What air travel might look like after the COVID-19 pandemic?

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Today (April 17, 2020): What air travel might look like post the COVID-19 lockdown?

How soon are we going to be allowed to travel again freely after the coronavirus pandemic is over, and what will air travel look like? Those are the questions that every traveler (including myself) is asking in every corner of the globe. The good news is that eventually, we will get past this horrible COVID-19 pandemic, whether by means of a vaccine, therapeutic regimens, and/or herd immunity. However, the realities of a post-COVID-19 world will pose new challenges to the travel industry and airlines in particular, since airports and aircraft are also all about density, which is the antithesis of social distancing. When air travel ramps up again, it’s likely passengers and cabin crew will be nervous about being in close proximity to others in a contained space. With that in mind, airlines and health authorities across the world are considering what air travel might look like in the future. Here’s a look at eight measures travelers are likely to see when flying, and which are needed not only to contain the future spread of the virus, but also to regain passenger trust.

What do you think travel will look like post COVID-19? Leave a comment.


1. SOCIAL DISTANCING DURING THE CHECK-IN PROCESS

Airline’s check-in and boarding formalities will have to be adapted with social distancing in mind. Protective barriers will be installed at each check-in desk to provide additional safety measures to passengers and airline employees during any interaction. Gloves, masks and hand sanitizers will be made mandatory for all employees at the airport. A 1,5 m (5 ft) distance between passengers at airports from the entry gate to boarding gates will be required to maintain.


2. ONSITE RAPID TESTING FOR COVID-19 (BEFORE CHECK-IN)

It is likely that airlines will perform COVID-19 testing on passengers before they check-in. Emirates has already begun conducting on-site rapid COVID-19: passengers on a recent flight to Tunisia were all tested for COVID-19 before departing from Dubai (watch the clip below). The quick blood test was conducted by the Dubai Health Authority and results were available within 10 minutes. This test was conveniently done at the check-in area of Dubai International Airport. Adel Al Redha, Emirates Chief Operating Officer said: “We are working on plans to scale up testing capabilities in the future and extend it to other flights, this will enable us to conduct on-site tests and provide immediate confirmation for Emirates passengers travelling to countries that require COVID-19 test certificates. The health of staff and passengers at the airport remain of paramount importance.”

Whether airport COVID-19 blood tests will become the new norm for all airlines remains to be seen: while they are accurate and simple, they remain time-consuming and expensive. If they do, I am sure that airlines will add a new health screening tax to the price of a ticket.


3. HEALTH SCREENING (BEFORE CHECK-IN)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen authorities across the globe checking the temperature of passengers as they travel and transit through airports. It’s an easy test to detect early fever in a coronavirus patient and could prevent infected passengers from accessing boarding (and infecting others). However, health screening may become more sophisticated in the near future, and some airlines are already taking steps to take it to the next level.

Etihad Airways has partnered with Australian company Elenium Automation to trial new technology which allows self-service devices at airports to be used to help identify travelers with medical conditions, potentially including the early stages of COVID-19. Etihad is the first airline to trial the technology, which can monitor the temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate of any person using an airport touchpoint such as a check-in or information kiosk, a bag drop facility, a security point or immigration gate. The Elenium system will automatically suspend the self-service check-in or bag drop process if a passenger’s vital signs indicate potential symptoms of illness. It will then divert to a teleconference or alert qualified staff on site, who can make further assessments and manage travelers as appropriate. The technology is ‘hands free’, enabling touchless use of self-service devices through voice recognition, further minimizing the potential of any viral or bacterial transmission.

Jorg Oppermann, Vice President of Etihad Airways, said: “This technology is not designed or intended to diagnose medical conditions. It is an early warning indicator which will help to identify people with general symptoms, so that they can be further assessed by medical experts, potentially preventing the spread of some conditions to others preparing to board flights to multiple destinations. We are testing this technology because we believe it will not only help in the current COVID-19 outbreak, but also into the future, with assessing a passenger’s suitability to travel and thus minimizing disruptions. At Etihad we see this is another step towards ensuring that future viral outbreaks do not have the same devastating effect on the global aviation industry as is currently the case.”

Aaron Hornlimann, CEO and Co-Founder of Elenium Automation, said: “Elenium has lodged patents for both the automatic detection of illness symptoms at an aviation self-service touchpoint, and touchless self-service technology at an airport. Combined, this would ensure health screenings can become standard across airports, without putting staff in harm with manual processes. The system would screen every individual, including multiple people on the same booking. The technology can also be retrofitted into any airport kiosk or bag drop or installed as a desktop system at a passenger processing point such as an immigration desk. We believe the introduction of touchless self-service and automated health screening will encourage passengers to return to travel sooner.”


4. IMMUNITY CERTIFICATES

Several research groups around the globe (e.g. Germany, Italy, UK, and USA) have proposed testing people for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and giving “immunity certificates” or “Covid passports” to those who have these antibodies, which presumably make them resistant to reinfection. Those with an COVID-19 immunity certificate could stop sheltering in place, help the world revive, and be some of the first to travel again.

The big problem is that no one knows whether infection with COVID-19 confers immunity to reinfection and, if it does, how strong that immunity is and for how long it lasts. Not only is that information missing, but we cannot get it soon – it will take along time before we can know if antibodies last a year. In addition, there is a wide variety of antibody tests on the market, some with questionable quality. Some detect antibodies that do not exist (false positives), others miss antibodies that do exist (false negatives).

So, as long that there is no robust test and as long as we don’t know more about the immune protection following a COVID-19 infection, there’s little chance that immune certificates will be required before traveling. In fact, getting them wrong could do more harm than good. However, in the long term, once a vaccine is available, I do assume that a vaccination certificate might be mandatory to enter several countries. This will be similar to the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP), which proofs that you have had yellow fever vaccine; some countries require all travelers to show proof of yellow fever vaccination before they can enter the country.


5. AN ENHANCED BOARDING PROCESS

So far, airlines have always tried to segregate passengers for boarding, by making them board in groups. However, chances are that in the near future, we will have to board according to the row number, so that passengers enter the plane from the rear and are seated one row at a time (in order to mitigate the chance of passengers crossing paths). Some airlines have already taken the boarding process to the next level. For instance, earlier this year Delta Air Lines launched a virtual queuing feature on its Fly Delta app, which notifies passengers when their seat is boarding. Similarly, Gatwick Airport and EasyJet also recently trialed boarding by seat number to try to reduce queues and boarding times. Although this might not be completely viable for all passengers, it will probably become a standard policy once travel demand increases again after the COVID-19 pandemic.


6. WEARING A MASK ON BOARD

Your chances of contracting COVID-19 on a plane are very small. Most aircraft are equipped with state-of-the-art circulation systems, similar to those found in hospitals, which use a high-efficiency (HEPA) filter to circulate the air and removes up to 99.7% of airborne particles (including coronavirus). So the risk, if there is one, does not come from the supplied air. It comes from other people. From what we know, the transmission of coronavirus is generally limited to the distance you cough or sneeze – which is about 2 m (7 ft). If you do get this type of virus on a plane, it’s likely because of a person seated within two rows around you. And that’s the reason that some airlines (e.g. Emirates, Turkish Airlines) now require their passengers to wear a mask, while others have not implemented this measure yet.

The evidence on the effectiveness of wearing masks (on a plane or in general) is somewhat mixed. Some studies say that they protect those around the wearer more than the wearer themselves: if a person who has flu-like symptoms wears a mask, they’ll sneeze into the mask instead of into the air, and as such protect the people around them. Others have entirely dismissed the value of wearing one, and say it may even give a false feeling of security as the mask can potentially catch the virus (in a water droplet) in the fabric. Time will tell whether we will be required to wear a mask after COVID-19, although it probably won’t be mandatory until substantial evidence can prove their effectiveness. Also, with proper pre-departure health checks, the need to wear a mask will be sufficiently diminished.


7. CHANGING THE ONBOARD SERVICE

Most airlines have already adjusted their onboard service during the COVID-19 pandemic to further avoid onboard transmission of the virus, such as:

  • Flight attendants are wearing gloves during food and beverage service and pick-up.
  • Flight attendants hand all beverages directly to the customer, instead of allowing the customer to take their own from the tray.
  • All tableware, dishes, cutlery, carts and glassware are washed and sanitized
  • Crews may make use of gloves, masks, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, wipes, foaming hand soap, and disinfectant wipes.
  • Magazines and other print reading material are no longer available.
  • Cabin baggage is limited on flights: carry-on items that are still allowed in the cabin are limited to laptop, handbag, briefcase or baby items. All other items have to be checked in.

It is likely these measures will stay in place once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.


8. BLOCKING THE MIDDLE SEAT IN ECONOMY CLASS

Right now, several airlines (including major carriers like Lufthansa and United) have temporarily blocked of the middle seat in Economy Class and allow passengers to move seats after takeoff, in order to practice social distancing. But some airlines have already lauded the new policy and consider leaving airplane Economy Class middle seats empty once COVID-19 restrictions ease and travelers return to the skies. One of these airlines is EasyJet, which has one of Europe’s largest commercial aircraft fleets, said the measure would be temporary and would form part of a package of strategies for safeguarding travelers. “Based on our discussions with European Union Aviation Safety Agency and other agencies, it is likely there may be new ways of operating,” an EasyJet spokesperson said in a statement. “This could include leaving middle seats empty to create more space for passengers.” As aircraft would operate with a reduced number of seats, this policy would of course  dramatically increase air fares.


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8 Comments

  1. I think life will be very different once things open up after COVID-19. Return to leisure travel will be very very slow because of loss of income for many. I like #5 boarding back to front to speed up the process. I also think both front and rear doors should be used wherever/whenever possible. Also like #7. Would like to see strict enforcement of luggage to be checked and only a briefcase, baby bag, laptop bag, nap sack as carry on allowed. That too will cut down on boarding time and stop the stress about overhead space.

  2. Thank You for Your useful information on the safety measures that airlines plan to apply with care for our future air travels ! K – 19 will be defeated ! I can say one thing : travels and relaxation are an integral and best part of our life and soon we will be able to return to this happy time !

  3. The Issue with immunity certificates is very problematic in the absence of a vaccine! It will certainly discriminate against the people who were successful in protecting themselves from catching the virus! and if implemented it will encourage people to want to catch the disease in order to obtain the antibody certificate! especially for people who’s job requires them to travel!…I know this might sound a bit crazy, but certainly not unthinkable!

  4. Over the decades airlines have spent tens of millions of dollars to come up with the most efficient way to board. I’ve never understood why back to front was not the best way. Done row by row would mostly eliminate delays caused by people standing in the aisle struggling to put luggage in the overhead bins.

    What is the rationale for requiring carry-ons be checked? Any exception for “knapsack” will be abused.

    Would not those with the supposedly less harmful, less contagious seasonal flu, people we’ve flown with forever, get entangled in any pre-boarding virus detection and denied passage if based on heart rate, breathing rate, and body temp?

    Whatever measures are implemented will make air travel even less enjoyable than now in order to achieve a small amount of protection.

  5. Some of this is already in place. When my fiance was coming back from Singapore in Early February he went through 3 different health screening before getting home, and this was before the lockdown.

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