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An Air France employee checks the body temperature of passengers before they board a flight. ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images

Flying is going to be very different post-coronavirus

Jack Stewart May 12, 2020
An Air France employee checks the body temperature of passengers before they board a flight. ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images

Air travel is one of the hardest hit industries by the COVID-19 pandemic. Figures from the Transportation Security Administration show that at the height of the stay-at-home orders, the number of people being processed through airport security screening fell 95% compared to normal. 

According to research from IATA, which represents global airlines, just 14% of consumers say they’ll resume travel as soon as restrictions are lifted.

Airlines have taken steps to reassure their loyal, lucrative business passengers that loyalty goes both ways, and that their miles and status will still be valid when they restart flying. 

The question for airlines is when will that happen? Executives say it could be “several years” before people take to the skies again in the numbers they did previously. One thing is clear: The experience is going to be very different. From basic proposals like compulsory mask wearing and health screening to radical reimaginings of air travel with new seating arrangements and airport scanners, the industry is wrestling with what to do. 

“It’s probably one the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges to civil aviation,” said Max Hirsh, the author of “Airport Urbanism” and an expert on airports and transport infrastructure at the University of Hong Kong. 

Some experts think the travel experience could be permanently transformed, perhaps more than it was after the 9/11 terrorists attacks. Then the concern was security, and the government created the TSA. Now the concerns are how to ensure passengers both feel and are safe from a virus. 

That will start as soon as passengers arrive at an airport, particularly in large, international hubs.

“There needs to be some sort of process when passengers arrive at an airport to ensure they’re well enough to fly,” Hirsh said.

Health teams will likely take the temperature of each passenger by aiming a thermal thermometer at their foreheads. The trained personnel would also be on the lookout for anyone with obvious symptoms. 

This is something that many Asian airports have experience implementing for arriving international passengers in the wake of previous viruses, like severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. The effectiveness in stopping the spread of a virus is limited though, according to scientists.  

As a longer-term solution, there are calls for the TSA to scan passengers’ temperatures as they check boarding documents and X-ray bags. So expect longer lines.

In the much further, and therefore less likely, future, technology could screen people in a less obtrusive way. Airbus is trying out an explosives sniffer in airport screening tunnels. The sensor, which looks like a cross between a domestic smoke detector and a jellyfish, can sniff out chemicals used to make bombs. In the future, the same technology could be modified to sniff for viruses, like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Researchers are already testing dogs to detect the virus in lab settings.

Mobile technology is already popular with travelers, who can collect their boarding passes on their phones and avoid lines (and human contact). “More than ever, the industry will work towards the vision of an entirely mobile-enabled journey,” according to a paper from SITA titled “A ‘New Normal’: The Changing Face of Air Transport Post-COVID-19.”

On the plane, Hirsh sees relatively minor changes at first. Fliers will have to get comfortable with wearing a mask for an entire flight and cleaning their hands repeatedly. Successful airlines will accomplish that in a non-anxiety-inducing way, he predicts.

“Do they want to create their own branded masks, for example, and give them out like they do toys for kids?” he said.

Some airlines have proposed keeping the middle seat empty to promote social distancing, with limited effectiveness. Not subjecting anyone to the cramped quarters of an economy class middle seat may be welcomed by passengers, but it reduces the capacity of that cabin by one-third, cutting what airlines call the load factor, a measure of how full planes are. 

“A general rule of thumb is if the load factor is below 60 or 70%, that’s not a flight that’s going to turn a profit,” Hirsh said. 

So if planes are operating consistently at lower densities, that could be a challenge to the basic commercial viability of airlines in the way they operate today with relatively cheap tickets. 

A doctor’s tweet showing his packed flight, including seemingly every middle seat, got a lot of attention recently, showing that airlines can’t always comply with their own policies. 

One solution would be to completely rethink economy class seating. After decades of shrinking personal space to fit ever more people in, airlines could adopt a new seat design that promises more distancing in the same space. Italian design firm Aviointeriors is proposing making the middle seat face backward and looping a rigid plastic shield around all the seats. Getting a new seat design through the stringent safety tests for cabin interiors is a long and expensive process, and airlines have to take planes out of service to retrofit them. 

In the near term, Hirsh expects any investment to go to labor costs for extra cleaning, which will be broadly communicated to passengers to reassure them. 

Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, mused that “immunity passports” could be another tool to convince reluctant fliers to take a long flight. People who have had COVID-19 and recovered would be given documentation. But the World Health Organization is stressing that there is no guarantee of immunity or protection from a second infection.

Airlines can take some comfort from the fact that there is also a group of people who can’t wait to get back on a plane. As operators cut back on in-flight food, some people are ordering the snacks to eat at home. There’s no word on if they also tuck an empty suitcase into an already full closet before folding themselves into the smallest chair in their house to complete the nostalgia trip. 

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