Life After COVID-19: How Will the Pandemic Change Our Approach to Air Travel?

By Kate BoveLast Updated Aug 7, 2020 5:34:27 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The far-reaching effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic have taken a toll on almost every industry imaginable, but the travel industry has been hit particularly hard. With travel bans and shelter-in-place directives limiting folks’ ability to fly, airlines have cancelled a record number of flights. According to NPR’s On Point podcast on station WBUR, just 190,000 people, both passengers and crew members, were screened at airports across the country on May 7. Last year, May 7 saw roughly 2.5 million folks screened at airports, meaning the number of people passing through airports in the United States fell a staggering 93% between May 2019 and May 2020.

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Of course, these numbers are up slightly from April’s all-time low, which saw only 87,000 folks passing through the country’s airports on any given day. Needless to say, the once-booming aviation industry has been hit hard. So hard, in fact, the industry received a $25 billion bailout from Congress. Although restrictions have started lifting, it's unclear whether folks are feeling truly comfortable enough to fly again — but what is clear is that we can’t expect things to just "go back to normal." In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that there’s no going back, period — there’s just going to be a new normal to adjust to, and for airports, airlines and passengers, this new normal likely means new rules.

How Has COVID-19 Already Changed Air Travel?

For those who still needed to travel when the pandemic first hit, airlines enacted fairly drastic changes, all in the name of safety and, of course, to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. For example, JetBlue, known for having a grab-and-go snack cupboard on most of its flights, suspended beverage and snack service, while airlines like Delta blocked off middle seats, started boarding the planes back to front and only allowed 10 passengers to board at a given time to maintain social distancing. Speaking of social distancing, most big-name airlines capped their occupancy around 50% — not that flights would sell out right now anyway — to make more room for passengers to spread out and maintain safe distances from one another.

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Photo Courtesy: Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

With some states reopening and others extending their shelter-in-place directives, it’s difficult to predict how cross-country and interstate travel will be impacted. How strict will airlines be when it comes to practicing social distancing in the near future? In the aftermath of September 11, air travel changed drastically in the United States. From bulletproof cockpit doors and stricter ID guidelines to the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the aviation industry and other powers that be reshaped not only how we travel but also our perception of travel.

Scott Duncan, a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, was interviewed by Vogue and asked how things, particularly airports, might change from a design perspective. Duncan’s current project, a high-rise in Wuhan, China, has brought to light the fact that elements like ventilation, sunlight and green spaces have all become higher-priority features. "Outdoor spaces are going from ‘Oh, this is nice to have’ to ‘It’s a genuine amenity and maybe a necessity to travel,’" Duncan told Vogue.

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While redesigning or revamping airports in a thoughtful way is likely on the horizon, there are other safety considerations that can be implemented more quickly. For example, United is testing touchless kiosks so customers can print tags and check bags without being exposed to germs unnecessarily; Southwest has begun installing plastic shields at ticket counters and gates to protect their workers; and some airlines, like Frontier, started taking passengers’ temperatures in June. Ahead of the eventual travel uptick, the U.S. travel industry released guidance for "Travel in the New Normal" so airlines can be on the same page across the board when it comes to emerging sanitation and other protective measures.

What Further Changes Can We Expect When It Comes to Traveling in the “New Normal”?

In addition to taking temperatures and installing plastic shields, airlines can be expected to do everything in their power to uphold social distancing standards. Regardless of how various states react — some are loosening guidelines, while others are keeping things fairly rigid to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus — airlines need to err on the side of caution. With travel down and their finances dwindling, they need to win consumers’ trust, and that usually means practicing an abundance of caution.

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Photo Courtesy: Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Another way to win over audiences? Flexible cancellation and rebooking policies. As of now, we don’t quite know if COVID-19 will see a resurgence during flu season — and we don’t know if having the virus means you can avoid getting a second bad case. Without a surefire (and accessible) vaccine on hand, being able to change travel plans will be key in this new post-COVID-19 world. For now, most airlines are letting passengers rebook travel impacted by the pandemic, no questions asked, and even extending miles benefits into the next calendar year. Here’s hoping that mentality sticks around.

In addition to lower cabin capacities, we’re hoping airlines think about keeping the whole middle seat thing when it comes to allowing for mile-high social distancing. Aviointeriors, an Italian company, has an interesting solution in the "Janus" seat — a backwards middle seat that’s surrounded on three sides by shields to allow for "maximum isolation between passengers," or so their press release states. Adopting new cabin interior design features would, of course, take time. For now, leaving middle seats empty (as much as possible) and requiring face coverings is an easier solution, and most airlines are indeed requiring passengers to mask up if they want to board their flights.

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Some other things we’d love to see? A more widespread use of temperature checks, pre-packaged meals, fewer (if any) touchscreen kiosks and boarding policies that limit how many passengers can congregate near the gate. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, flying had its stress factors, but here’s hoping that the aviation industry pulls together to put passengers’ and workers’ safety first far into the future.