The COVID-19 pandemic has already had an enormous effect on air travel and the world as a whole. All modes of transportation and types of trips have been affected, including major cruise lines.
We are all impatiently waiting for the lockdown to be lifted and the hateful virus to go away so that we can travel freely again, whether for an important meeting or to tick a destination off our bucket lists.
However, it is clear that there will be long-term consequences, and we need to prepare. It is difficult to say for certain how coronavirus will change air travel. There can be positive as well as negative consequences. Some airlines will disappear from the map, and there might be new challenges ahead of us as passengers.
Here we will discuss the most probable situations we will be up against in the near future regarding air travel. See what new rules, obstacles and opportunities to expect. Some are already here and might last longer than previously expected.
Currently, there are enhanced disinfection measures everywhere, and that won’t change any time soon.
People have now realized the importance of personal hygiene and public sanitation. Some say they will start wiping down airplane seats and washing their hands much more frequently. Wet wipes and hand sanitizer are everyone’s new best friends.
In the United States, you are now allowed to bring a bigger bottle of hand gel through security screening. However, you will need to be screened separately.
The travel industry has taken note. There will be more regularly scheduled deep cleans of aircraft and hotels, as well as new health guidelines for workers like flight attendants. Deep cleans of public transit systems might even become the norm.
So far, on low-cost, short-haul routes, passengers have been asked to hand in garbage, and cabin crew have carried out a quick inspection. If expert cleaners are brought on to clean everything, the length of turnarounds and the airlines’ costs - thus ticket prices - will rise.
What’s more, this means you’ll have to wait longer to board the plane, which can even lead to delayed flights.
In-flight food and beverage service have already been reduced to ensure a lower risk of virus transmission. Delta is currently only handing out bottled water and packaged foods. For safety and economic reasons, it may be years before options expand again.
It is likely that technology will play a crucial role. The idea of electronic passports, IDs and boarding passes is not new. They help speed up the process and prevent unnecessary physical contact.
Robot cleaners might also be deployed widely to limit contact between people and surfaces, sanitize, scan for fevers and enforce the wearing of face masks.
Medical screening technology is currently being tested by the UAE national airline. It can monitor the temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate of a person using an airport touchpoint such as a check-in or information kiosk, a bag drop facility, a security point, etc. The system will automatically suspend the self-service check-in or bag drop process if a passenger’s vital signs indicate potential symptoms of illness and alert a member of staff.
Nevertheless, health screening at airports might mean longer lines.
Many of us claim we want to be the first on the plane when we get the green light to renew traveling. However, a lot of people will be more cautious. It will take time to feel safe again when traveling. The travel demand might remain low even after all restrictions are lifted.
So how will coronavirus change air travel exactly?
People will tend to avoid big crowds, airports and festivals and focus only on essential travel. They might be drawn more to road trips and the outdoors instead of flying to a popular tourist city. Fear might lead to less international air travel, as they will prefer short internal flights instead.
The global financial crisis induced by the coronavirus pandemic will also prevent people from spending money on leisure travel or will keep them close to home, at least in the short term.
Business travel will recover more quickly than leisure travel, but at a lower level that might remain permanent. That’s because some business travelers have now realized they can do a lot of work online instead.
Even if you feel like traveling the same way as before, there might be some obstacles such as fewer destinations and flights available and less convenient routes as the aviation industry struggles to optimize expenses.
Moreover, countries will not open their borders simultaneously. Free travel might be allowed only for domestic travellers or in certain so-called “travel bubbles”.
There will be different measures and rules in each destination, so you’ll have to prepare in advance by reading the government’s guidelines. Some countries might not allow European or American citizens at first. Some will still require you to go through a quarantine period. Others might need you to show proof you’ve had the COVID-19 vaccine or at least proof of a negative PCR test.
The European Commission is already working on a Digital Green Certificate for everyone - read more in our separate article.
While your travel plans can rapidly change, there are a lot of cheap flights on offer. After the travel bans are lifted, it is likely that prices will remain low for a while to attract customers, together with flexible cancellation fees. But this can change quickly since airlines urgently need to make some profit, and competition might be reduced.
According to some experts, it could take two to five years before passenger numbers return to the 2019 levels.
It is natural for airlines to be quick to offer amazing deals to entice cautious customers to fly again. But if they are forced to leave middle seats empty to allow for social distancing for some time, they will need to raise fares.
The load factor is important. In 2019, airlines worldwide broke even when the cabin was about 66% full. If middle seats are left unsold, that means only 67% of seats will be available in the best-case scenario.
Reduced service to second- and third-tier cities and less competition might also mean higher fares to some destinations.
Meanwhile, we’ll be inconvenienced by fewer options: once non-stop routes will now require connections, and layovers will be longer.
What’s more, benefits and bag check privileges might be cut or reduced. Passengers who are now allowed a free checked bag might be in for an unpleasant surprise.
On the other hand, those who use travel credit cards shouldn’t be worried. The reward cards have been expanded to offer bonuses on things like groceries during the pandemic.
Travellers, especially those with health issues, might be sceptical to fly at first, fearing all the social interaction that comes along with it - from security, to the gate, to sitting next to strangers in a small metal tube. It is up to airlines to find ways to assure people that travelling is safe.
There have already been many different ideas as to how to reshape aircraft seats and provide more personal space and a secure environment to passengers. While some airlines are discussing the removal of middle seats, some airplane interiors companies have come up with concepts for adapting economy class cabins.
One idea is to have a two-faced seat made of easy to clean materials. Imagine a row of three with the passenger seated in the middle seat facing the opposite direction to the other two. Each seat has a three-sided transparent shield to prevent “breath propagation.” However, the exit row cannot be replaced with such a design due to regulatory requirements.
Another idea is to simply have transparent shields between each seat instead of reversing the middle seats. Still, this doesn't adhere to current social distancing guidelines, according to which we must maintain a distance of approximately 6 feet (2 meters) from others.
Airlines are showing interest in both designs, but they'll need to be approved by aviation regulators - it can take almost a year to see these seats in reality. There's no guarantee we'll actually do, but it's encouraging to see such innovative ideas - let’s just hope they won’t make flying more uncomfortable.
It is clear now that protective masks are here to stay for a long time. Most countries and airports already have rules on covering your face. You have to wear a face mask on airplanes too.
The airports might be restricted to passengers, and people prohibited from greeting you at Arrivals to limit the airport population.
Airport lounges might initially remove spa services and buffets as well.
Travel destinations will recover at their own pace. Although Italy is one of the hardest hit, it is very popular with tourists and might rebound quicker than the densely populated India, for example.
Older and well-to-do people who aren’t afraid of the return of the virus might travel more than Millenials and Gen Z who had debts and scarce savings heading into the pandemic.
However, there might be a universal tendency for travelers to be drawn to remote, isolated destinations.
A most positive forecast is that some people will finally book the trip they’ve always dreamed of. Being under quarantine has made us realize what is truly important and strive for meaningful experiences, a better kind of travel. Some will now focus on family travel. The new global motto will be “Fewer, longer and more meaningful trips.”
We now know how coronavirus will change air travel. Certainly the impact of this global tragedy will be felt for years to come but that won’t stop us from exploring the world. Even though the experience might look and feel somewhat different once the world begins to reopen, travel will still bring many positive emotions and reward us.
Just remember - always check what restrictions your destination country might have and plan accordingly.