One thing seems clear with COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes it: we’re in it for the long haul, and it has already changed the face of life as we know it. Airlines, which are always in a perpetual state of change, are no exception. Aviation journalist John Walton looks at the changes we can expect when we start flying again.
Costs will change
The first thing you’ll notice is when it comes time to book: the pricing of flights is likely to be different from what we’ve been used to.
You might have seen some really inexpensive flights at the moment, especially in the US where airlines are running empty planes as essential services as directed by the government. But once it makes sense for anyone to fly for non-essential reasons it will take quite some time — a matter of years, probably — to spin aviation back up to its 2019 levels.
As soon as we start getting into the phase of living with COVID-19, for the most part you can probably expect airlines to be pretty conservative about the number of planes they bring back into service, and at what speed. That will affect the number of seats they can offer for sale, and so prices are likely to rise.
You’re also likely be seeing smaller planes to start with, and if you’re not travelling from a major hub you’re more likely to have to connect.
There may well be nobody sitting next to you
One of the interim ways that airlines are trying to add some physical distance between passengers is by blocking off the seat next to you, sort of like what happens in European business class. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s part of the puzzle to try to keep passengers as safe as possible.
This isn’t sustainable long-term — it would mean that airlines could only sell two thirds of the seats onboard your average Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 — and if it continues you can probably expect ticket prices to rise accordingly.
Expect wearing face masks to be mandatory
Masks, even non-medical ones, help to prevent people spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to those nearby. Canada is already mandating face masks when on the aircraft and when physically distancing themselves is not possible. So are some airports, including San Francisco.
You can expect other national aviation regulators to follow suit, and airlines themselves to get in on the act, either providing masks to passengers who don’t have them or requiring people to bring their own from home.
Bigger allowances for hand gel are place already in the US
We’ve all had the “liquids, gels and creams” rules drummed into our heads, where you can bring only bottles or pots smaller than 100 millilitres or 3.4 fluid ounces on board, but expect there to be a bit of a carve-out for hand gel.
The US Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible for security screening at almost all US airports, has already started allowing hand sanitiser in amounts up to 12 fluid ounces through security, although it does say that “passengers can expect that these containers larger than the standard allowance of 3.4 ounces of liquids permitted through a checkpoint will need to be screened separately, which will add some time to their checkpoint screening experience”.
Other regulators may well follow suit, which would be good news for anyone hoarding their last little bottle of hand gel for travel. Make sure you’re up to date on what you can bring.
Passengers are likely to be tested for symptoms
Don’t expect to be able to get on a plane any time soon if you’re showing a fever or displaying any of the common symptoms of COVID-19.
During this time of travel restriction we’re already seeing passengers’ temperatures being taken, and airline staff are watching out for anyone who looks ill even more so than they already were.
Abu Dhabi-based Etihad has even been working on self-service kiosks that check respiratory and heart rates as well as their temperature.
Expect even more stringent tests in some places
Some airlines may require — or be required to ensure — passengers are checked in even more thoroughly. The Dubai Health Authority has already been conducting rapid COVID-19 blood tests on Emirates passengers at check-in. The results of the tests are returned in ten minutes.
And on arrival, travellers should plan on being quarantined. That might be the couple of days’ stay that people have been experiencing at Tokyo’s Narita airport, where passengers have been offered emergency cardboard sleeping pods while awaiting results of COVID-19 tests, or it might be longer.
Many countries have been implementing two-week quarantine for arrivals, whether that’s through some sort of tracking bracelet device at their home or a hotel, or being taken directly to a quarantine location by authorities and being required to stay put.
Be prepared for airlines and governments to require new documentation
Scientists are learning more about COVID-19, how it spreads, how it affects people and how best to prevent people becoming infected every day.
As individual countries’ progress in slowing the disease’s progression continues — and continues to vary — it seems almost certain that they’ll be taking new and different measures. Some of these will be technical, like Singaporean-style track-and-trace applications on arrival, for example, and some will be medical, like quick testing at the airport.
That will lead to uncertainty and inconsistencies — even more so than travellers are already used to. Country X may require paperwork, while country Z requires something entirely different.
And that leads us to…
Expect all the uncertainty in the world
The key will be to stay as up to date as you can on the various requirements of the countries you’re travelling from, to and through, the airlines you’re flying and the airports you’re walking through.
At the end of the day, anyone travelling in the next phase of our COVID-19 reality will need to come to terms with the uncertainty and inconsistencies, to prepare the best they can, and to roll with them when they arrive.
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