When is it safe to fly, and what will flying be like after coronavirus

With the summer holidays fast approaching following several months of lockdown, many of us are wondering when we might return to the skies.

But even as some airlines move to resume service when countries ease coronavirus restrictions, it’s unlikely the experience will feel much like the type of flying we’ve come to know.

Airlines have been one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, with many carriers forced to park entire fleets — or close for good — while the industry racks up estimated losses of $252 billion. Now, as operators try to emerge from the ashes, they will have to implement a host of changes to get back off the ground. 

Many of those will depend on government guidelines. Bi- and multi-lateral agreements will be required before most long-haul flights can return, for instance, notes Peter Harbison, chairman emeritus of Centre for Aviation (CAPA). Meanwhile, airports will need to design their own comprehensive health and safety measures, likely involving biometrics and touchless check-in. 

And that’s all before you get to departures. Here’s a look at how things might look once you reach your gate. 

Health screenings

First and foremost, airlines will need to comply with health and safety regulations of the moment before allowing passengers to get on board. 

For some carriers, that will mean asking travelers to produce negative coronavirus test results, or so-called immunity passports, prior to boarding. Last month, Dubai-based airline Emirates announced it had became the first airline to conduct “rapid” 10-minute blood tests at departure gates.

Young businessman wearing protective face mask in business first class seat.

Mongkol Chuewong

Such measures would be virtually impossible to roll out on an international level, however, notes Joanna Bailey, editor of aviation news site Simple Flying. “Some airlines are doing it (coronavirus testing) right now, but it’s just not practical to roll this out in every location,” she said.

More likely, then, would be a series of en masse health-monitoring measures — such as the infrared body temperature check recommended by the U.S.’s Federal Aviation Administration — which, while adding another layer of complexity to the boarding process, would be less physically intrusive.

Stricter hygiene

Tighter health measures will follow onboard too. The IATA has sought to reassure passengers that onboard virus transmission remains low, thanks in part to “operating theater quality” air filtration systems, but airlines will likely go further to ramp up their hygiene levels. 

Already, face masks are common among crew and passengers, which IATA says is a suitable alternative to social distancing. The U.S.’s top three airlines — United, American and Delta — have, however, stopped short of making them mandatory once on board.

The era of affordable travel will come to an end.

Alexandre de Juniac

director general and CEO, IATA

Beyond that, cabins will likely assume a more minimalist aesthetic in the name of hygiene. That means possible restrictions on hand luggage, no more blankets or pillows, cashless payments and regular disinfectant fogging.

Some predictions have even suggested airlines will employ onboard janitors to maintain hygiene levels, especially around “high-touch” areas, such as bathrooms. So far, European budget carrier Ryanair is alone in requiring passengers to ask permission to use the bathroom.

Missing middle seats

The restriction of middle seats has become one of the most widely bandied solutions to in-flight social distancing, with some going as far as outlining plans for a drastic redesign of onboard interiors

Already Southwest, Delta, American and Qantas are among airlines to announce a temporary end to booking middle seats, or a general reduction in capacity. However, some are skeptical that it will become a broadly adopted reality. 

Avio Interiors’ design for the “Janus” airplane layout with a reversed middle seat.

Avio Interiors

“The ‘noise’ around the middle seat being left vacant should be dismissed, since there is no evidence that traveling in aircraft carriers (present) more risk of exposure to Covid-19 than any other form of transport,” John Grant, senior analyst at aviation analytics firm OAG said.

Some airlines may keep middle seats empty in the short term to provide “passenger reassurance,” Grant acknowledged, though that will not be a viable option for most carriers in the long run. Doing so would slash airlines’ maximum load to 62%, well below the standard 77% breakeven level.

Dining and entertainment

Airlines have shown marked improvement in their in-flight dining and entertainment options over recent years, replacing bland, overcooked dishes with sometimes truly tasty multi-course menus. But much of that progress will be put on hold in a post-Covid-19 environment.

Many carriers have announced they will suspend catering for short-haul flights, while services for long-haul services will be reduced. That means fewer trolley rounds, more prepackaged goods, and the end of free-flowing hot drinks or ice in your gin and tonic. 

Woman eating meal aboard an aircraft.

Michael H

“We will see prepackaged meals and drinks left on passengers’ seats before they get on the plane to limit staff interaction,” predicted Jesse Neugarten of discount bookings site Dollar Flight Club. 

Meanwhile, travelers may be advised to pack their own tablets and reading material as touchscreen entertainment systems, commonly seen as hotbeds for bacteria, and seatback pockets are stripped back.

Impact on fares

Travelers have enjoyed a steady reduction in air fares over recent decades, as competition and innovation have ramped up. But with fewer operators in the skies — and those that are there running at reduced capacity — that directio
n of travel could be thrown off course going forward.

“The era of affordable travel will come to an end,” IATA’s director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said last week.

It will take time to start filling flights again, so there will be frequent low fare promotions.

Peter Harbison

chairman emeritus, CAPA Centre for Aviation

“Fewer planes, fewer people flying and lower load factors all suggest airlines will need to maintain higher fare prices,” Simple Flying’s Bailey agreed.

In the near term, however, travelers willing to test out the new normal can expect to bag a deal as struggling operators incentivize flyers to return to the skies. Indeed, based on data from previous downturns including 9/11 and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, Dollar Flight Club sees discounts of up to 35% running through to 2021.

“It will take time to start filling flights again, so there will be frequent low fare promotions,” said CAPA’s Harbison.

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