand, for March 26, just in case.
The night before the new flight was to depart, she again received a text message informing her the flight was cancelled. But this time, Patsy had been automatically rebooked on the March 27 flight – the day after New Zealand’s official lockdown began.
With two cancelled flights already stacked up in the midst of caring for her aunt in hospital, making arrangements with her office to work remotely overseas, and packing for an indefinite duration away from Singapore, Patsy’s anxiety went into overdrive.
“I tried calling the Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand hotlines to confirm the new flight on March 27 but I was perpetually on hold for over an hour on each line and couldn’t get hold of anyone. I kept checking my email for the new itinerary but there was nothing,” said the graphic designer, who works for a publishing house.
“So by the night of March 26, I was panicking because I couldn’t show up at the airport without any reference or booking code only to find out that I didn't actually have a seat on the plane. It was quite emotionally wrecking and I thought to myself, ‘This is it, I can’t see my mum for goodness knows how long’,” she recalled.
“It was quite emotionally wrecking and I thought to myself, ‘This is it, I can’t see my mum for goodness knows how long’,” – Patsy Ong
But then an idea sparked, and Patsy reached out to a friend who had previously worked with Singapore Airlines for help.
“We were hoping he could provide some insight into the situation and perhaps advise us on what to do. He mentioned that the airline call centres were probably not located in Singapore and were possibly in countries that had already been locked down so there wasn’t enough support to handle calls,” she explained.
The former Singapore Airlines employee, a childhood friend of Patsy’s husband for over 30 years, then took the initiative to check the available flights online.
“He spotted one on March 28 and offered to use his KrisFlyer miles to help me book the flight, as he felt it was safer to book a new flight since I still had no booking reference issued for the March 27 flight they had switched me to,” she said.
Expressing her immense appreciation for the magnanimous gesture, Patsy added: “He’s a very generous person. For him to extend that generosity was very touching.”
The big-hearted friend even went a step further and secured Patsy a Suite onboard her Singapore Airlines flight to reduce her risk of exposure to other travellers and therefore, the virus, while the added space and comfort would allow her to get better rest during the 10-hour flight, especially after the week-long ordeal she had been through.
“The economy seats were 50,000 points and the Suites were 80,000 points so he said, just go for it. We really owe this friend a great debt of gratitude,” she shared earnestly.
“The economy seats were 50,000 points and the Suites were 80,000 points so he said, just go for it. We really owe this friend a great debt of gratitude.” – Patsy Ong
When Patsy arrived at the airport on the evening of March 28 and checked in, she discovered that it was, in fact, the very last flight out of Singapore to New Zealand as Singapore Airlines had slashed 96 per cent of its capacity and ground most of its planes.
“Right up to the morning of the flight, I was still wondering if it was going to get cancelled. It felt very much like a race against time. At the departure lounge as we waited to board the plane, I counted only 16 people in the lounge with me,” she recounted.
READ> Naomi Campbell was right: You should disinfect your space on an airplane
QUARANTINED ON ARRIVAL
When Patsy finally landed in Auckland, there was no hugging her brother who came to pick her up at the airport. There was no grand reunion with her parents, either.
Instead, her return home was a muted affair; quarantined on arrival on the second floor of her family home.
“I unpacked my bags in the garage, transferred everything into plastic bags, wiped down the luggage, cleaned and disinfected everything, headed straight upstairs and into the shower, threw the laundry into the washing machine, and finally crashed when I laid down. I slept really well after that.”
Those additional measures were necessary, given her mum’s medical condition and compromised immunity due to the chemotherapy; three rounds since January plus another two this month and the next.
How did it feel to be so close yet kept apart from her family?
“The fact that we’re under the same roof is something to be really grateful about. I’m glad I’m home. I can hear them talking downstairs. We FaceTime during lunch and dinner. My dad’s been cooking and leaving food on the stairs. He calls out ‘dinner’ and goes back to the kitchen then I go take my tray up,” she said, describing life in home quarantine.
“The fact that we’re under the same roof is something to be really grateful about. I’m glad I’m home. I can see my mum via FaceTime and she looks well and seems to be eating well.” – Patsy Ong
Her mum, meanwhile, is certainly glad to have her daughter home.
“I can see my mum via FaceTime and she looks well and seems to be eating well. The first few days when I came home, she just kept saying ‘I’m so happy you’re back’. When a person is sick, they also need emotional support and when they’re happy and in better spirits, it enhances their chances of recovery so I think it was a good decision to come back.”
Now that she can finally pause and catch a breath, Patsy also shared how this experience, while nerve-wracking on so many fronts, has imbued her with a new level of respect for those fighting on the frontlines during this pandemic.
“I now have an increased respect for people working in the hospitals and those in the service industry because they really risk a lot by facing crowds every day. Even the air stewardesses on the plane were very uncertain about what was going to happen to them when they turned around the flight back to Singapore because that was possibly their last flight for awhile. So huge, huge respect for people working on the frontlines,” she said.
In a world plunged in chaos and plagued by uncertainty, it doesn’t hurt to spread a little more kindness in these unprecedented times.
“We really need more acts of kindness,” she concluded.
“I now have an increased respect for people working in the hospitals and those in the service industry because they really risk a lot by facing crowds every day.” – Patsy Ong