What it's like to fly from the US now: 'I was offered US$500 for place in airport test queue'
This is a first person account of what it took to catch a flight from San Francisco to Singapore, by a former editor of tabla! and former foreign editor of The New Paper.
I am back in Singapore. But what a day my wife and I had in getting on board the SQ 33 flight from San Francisco on Wednesday (Jan 5).
The problem was in getting a Covid test done in time. Singapore required us to take an Antigen Rapid Test (to be administered by a test centre) or a PCR test two days before departure. Easier said than done in the United States.
Very few centres do antigen tests which meet Singapore requirements. And PCR test results take an average of three days. As Covid cases in the US rose after Christmas, pharmacies in most places ran out of test kits.
San Francisco airport has two test centres but both don't offer Antigen tests. They offer PCR tests at US$250 (S$340) per person. I booked an Antigen test at a test centre in downtown San Francisco which promised test results in one hour (which was later revised to 2 hours) for US$69.
I made a reservation for noon on Jan 5. Since my flight was at 8.50pm there was more than enough time. When we arrived for the test, after a drive of four hours from my daughter's place of residence, I saw some people queuing up on the road outside the test centre.
Since I had a reservation I walked in, only to be told that there was a system crash and I too would have to queue up like the rest.
After standing in the cold outside until 2.30pm, nothing much changed except that the queue had lengthened. Meanwhile, my daughter and son-in-law got us lunch which we had while standing in the queue.
We again approached the test centre staff who by then admitted that they couldn't guarantee us a test and result in time for our flight. They also told us that other test centres in San Francisco were facing the same technical problem and were unable to upload test results online.
We decided to leave the queue and rush to the airport and do the PCR test as a walk-in. We got there by 3pm only to be told by the test centre at the International Terminal that they had run out of PCR test kits.
We then raced to Terminal 3 where there was a queue for walk-ins. As we joined the queue, a Singapore family of three also joined the queue just ahead of us. The Singaporean, named Yew, said he had gone all around San Francisco for the past two days to get a test but couldn't get an appointment.
While waiting in the line he called up the Singapore consulate. They couldn't help much but gave some names of clinics which he could try, including the one where I had a reservation.
By 4.30pm, the Singapore family was called in for the test. We were the next in line. While their paperwork was being worked on, one of the test centre staff came out and announced to all in the queue that they would be stopping walk-in tests at 4.45pm (official closing time is 6pm) and my wife and I could be the last to be called in but she couldn't guarantee that.
Just then, one gentleman from the back of the queue came up to me and offered US$500 for our spots. I declined.
Soon after, the staff member who made the announcement put up a "No more walk-ins" sign at the reception counter. My hopes sank.
When the Singaporean family had finished with their paperwork, I approached the staff serving them at the counter. She pointed to the "No more walk-ins" sign and refused to entertain me.
That was when I pulled a 'fast one'. I told her that her colleague, who had earlier made the announcement, had promised that my wife and I would be called in. To borrow actor Cary Grant's words in the classic thriller North by Northwest, it was an act of "expedient exaggeration" by me.
She relented and asked us for our passports and payment. I heaved a sigh of relief. By then it was well past 5pm. She seated us in a cubicle for our test. Half an hour passed and no one came to test us.
As time was running out I approached one of the nurses and she took us to another room and did the tests, sternly telling us that the results would take one to two hours. My eyes were firmly on the clock.
By 6.30 pm we were the only two left outside waiting for the results. Many of the test centre staff had by then gone home. Finally, at 6.50pm, after having paid US$500 for the two of us, we got our results on a piece of paper and were asked to check the details.
Everything looked good but someone decided that my sex was F and not M. The certificate was taken inside to be amended.
Another 10 minutes of waiting and at 7, with less than two hours to go for our flight, we got hold of it and we raced with all our baggage to catch the skytrain to the International Terminal and proceed with our check-in formalities.
Could Singapore Airlines have helped? The airline has a great reputation for its service but it could learn something from United Airlines in this case. The American airline has teamed up with a test centre at San Francisco airport to help its passengers make bookings for Covid tests at the airport.