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How is Covid-19 changing the way we fly?

By Frederic Elies

For those with friends and family overseas or work commitments across borders, the future of international travel is a pressing concern. In this opinion article we look at some of the trends emerging in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and what they might mean for air travel in the coming months and years.

“Nothing will ever be the same”. We often hear this phrase these days. When it comes to public transportation, perhaps one of the most impacted sectors is air travel – a direct victim of the restrictions of movements imposed due to the global Covid-19 crisis. Before air travel recovers, it’s undeniable that airlines will have to reinvent themselves. So, what will the “better normal” be like for air travellers?

First things first: will people still want to fly?

The prospect of flying in the near future, with all the security and health checks involved, not to mention the fear of contagion, might seem a bit daunting. However, it’s difficult to imagine a future where people will stop flying altogether. The question is: what will affect their decision to fly?

The first parameter that comes to mind is price. While it can be predicted that in the short term airlines will offer lower fares in order to try to entice flyers, in early May the International Air Transport Association (IATA) anticipated fares rising by up to 54% – as there have been fewer seats available due to social distancing measures. This can be partially explained by the fact that social distancing measures would reduce planes’ maximum load factors to 62%, when according to the IATA most airlines need their planes to be 77% full to break even.

In the age of coronavirus, air travel is becoming more complex and with that comes added expense. Time will only tell whether this tendency will last and if the era of affordable travel has permanently come to an end.

One thing, however, is for sure. In order to get travellers flying again, both airlines and airports will have to rethink their safety and health regulations to earn passengers’ trust, and take into account new measures in disease control and prevention.

At the airport: health monitoring and high-tech security checks

Healthy security is key in the age of Covid-19. Thus, health checks and/or so-called “immunity passports” are likely to be a requisite to travel by air. Several airlines have already implemented mandatory temperature checks ahead of flights. Without a licensed vaccine or therapeutics, in the future passengers might have to show their Covid-19 test result ahead of boarding a place or upon arrival.

Another key issue is to avoid human-to-human close contact, or the use of equipment or procedures that involve touching surfaces. In order to accommodate the increasing needs for public health measures, airports will have to adapt by investing in equipment that will help them limit the risk of infection.

It might not be odd in the future to see armies of robotic cleaners patrolling airports to disinfect check-in counters and baggage checkpoints, while passengers walk through high-tech security and baggage checkpoints without touching anything.

Considering all the extra hurdles that passengers will have to get over before being allowed to get on board, expect the process of checking in and boarding to take significantly longer. There could be an upside for the passenger experience, however. Long queues might well become a thing of the past, as the need to maintain social distance will make long lines impossible. For example, passengers may receive text messages when it’s their time to board, eliminating the need to stand in line.

Up in the air: no touching please

It won’t come as a surprise that the IATA recommends face coverings for both passengers and flight attendants on board. But this probably won’t be enough to reassure passengers who have become highly sensitive to risks of contamination. Apart from masks, we might see more passengers wearing face shields and protective gloves. Even cabin crew have included boiler suits in their uniform.

While restrictions on booking middle seats might not be a viable long-term option for airlines, an intermediate solution could be to leave passengers the choice to book a seat in a “social-distance-friendly” class or not.

Moreover, as air travelling requires prolonged interaction between the passenger and the cabin surfaces, the key notion of “touchless travel” is likely to inspire new regulations.

In order to minimise touchpoints, seat-back pockets could be left empty or altogether removed, and touchscreen entertainment systems replaced with ways for the passengers to use their own devices. But this might only be in the short or medium term. Eventually, the future will belong to technology responding to hand gestures and/or eye movements, and cabins designed with this in mind.

One of the biggest challenges in the pursuit of “touch-free flying” will be inflight catering. Some carriers could stop serving food to minimise crew having to walk up and down the aisle, at least in long-haul flights.. That would of course mean fewer trolley rounds and more ready-to-eat food that don’t require heating or hot water. And what about aisle-based robots?

Does it sound like all the fun of air travelling will disappear and will it instead convert itself into a tiresome nuisance? Let’s wait and see how things stand once as this health and sanitary crisis develops.

One thing is for sure, though: passengers have shown in the past how they were able to adapt to drastic changes ushered in by the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist incidents. Once unimaginable, we have now all got used to the era of body scanners, lengthy queues, shoe removal, and liquid bans.

However, it’s a safe bet to assume that whether passengers will feel confident enough to take to the skies in the short and medium term will depend on the sense of whether airlines and airports are adequately addressing their concerns regarding Covid-19.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of PagoFX UK Ltd. This article is not intended to cover all aspects of the topic. We recommend that you take professional and specialised advice before taking, or refraining from, any action based on the content of this publication, as this article is not intended to constitute expert advice. We do not guarantee, explicitly or implicitly, that the content of this article is accurate, complete or up-to-date. The information in this article does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from PagoFX or its affiliates.