For some people, the gradual and partial opening up of the world again means the chance to revisit favorite places, see family, or simply expand our horizons.
But for some, it’s the journey itself that’s the most exciting.
Self-styled “avgeeks,” or aviation enthusiasts, saw their hobby brutally curtailed by the pandemic.
And while they’ve been grounded for the best part of 15 months, they’ve been taking up new hobbies to give them a taste of the old.
Of course, there’s Nik Sennhauser, who’s taken to recreating memorable airline meals of the past at home.
Others have been going over memories of their favorite past flights, or keeping tabs on pilots who’ve kept flying during the pandemic.
CNN spoke to five avgeeks to see how they’ve been coping while grounded.
The flight deal king
Pre-pandemic, Elliot Sharod flew about once a week, mainly for work.
“There’s something about the whole experience that has always resonated with me, since I was a young child,” he says.
“Booking the ticket, packing the bag, getting to the airport, boarding, then looking around at 350 other people on a metal tube, watching a movie and eating as they’re on their way to somewhere. It blows my mind, just everything about it.
“I’m fascinated by how planes work, but also the travel aspect as well – going to see new places. And it’s the experience onboard, surrounded by all these people traveling for different reasons.”
Since March 2020, though, he’s taken just one return trip, from his home in the UK to Croatia.
“It was tough, because you’re always looking at your calendar going, ‘I should be here now, checking in for this flight’ – that was always something that excited me,” he says.
“There was the initial feeling of, well, we can’t do much, there’s a pandemic, but as time wore on there was almost a feeling of wasted time – we’re not going to get that year back.”
For Sharod, 2020 should have been an important year. He and his fiancée, Helen, were due to fly to South Africa to get married a week after the first UK lockdown.
“We pushed it back to April 2021, and then the South African variant happened. So we’ve booked it for April 2022 now,” he says.
For an avgeek, though, every cloud has an airplane-shaped silver lining.
“It’s frustrating, but I’ve had the chance to get some great flight deals for the wedding,” he says. They’ve swapped their original tickets – in economy, costing £700 ($993) – for swish business class seats, for just $425 each more. He’s even scored a 50% cash bonus for their honeymoon – two weeks in Indonesia and Singapore.
For Sharod, time he hasn’t spent traveling has, in recent months, been taken up with time he’s spent researching trips and flight deals. As well as the cut-price wedding, he’s also planned a trip to the Airbus factory in Toulouse, setting himself the challenge of taking as many flights as he can to get there for under £200.
“I’m up to five flights now – to Turkey, Eastern Europe, then back to Toulouse. These are the kind of things that have been keeping me busy,” he says. Multi-leg flights are nothing new to him – he was the kind of person who, pre-pandemic, would have flown from London to Vegas via Helsinki, LA and Arizona rather than taking the direct flight. “I give myself a challenge with these things and see what I can do – it’s nerdy beyond belief,” he says.
Finding friends on social media
As well as planning his next moves, Sharod has been getting more involved in the avgeek community.
Like Sennhauser, who’s made friends through cooking his airline meals, he’s turned social media acquaintances into real friendships. Having been a follower of avgeek YouTubers Noel Philips and Paul Lucas, he went for a beer with Lucas during the summer (when it was permitted).
“I’ve been able to live through these pilots who are able to travel, and see the view from 37,000 feet,” he says. “There’s the fear of missing out, of course, of wishing I was there looking out of the window, but there’s more happiness than jealousy – my time will come.”
And in the meantime, he’s also been making contact with other grounded avgeeks, getting together to run online aviation quizzes. One he hosted himself before Christmas got about 40 attendees – “it was our way of getting a fix, and coming together as a group of people who miss doing what we used to do,” he says. “It’s give me a chance to get to know people in the same boat – I’ve made some good friends along the way.”
The simulator pilot
Fellow avgeek Adam Longbottom misses flying so much that he’s taught himself how to fly a plane.
Not with official flying lessons, of course – in the UK, he’s been in lockdown for the majority of the past year. Instead, in May 2020, he bought flight simulator software and turned his home into a flight deck.
Since then, he’s clocked up around 300 flights around the Mediterranean, taking a flight in real time almost every day. Not that he’s tied to the screen for the entire time – once he’s reached cruising altitude he can switch on the cruise control and get on with other things, just listening out for the air traffic control call outs for “his” plane.
A longtime lover of Venice, he’s made the city’s Marco Polo airport his “hub,” to start from and end his flights.
“I usually fly around the Mediterranean so it’s a good place to begin – flying over the Venice lagoon is so distinctive and really not like anywhere else,” he says.
His favorite route so far? “Probably Nice Côte d’Azur back in to Venice as I get to fly off the coast of the Mediterranean before crossing Italy and being greeted by the Venetian lagoon. It’s a pretty short flight too, so that means that it’s pretty hands on.”
Yes, hands on. The simulator, X-Plane 11 – which he runs on two large monitors attached to his Mac – is “flown” using a joystick, keyboard commands and voice control.
Longbottom has bought add-ons to the basic package, including cabin announcements, airport scenery and specific planes – he flies an Airbus A319 and a Boeing 737-800.
“To know that I’m following the correct protocols and am able to fly the planes in a realistic way is quite an awesome feeling,” he says.
“I wouldn’t presume to think that I’d be able to jump into a real plane, but it feels great to be able to do it on the sim safely.”
The simulator is so “realistic” that, yes, if you don’t fly correctly, the plane “crashes.” It happened to him a few times right at the start.
“But as with a real plane, there are emergency protocols you can follow that should help you land safely in most situations,” he says.
Longbottom, now 39, first tried a flight simulator in his early 20s, but swiftly gave up.
“I’d dreamed about becoming a pilot and wanted to see exactly what they do,” he says.
“I found that it took ages to understand exactly how each plane worked and to get all of the protocols correct in order to be able to take off and fly to a different airport safely. After realizing how difficult it was, I gave up and didn’t go near it for years.”
Pre-pandemic, he used to indulge in a bit of planespotting on his daily commute: “I work quite close to Leeds Bradford Airport and would often stop on my way home from work to tie up the day’s admin on my laptop in the car. There’s a great lookout point overlooking the runway so I’d sit there, watching the planes. I’d have a look where they were all going on the Flight Radar app.”
But lockdown gave him the time – and the need – to give flying the simulator another go. And he says the fake flights he’s taken has given him a spot of holiday cheer.
“The great thing about the sim is that it can use real-world weather, meaning I could fly from somewhere in Southern Europe and I’d find blazing sunshine bouncing off the sea and lighting up the cockpit. Even that was enough to put me in a good mood,” he says.
“The realistic scenery helps, too, as I can spot different landmarks and places I’ve visited for real.”
The virtual traveler
Many of us resorted to virtual sightseeing during lockdown – whether it’s a livestreamed trip to a museum, or simply a camera posted at one of our favorite places.
Blogger Dave Grossman went one further, however, with full trips to five destinations, including Hawaii and Peru.
His trips with HeyGo were “like being on a tour with a large group,” led by tour guides, with whom the “visitors” communicated via chat – “It’s pretty anonymous,” he says, noting that Amazon’s new Amazon Explore service sets you up with a private guide.
His favorite? Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, known for its giant panda population.
“I had no idea what it looked like, and it was much more quaint and homey than I’d imagined,” he says – in fact, the virtual trip has inspired him to add Chengdu to his real-life must-visit list.
Others weren’t so satisfying, however. “I found Machu Picchu without hiking leaves you wanting – and a temple that you can’t actually walk around in isn’t too exciting,” he says.
Of course, for an avgeek, there’s one major thing missing from a virtual trip: the journey.
Although Grossman says that the destination is more important than the journey for him, “I also really love using miles and points to make that experience start in the air with, ideally, a first or business class ticket, and a luxurious free hotel,” he says.
He made his first trip – to Hawaii, a replacement for the honeymoon he never had – in April 2021, once he’d been vaccinated. And it was that trip that made him realize just how lacking virtual trips are, he says: “They simply cannot stack up.”
“I view a virtual trip now as I would a cruise to ports I’ve not been – good for a taste, but woefully insufficient as a replacement for days on the ground,” he says.
“As for what I missed most about flying – anticipating landing somewhere new. You can’t beat that feeling.”
The avgeek Airbnb-er
For Susanne Carter, lockdown brought her love of flying truly home.
Born and raised in Australia, but now living on Orkney, the remote archipelago off the coast of Scotland, aviation has been part of her life since she was a child.
“When I was about eight, my dad got his private pilot’s license, and every time he went flying I wanted to go,” she says.
“At 16, I wanted to get my license too, but I got a boyfriend instead. But ever since, anything to do with airplanes, I’ve already been interested in. I’m the type who used to go to an airport and look at the planes.”
Living in Orkney means flying to the mainland any time she wants to go anywhere, and she even worked for the local airport for nearly a decade.
So when lockdown hit, she had an idea.
“We’ve been doing Airbnb in the house for a couple of years, but we also have a shed out the back full of junk. So I thought, why don’t we do self-catering from there?”
They’ll need planning permission to convert it, but during lockdown Carter started buying things for the potential Airbnb. The idea: to make it airplane-themed.
“I bought a flap that I hope will be a fold-down table, three sets of seats with trays, and a part of a galley that’s used as a wardrobe – it has six or seven ‘departments’ in it, so I think that’ll be ok, since we’ll need a wardrobe.”
Kitting out her space is nothing new – they already have a row of three British Airways seats in the kitchen which her partner’s grandchildren use when they come over. For the Airbnb, she’s thought of everything – even a pile of headrest covers that she’s planning to turn into teatowels, washbags that she’ll give to guests, and oxygen masks remodeled as lights.
So far, she thinks she’s spent around £5,000 ($7,000) on airplane accessories. The shed should be ready for its first guests in 12-18 months.
The airport whisperer
For some avgeeks, flying can be an almost meditative experience.
And for Laird Kay, an aviation photographer from Toronto who used to travel seven or eight times a year to Europe for work, lockdown has helped him tap into that.
Wanting to “relive the memories” of past travel, there was one thing that he really missed.
“I thought, I just want to hear the Solari board at Frankfurt airport again – that iconic flapping sound,” he says, referring to the clackety old-style departure boards that still exist in a couple of places around the world. So he scoured YouTube, where he found a recording which “I played on repeat way too many times.”
The soothing clack of the Solari board made him think – what other airport-related sounds could be out there?
“So I went onto SoundCloud, and thank goodness people record the strangest things,” he says.
“There’s a guy who flew from Zurich to Amsterdam, and he has the whole lounge and boarding experience.”
“It makes me realize I’m missing the background and the inane noises associated with traveling. The announcements. The guy on Facetime talking a little too loud, and you think, ‘Oh just quiet down,’ or the kid crying, and you’re thinking, ‘Please don’t let me be seated beside him.’ People doing a terrible job pronouncing names. It’s all those experiences you didn’t think of when they were happening, but they’re so much more valuable now we don’t have them.”
For Kay, playing the sounds has turned the internet into “a jukebox of memories.”
“You play them and think, ‘Oh, I remember that flight form Paris to Toronto.’ Or I remember the day I spent at this airport. You never remember the bad flights or the bad airports, it’s only the memories that you cherish that come back. It’s quite wonderful as a way of getting your fix of plane geek energy.”
Kay has in fact taken one return flight since the pandemic started, to Montreal – just 45 minutes. “It felt amazing to be on a plane, to feel the takeoff and the announcements,” he says.
“It was interesting being masked, it felt totally different, but there’s still magic in flight. I look out and watch the clouds go by, and it’s quite magical, thinking that we as humans have engineered this machine to fly around the world.”
He has a flight booked for August, by which time he should be fully vaccinated, but says he’ll take “baby steps” as he’s still concerned about the virus.
In the meantime, as well as listening to his sounds, he spends time looking at airplane models and memorabilia such as menus from past flights and old paper tickets. “I’ve got a crazy amenity kit collection which I go through too,” he says.
Sometimes he thinks of the future.
“At home on my computer, sometimes I hear a plane, my neck flips back and I see a contrail and race to see who it is. It gives me hope that things will get better.
“It’s odd not packing and not getting ready for a trip, but I know we’ll all travel again. It’ll just happen a little later for some than for others. But we’ll all have jet lag again – and that’s something I never thought I’d miss.”