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Future of air travel: Flying after COVID-19 lockdown

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the aviation industry and travel in general. As the world emerges from the global lockdown hygiene and safety are being prioritized more than ever. The first in our series on the New World of Travel looks at the future of air travel after the coronavirus outbreak. We’ll look at what new measures might be here to stay in the new normal.

Coronavirus grounds flights

Around 4.5 billion people took to the skies in 2019 (Statistica) and those numbers looked set to grow in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic then struck and countries around the world closed their borders. Depending on where you lived you were told to stay indoors or only make essential travel. Countries either closed their borders entirely or imposed strict quarantines of up to two weeks. Measures designed to stop the spread of the virus meant the travel industry was grounded. 

The aviation industry and travel in general has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Domestic flights have resumed in parts of Asia, including China, Korea, Singapore, Australia and India as well as across North America and Europe. In other promising news, several EU countries have opened their borders to the other EU Member States. And, many of the other EU and Schengen nations have also committed to opening their borders to each other by the end of June.

China and Singapore have opened a “fast lane” and discussions are ongoing between Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands about creating their own “travel bubble”. For an up-to-date guide on each country’s border restrictions check out the IATA travel center interactive map.

Air travel preparing for take-off

The pandemic is still far from over as the number of new cases continues to rise. But, the global mood has become one of quiet optimism and the future for air travel looks much brighter than it did two months ago. IATA released data showing that daily flight totals rose 30% between the low point on 21 April and 27 May. The number of flight searches is steadily growing as is the number of bookings. The question now is when not if international tourism will resume. 

Google Trends data shows how hygiene and safety have become two of the most important considerations for travelers. More people are asking “is it safe to fly right now?” and searches for “face shields” have reached a worldwide all-time high.

Airlines and airports have implemented new measures to protect passengers and staff.

We ran a survey of over 850 travelers from the US, UK, and Australia asking them what they considered most important when choosing a flight since the emergence of Covid-19. We asked travelers to rank the options which included “passenger and crew wellbeing”, “flexible booking options”, and “airport cleaning processes”. 

It’s little surprise that “passenger and crew wellbeing”, “health screening processes”, “enhanced cabin cleaning processes”, and “air quality on the aircraft” came out on top. Along with hygiene and safety measures “flexible booking options” also scored highly in our survey.

“We are witnessing a step change now as the industry responds to the concept of health security – how to ensure the end to end travel experience is virus-free? There are a number of challenges here, ranging from logistical to documentation or certification. But in much the same way that travellers adapted to pre-flight security screening, they will need to adapt to a new, health-focused normal.”

Hugh Aitken, VP Commercial, Skyscanner

Health checks at check-in

Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to travel again. In case you were wondering here are some of ours. Whatever the future of air travel looks like one thing is for certain people will want to reconnect with friends and family and visit places they’ve never experienced before.

Travelers will be returning to a very different experience to the one they left. Airports have introduced a slew of new measures to make air travel safer for travelers and their staff. These precautions include enhanced cleaning measures, more self-service, and greater social distancing. 

“Just as security has become a large ingredient in air travel this century, so health security will entrench another layer of process.”

Peter Harbison, Chairman Emeritus, CAPA – Centre for Aviation
The future for air travel looks brighter than it did just two months ago.

Airports are doing what they can to reduce the need for human-to-human contact. For example, passengers must use self-service check-in stations and have their temperatures taken using touchless thermometers. General measures also include the need to wear face masks at all times and more hand sanitation stations throughout airports.

For the full list of measures to fly safely on domestic and international routes, see below:

“Measures such as limits on carry-on baggage to minimize “bunching” and reduced in-flight service to reduce physical interaction will hopefully be temporary. We’re hoping that customers will accept the inconvenience as a necessary step in getting the world safely moving again and we can all get back to exploring and experiencing what the world has to offer.

Campbell Wilson, CEO, Scoot

“Most aircraft are equipped with HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) air filters. These filters provide a complete air change once every two to four minutes. We are working toward electrostatic spraying inside our aircraft every seven days. Electrostatic spraying kills 99.9% of viruses and bacteria within 10 minutes and remains effective for up to 7 days.”

Tamer Uysal, Manager, American Airlines

Fasten your seatbelts and your face masks

Airline Swiss recently shared a video of one of its engineers explaining the High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) system. Most modern planes use these HEPA systems, which are the same as those used in operating theatres. They are extremely effective at removing airborne pathogens. 

Passengers may also be required to wear gloves as well as face masks for the duration of the flight. For longer haul flights passengers must change their face mask every three hours. 

The experience of air travel will be considerably different for the coming months.

Bad news for those who can’t resist some duty-free shopping at 30,000 feet. Many airlines are operating reduced retail and food and beverage services during flights. Others have stopped it completely in an effort to reduce the level of interaction on board. Passengers are also being asked to remain seated for the duration of the flight except for using the bathrooms. These are also being disinfected during flights.  

“For a while, you’ll get less service and fewer amenities. This might last beyond the pandemic. I think most of it will come back, but not until high-value travelers return. If airlines are just getting by with cheap fares, they’re not going to be in a rush to return drink service. Certainly more self-service is here to stay.”

Brian Sumers, Senior Aviation Business Editor, Skift

Some airlines have taken the decision to maximize social distancing on the plane by leaving the other two seats in the row open. Others are keeping the middle seat free between passengers. However, this is not the case with every airline. 

For a first-hand account of what the future of air travel during the COVID-19 pandemic looks like read this account of an experience traveling from Paris to Toronto

What does the future of air travel look like

Aviation experts regard the Covid-19 pandemic as the single most impactful event since the industry began a century ago. Inevitably, there is lots of speculation about what new measures may emerge as a direct result of this global event. There are all sorts of theories flying around, some more plausible than others. 

We may see the introduction of disinfection tunnels such as those currently being tested in China that clean each traveler from head to toe. Baggage may also undergo a similarly comprehensive deep clean using a disinfectant fog or UV light which kills bacteria. 

Baggage may undergo enhanced disinfection under new measures.

Airlines are asking passengers not to fly if they’ve felt unwell in the last seven days. They’re also required to have their temperature taken before passing through security and in some cases have their temperature taken a second time before boarding the plane. These health measures might be extended to include blood tests which would show whether a passenger is carrying the virus despite not showing any symptoms. 

More far-flung ideas include the possibility of the middle seat becoming rear-facing with protective screens between passengers. Tokyo airport is trialing the use of personal mobility machines for disabled passengers. Completely autonomous, these machines don’t require someone to push them and travel on a pre-programmed route.

What else might the future hold for air travel?

To help us understand what the future of air travel might look like we asked a panel of experts to tell us their thoughts:

“The pandemic is fast-tracking a greater examination of why we travel at all. Instead of hoping for business as normal or waiting for travelers to dial down their own carbon emissions, airlines should take the lead by scaling back their own un-environmentally friendly practices.”

Holly Friend, Senior Foresight Writer at strategic foresight consultancy, The Future Laboratory

“Health and safety have always been a priority for the business sector, but it will definitely be center stage for the short term. Sustainability is also an issue that will be here to stay. For all these reasons, approval processes for travel will become longer and every journey will be scrutinized according to necessity.”

Hazel Dawson, Commercial Manager for business travel consortium Focus Travel Partnership

So there you have it! A look at the short term future for air travel and some thoughts on what the new normal might look like and how airlines might respond to the post-pandemic world.

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