After coronavirus, your air travel experience will never be the same

Even before Covid-19, flying was often a miserable affair. It’s about to get much worse — whether you’re in economy or first.

By Bloomberg News, May 6 2020
After coronavirus, your air travel experience will never be the same

The British romantic comedy Love Actually is saccharine, and occasionally creepy, but it’s hard not to be touched by the documentary footage that bookends the movie of families and friends embracing in the arrivals hall of London’s Heathrow airport.

Today those scenes look alien and jarring: a pandemic has turned the world’s airports into ghost towns. Even after the coronavirus abates, air travel will be scarred permanently. No wonder the investor Warren Buffett is giving up on his bet on U.S. airlines.

How to get passengers off their plane and through passport control, baggage reclaim and arrivals without putting them in close proximity to each other is just one of countless air-travel challenges created by Covid-19. Assigning the necessary space for people on flights won’t be any easier.

Years of airline cost cuts and rigorous counterterrorism checks have made flying a frustrating experience for passengers. Even those fortunate enough to turn left when boarding often complain about the indignities and delays of modern airports.

Hygiene measures, health checks and social distancing will only make the experience feel more dispiriting, whether you’re in economy or business.

Unless accompanied by higher ticket prices, the new health measures could also make flying less profitable, regardless of whether demand returns. That’s bad news for the world’s airlines, which are currently burning through vast amounts of cash. In some cases, companies’ net borrowings will far exceed their revenues by the end of 2020.

Mask up

Besides China, where domestic services have restarted, airlines have pretty much grounded their entire fleets. The few aircraft still in service often take off almost empty.

The silver lining of this near hibernation is that it provides a less pressured environment for testing out new hygiene measures. These will be essential to reassuring passengers and governments that more flights won’t lead to a second wave of infections, but they’re unlikely to make flying any more fun.

The biggest American carriers say customers will have to wear face masks. Armrests, tray tables and seat-belt buckles are being disinfected after every journey, and in-flight magazines have been removed. To minimize physical contact with airline staff and other passengers, we’ll scan boarding passes ourselves and we’ll be offered less food and drink on board. Instead of boarding first, business class passengers may have to wait till last.

Travel may need a 'no-virus visa'

It’s not yet clear how passengers will be screened for Covid-19 until there's a vaccine. At a minimum we’ll probably have our temperatures checked when we arrive at the airport, but this won’t weed out the high proportion of asymptomatic virus cases.

Blood tests or so-called 'immunity passports' may be required for international travel but even these have limitations. Passengers who disembark from a high-risk location may still have to enter quarantine, which could put many off from booking a ticket in the first place.

Health checks will slow down getting through immigration and you can probably forget arriving only two hours before a flight.

This could mean even more passengers waiting inside (or outside) the terminal. Imagine the parking queue at your local grocery or hardware store right now, only much worse.

No wonder Heathrow’s boss, John Holland-Kaye, thinks keeping the required two meters gap at all times will be “physically impossible” at large airports. A less palatable alternative for Holland-Kaye and his peers, though, is that governments cap the number of departing flights to prevent crowding.

Plane maths

European airlines say much the same thing about physically distancing inside the aircraft. Some carriers are leaving the middle seat unoccupied but the health benefits are dubious.

Modern aircraft have air-filtration systems that remove viruses, but these might not protect you if the person in the seat in front or behind has a cough. Leaving seats empty also creates more carbon pollution per passenger carried.

Naturally, airlines worry how they’ll make money if they’re only allowed to sell two-thirds of their seats. European carriers typically need to fill about 80% of them to break even. To compensate they’d have to cut costs or raise prices. Doing the latter won’t be easy until demand recovers.

Shows proportion of available seats that were filled in latest full year, compared to the proportion needed to break-even. Blocking the middle seat would require them to cut costs or hike prices to break-even.

Quick turnarounds are imperative for budget airlines, so the longer time needed to clean the cabin between flights and to load passengers onto the aircraft isn’t good news either.

Hygiene rules could make it harder to generate so-called ancillary revenues from things like food sales and priority boarding, while low-cost airlines could forget about holding passengers at cramped departure gates that feel like cattle pens, or packing them into just a couple of buses to reach the plane.

Long road to recovery

It will probably take years for demand to recover fully because millions of potential passengers have lost their jobs. Business travel will be an especially tough sell. Companies will worry about protecting employee health and videoconferencing has proven itself a viable alternative during the lockdowns. Trade shows and conferences won’t recover quickly.

Hence airlines are already reducing expenses and retiring older aircraft to prepare for structurally lower demand. British Airways is poised to cut about 30% of its workforce; U.S. and European peers will no doubt do similar once government furlough subsidies expire. Airports may have to rethink plans for shiny new terminals and extra runways.

On the plus side – for the aviation industry, if not the planet – cheaper jet fuel will help everyone. But, in Europe, only a privileged few airlines are benefiting from lavish government bailouts, which could distort competition.

If weaker airlines collapse, the survivors will face less rivalry and may eventually be in a position to raise fares. Consolidation transformed U.S. airline profits and even convinced Buffett to abandon his aversion to investing in the sector – until coronavirus came along.

Customers whose taxes rescue the airlines, and who haven’t always got a ticket refund when they’ve asked for one during the pandemic, may wonder why they’re paying more for a worse experience.

This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here

Bloomberg News

Bloomberg News is one of the world's largest and most respected international news agencies; its content is published on Executive Traveller under a licensed syndication arrangement.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Apr 2016

Total posts 57

Qantas are saying they will heavily discount in order to get people in the air. This is more to do with fixed costs such as their metal but also due to their oil hedging. They either use the oil or they will have to take the loss. They are also messaging now in order to ensure that whoever buys Virgin doesn't keep too much metal and hands back as much as possible to the lessor. A smaller Virgin will mean they can get more of their metal up into the skys quicker.

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 1201

The whole experience will be very different. Sumptuous meals being served from an open cart in premium classes is finished for the time being. Instead, meals will be pre-packaged and sealed for the forseeable future. Likewise drinks will all be single-use so no pouring from an open bottle but the little sealed bottles used in Economy will become standard fare in Business and First too. Mixed drinks will probably be a pre-mixed UDL can.

For economy it will be even less. Chances are meals will be largely cold and already at the seat when passengers board except for those with special requirements. This will minimise the amount of time crew have to interact with passengers. It is likely tea and coffee won't be an option with cans and plastic bottles only. A long flight is going to be quite miserable.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 May 2017

Total posts 30

To me, all this talk is silly. Once we have a vaccine, why should post COVID-19 be any different to pre COVID-19? If people are vaccinated, they should be safe to travel without the fear of catching it, and not have to practice extreme social distancing or all this other rubbish that is being talked about and proposed. The emphasis here of course is having a vaccine. Can some body with some intelligence please tell me why things should be any different post vaccine to how things were pre-COVID-19, such as things were in 2019.... If you are immuned to it by having the vaccine, why should you be concerned?. General personal hygiene should always be practised and promoted anyhow, whether we had COVID-19 pandemic or not... but these ridiculous measures being proposed are just plain silly and obsolete once people are vaccinated. Of course, pre vaccine is a different story, but talk is now being made as if we are never going to have a vaccine, and that is crazy. We are likely to have a vaccine by 2021, or before....

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 1201

Whilst we all hope there is a vaccine, there are no guarantees. Corona viruses are very difficult to develop vaccines against hence why the most famous Corona virus, the common cold, remains so common. Even if a vaccine is successfully found in the next few months, it could be over a year after that before it is able to be produced in the commercial quantities needed.

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

19 Jan 2018

Total posts 23

Felipe has brought up an exceedingly good point. Post vaccine why shouldn't things just go back to the way they were? Maybe as Felipe has suggested someone with more intelligence than he and I could explain why this shouldn't be the case? I suppose you could argue that not everyone on the planet will actually get vaccinated when it becomes available, but given the global turmoil COVID-19 has caused it's almost inconceivable that anyone would choose not to have it. So basically we just sit tight and wait until there's a vaccine (most likely early next year) and then we can go back to flying all over the world - without the need for prepackaged food, mixed drinks in a can, social distancing and the removal of in-flight magazines!

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 1201

The issue will be airlines will be changing their practices and risk mitigation because the once certainty of COVID-19 even if we get a vaccine is that another pandemic will happen sometime so they need to be prepared for it.

Whilst most practices will return, some may never come back. The most obvious thing that won't return is the self-service buffet in the lounge. Global insurers will tell airlines (and cruise lines) that the risks are too high so the practice must be eliminated. Likewise, there will need to be changes in the cleaning of commonly touched surfaces such as toilets, menus etc. Inflight magazines may never return or if they do, they will be single use and have to be replaced after each flight which will probably make them uneconomic.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Aug 2016

Total posts 16

I wouldn't be betting on a vaccine getting us back to "normal" (I'm a doctor). 1. There is no guarantee that a successful vaccine will be produced. 2. If there is, it will take 12 - 18 month to test safety and efficacy. 3. Vaccinating everyone in the world will be logistically impossible (even excluding the anti-vaxers). 4. Even the influenza vaccine is only 75% effective, and immunity wanes after 3 - 4 months. (Many doctors recommend a booster later in the year). 5. You can't "socially distance" in an airplane and run a profitable service. Conclusion: International travel is out for the foreseeable future. No-one is more sorry about this than me - I have family living overseas.


19 Jun 2013

Total posts 60

Felipe is spot on. Older travellers out there may still remember the yellow-coloured cardboard booklets - issued by the WHO -we used to travel with to show that we had had our shots for smallpox, cholera, typhoid etc etc. On my first two trips out of Australia (1977/78) I still had smallpox & cholera vaccinations, and carried my yellow booklet.

Once a COVID-19 vaccine is available, all that needs to happen is a) for airlines to demand to see that (new) stamped booklet as a condition for checking in (yep, even for a domestic flight now), and for all countries who insist, making it a condition of entry. Simple. Once we have that, as Felipe says, there's no (medical) reason that service levels can't go back to what they were, in any class of travel.

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