Seven weeks after most of the rest of Europe, and over 32,000 local deaths and 18.5 million arrivals to the country by air (since COVID-19 broke out at the start of this year) later , the UK decides on implementing a 2-week mandatory quarantine for incoming air passengers – who otherwise risk a GBP 1,000 fine or potential deportation (which begs the question to where if you are a British citizen on a Brexit-passport? But that is by the by.) Rather than adopt the decision immediately, it will come into effect in June and is intended to prevent a second outbreak wave. (As to whether the UK can truly lay claim to having conquered the first already, remains questionable.) Yet, June looks to be a cautious starting point in other countries too when it comes to reviving air travel, with the Lufthansa Group announcing last week that it will start increasing services again that month. So what will passengers come back to, post-covid, when it comes to air travel? And will they return?
For certain, air travel as we knew it, will change. Global airport and airline process-changes already happened post September 11, but preventing terrorism is a different league to preventing
viral contamination. Especially, too, in an unprecedented environment which is seeing almost 70% of the world’s 26,000 passenger aircraft being grounded, and a great many airlines facing
financial ruin and requiring government aid.
No money, no fly
Most airlines will come back smaller in fleet, network, and connection frequencies, as well as aircraft size. For example, the A380 which was the first aircraft model those airlines flying grounded, and which many had already struggled to fill and fly profitably prior to the virus, may well never return in most cases, given the now even greater problem of attracting passengers post-corona. (96% fewer passengers are currently traveling.) Depending on figures, some airlines may come back around 30% smaller than before, with regard to fleet and number of employees. Unemployment figures in an industry employing some 25 million people are rising, with an economic knock-on effect. Airlines will no doubt increase ticket prices (after initial lower rates to attract passengers back) and start charging more for services such as leg-room, luggage allowances, or rebookings, for example, whilst potential passengers may have less purchasing power, given the change in their personal financial situation.
Many of the pictures being shown from the corona crisis in China at the start, portrayed hand-held thermometers being held up to passengers’ foreheads. A standard now in China, where passengers are checked up to three or four times along their journey through the airport and into the plane. How effective this is, given that airports are generally “stressful” areas, and this alone can result in an increase in temperature, is questionable. What is done with the results? Are passengers then really stopped from travelling? Air Canada has announced that passengers with a fever will be denied boarding, and Thailand recently announced that passengers showing symptoms such as sneezing or coughing – again, symptoms that can be completely un-corona-related – will not be allowed to fly. Will going to the airport become a Russian Roulette game of chance as to whether you actually make it onto the plane?
Together with the Dubai Health Authority, Emirates has become the first airline to conduct blood tests on passengers flying out of Dubai. They use a ten-minute blood test which is not yet proven to be reliable. Vienna Airport is now offering COVID-19 testing for €190 to passengers, so that – if negative – they can avoid having to self-quarantine for 14 days after arrival. Some airlines such as Frontier in the U.S. are obliging passengers to complete health forms confirming that neither they nor their family have shown COVID-19 symptoms in the two weeks prior to the flight date. Other airlines are discussing health passports or certification showing immunity. All these measures would need to apply to flight crews as well, with support scenarios in case some members are classed as unfit to travel. Certainly, people’s health records will be made much more transparent, leading to a greater intrusion on individual privacy and open to abuse.
Disinfect + embark = disembark
Disinfecting the aircraft prior to the flight has mostly already been established over the past few months. While many of us face hand-sanitizers now at the entrance to shops these days, these will likely become standard at airports. Some airports, such as Delhi last week, are also considering implementing "ultraviolet disinfection tunnels" for all incoming baggage, whilst Hong Kong is trialing a Human Disinfectant Tunnel. These mobile disinfectant tunnels could be a growing future trend at trade fairs, too, in future.
Pittsburgh International Airport is currently the first U.S. airport to test Carnegie Robotics’ UVC floor-cleaning robots to remove potential coronavirus traces. Using UV light as a disinfectant is already standard practice in hospitals and laboratories around the world since years. If these machines are successfully trialed along with other UV disinfecting technology for those areas often touched, such as escalators, handrails, and elevator buttons, it may become standard in other airports, too. Airport toilets will be cleaned more regularly than before, and aircraft cleaning aside from disinfecting, will also be more intense, thus taking more time between turnarounds.
Putting on a brave face(mask)!
"Wearing a face covering isn't about protecting yourself, it's about protecting those around you. This is the new flying etiquette." - words spoken by Joanna Geraghty, President and COO of JetBlue, the first major U.S. airline to ask passengers to wear masks on board from 04MAY20, though other airlines have already been mandating or recommending this on their flights, often making exceptions for small children and those “who cannot keep a face mask in place” (Delta regulations) – which may be difficult to distinguish. Fact is, though traveling with a facemask is already familiar to those using public transport in a number of countries now, flying long-distance wearing a mask is not going to be comfortable. Flight crews for the main part, are requested to wear gloves, masks and in the case of Korean Air Lines Co, even goggles and protective gowns.
Brussels Airport stated this week that it would be providing all passengers and staff with masks from 18MAY20, in the expectation that what is currently recommended will soon become mandatory. The only question then, from when do you need to start wearing your mask? The moment you enter the airport building? At security? Passport-control? In the lounge? Or only at the gate and on the flight? And then, at the other end?
Middle-seat: To keep it free or not to keep it free?
In a press release on 05MAY20, IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, confirmed that the aviation industry is working with governments to implement measures that ensure the safety of passengers and crew, but pointed out that evidence suggests that the risk of contamination on board is low, even without extra measures, and stated “We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit”. While masks may psychologically instill more confidence in passengers, “IATA does not recommend restricting the use of the ‘middle seat’ to create social distancing while onboard aircraft.”
That said, a number of airlines are restricting their flight capacity or blocking middle seats, to allow for social distancing. In the case of Alaska Airlines, passengers may cancel or reschedule their flight if they can't find a seat that allows them proper social distance, whilst Frontier Airlines is offering a “More Room” service allowing you to purchase the seat next to you to guarantee that it remains empty. The Lufthansa Group no longer blocks middle seats, but takes care to ensure that passengers are adequately distanced in the cabin, whilst Air France points out that social distancing on board will not pose much of a problem currently, given the low passenger numbers.
If you are wondering where the “safest” seats on a plane are when it comes to virus exposure, a National Geographic article defined this as any window seat, given that you are least likely to come in contact with people moving along the aisle.
Queue with a view – and, what else?
Queuing at security, check-in, and at the gate will change and become longer, both in time and length, given the social distancing regulations (and the increasingly more familiar “stand here” stickers on the floor, indicating acceptable distances). Some airlines are looking at boarding procedures which only allow groups of 10 to board at a time, whilst at airports some airlines only open every second check-in counter to keep passengers separated or look to contactless solutions and online preboarding.
In-flight services have also changed with airlines perhaps only offering prepackaged food, and no longer offering bar services, pillows, or blankets.
There are plenty more questions given that airports are micro-cities in their own right: What happens with duty-free shops? Airport restaurants? The future of airline lounges? Will Frequent Flier privileges begin to disappear as airlines look to ensure maximum cost-coverage to recoup their losses?
Big Brother is joining your journey!
Many of these measures speak for greater digitalization in processes – such as biometric identification (already in use as passport control gates in many cases today), contactless check-in and luggage acceptance with CT scanners replacing the need for security staff, digital preboarding and preordering of prepackaged food or online duty-free, and – last, but not least – “Corona Apps” that are mandatory in China and under discussion in some other countries, so that your individual health and contact history is available digitally upon request. With the exception of the last, controversial point, many of the services are reminiscent of an app that Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, presented at the CES in JAN20. The forward-thinking airline boss stated in a letter to his employees last week, that “We should be prepared for a choppy, sluggish recovery even after the virus is contained. I estimate the recovery period could take two to three years.”
Or more? A COVID-19 vaccine would certainly help reduce travel angst, but the damage done to the aviation industry may be irreparable in some cases. Experts predict that business travellers will return first, with leisure travellers taking longer to start flying again.
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