I’ve been thinking a lot about… what air travel will look like when we are allowed to travel again.
My first job out of high school was as a flight attendant. This was back in the dark ages when not only was smoking socially acceptable, it was allowed on airplanes! The size of the smoking section on board was determined by the number of smokers - which started at the last row and moved progressively forward. If the smokers filled the plane from the back to row 21, row 20 forward would be non-smoking. In reality, the entire plane was a giant smoky bar. We would get off of those flights just reeking of tobacco. It seems so foreign now. Every once in a while I will see an old movie with a scene showing people smoking onboard an aircraft…. woah!
But like other important health and safety issues that have majorly affected the ways in which we travel, things started to gradually change. There were non-smoking domestic flights, then non-smoking international flights and by the early 2000’s entire airlines were non-smoking. Soon (almost) the entire industry was non-smoking. I think there might be one or two very obscure airlines that still allow it… but there are interesting rules that different countries have that affect these things. For example, it is against Federal Law to smoke in Australian airspace - so even if you are in your own private plane you can’t smoke! (although I’m not sure how this is enforced)
This was a huge change for the industry and passengers alike, and I am reminded of it every time that I am on a flight and we are (oddly) advised by the crew that it is a non-smoking flight. But we got used to it.
Because we’re human and we adapt to change.
September 11, 2001: 9/11
What about the impact that September 11, 2001, had on the world’s travel industry? Flight as we knew it - especially in North America - changed forever. We went from casually walking through an airport minutes before a flight to 4-hour security line-ups and full searches (remember the underpants bomber?). Now getting partially undressed and physically searched is the norm - and there is a generation of travellers who know nothing but to turn up super early for a flight and assume that airport security has it out for them. Us conscientious travellers studiously pack our carry-on bags with careful preparedness. We’re calm and reserved as we are shuffled through screening points and protocols.
And again, we got used to it.
Because we’re human and we adapt to change.
So now we brace ourselves for another change. The post-COVID-19 reality - if we can call it that. Some reports indicate that COVID-19 is here to stay… but regardless, at some point, we will begin to travel again.
But exactly what will this look like?
1. Social Distancing?
My first thought is that social distancing in an airport or on board an aircraft just doesn’t work. Unless you are flying private of course. So, more business class seats, all business class airlines (like La Compagnie - flying from Paris to New York since 2013) and increased private charters are probably on the horizon.
My second thought is… masks - and lots of them. Whether they make a physical health difference may be questionable, although the data seems to be leaning in that direction, but certainly, from a symbolic and therefore mental and emotional standpoint, many people will take comfort in seeing airport staff, airline crew and other passengers wearing masks. Some airports are going full robocop.
But what does that mean for security? Up until now, in many cultures, we were wary of anyone with their face covered… now suddenly we are wary of anyone who is not? Cue social stigma.
IMHO the entire process - of travel and security and what is socially acceptable to do in an airport terminal - is going to change. At least until there is a vaccine.
Think travel declaration documents, in-transit health checks, contact tracing where possible, apps to track our movements. And think about all the checkpoints: arriving at the airport, security, departure lounges, actually on-board and - finally - reaching our destination. I suspect that if you have come down with something - anything - in transit you are going to be in a world of hurt at the other end. If you present with an elevated fever when you land, they won't be able to put you on a plane to send you home, but they aren't going to let you into the country either.
So what would happen then? Where will airports house those that have failed a health check? Pre-COVID Heathrow processed over 220,000 travellers in an average day - half arriving - half departing. If 0.5 % of those folks present with an elevated temperature or other symptoms, that’s 1100 people every day that need to be dealt with in some fashion. Half of them just got off of a plane from somewhere else. Does that mean that the other passengers who arrived on those planes need to be quarantined or self-isolated for 2 weeks as well? Let’s do the math on that shall we….. This is a logistical nightmare…. Does this mean that there will be medical centre/quarantine hotels built adjacent to airport terminals? And how long can we expect this kind of checking to go on for? It certainly doesn’t seem like something that will be resolved overnight.
Some countries are their own bubbles. Australia. New Zealand. Iceland. Island nations. And so let's say that Australia and New Zealand decide to make a bigger bubble that includes each other, as they are currently suggesting. This only works if neither of them lets anyone else in. The second either of them changes the rules, it’s game over. So yes, this can work, but strict rules and guidelines must be followed by all participants. And it would mean that countries can only have one bubble partner or must agree on all partners. Otherwise, we will be playing a giant game of connect-the-dots. It's kind of like those safe-sex talks that we used to have - except that it's geography (and politics) and there are no condoms big enough.....
In terms of following those hypothetical rules, New Zealand has done a brilliant job of handling this crisis with a strong federal response. Australia had a number of missteps with various states making really bad calls - especially around cruise ship passenger management. Hopefully, lesson learned?
For those of us who love travel - this pause has been distressing. For those of us whose business exists because of travel - it has been devastating. Pilots, flight attendants, airport staff, caterer’s, travel brands…...the list goes on. But we know that - eventually - there will be a new normal which will function well enough for us to go back to some kind of regularity. It’s just that there’s a lot to consider! And a lot that all stakeholders are going to be thinking long and hard about....
What will booking and cancellation terms and conditions look like in the future? I’m pretty sure if people can’t book with the security of a decent refund or cancellation policy… that they will be thinking twice about booking in the first place.
Who is paying for that? Who owns the risk? How will this affect travel insurance? Will we be able to buy pandemic insurance in the future?
This will be interesting. Because if there is to be a silver lining to all of this, it’s that airports will be cleaner. Aircraft will be cleaner. Air will be more purified. Cabins will be sanitary. The likelihood of the person next to you (or 1.5 m away from you) being sick is highly unlikely. And if they are - you are going to know about it. And hopefully, you were able to get that travel insurance. Inflight/onboard wellness will not be niche - it will be mainstream. From ensuring that everyone on board is healthy, to addressing inflight challenges from skincare and hydration to increased comfort and cleanliness. That is good for all of us, actually. The world could do with a general increase in personal hygiene, right?
8. Airline Industry Models
But... will there still be airlines to carry us to our destinations? This is a big concern for all of us. With the inevitability of airlines going out of business through the effects of this pandemic, what will availability look like? By the end of May, most, if not all, airlines will be - at least technically - bankrupt. So the survival of airlines and putting the industry back together in a cogent fashion is going to be a) tricky and b) critical. Before anyone thinks this just means more expensive vacations, let's be clear - the airline industry is not only about travel - it is about global communications and trade - things that are critical for the world as we know it to survive and thrive.
Is it possible that now is the time that the airline industry moves on from its nationalistic fragmentation that almost guarantees a lack of financial viability? To be clear, this is not of the industry’s making, it’s geopolitical. As stated by CAPA, “Consequently, three-quarters of a century on, it remains impossible for airlines to merge across national boundaries. Often provoked by unions in what is a heavily unionised industry, foreign ownership is strongly resisted and foreign airline operations within another country (“cabotage”) is globally proscribed.”
Maybe now is the time to consider a new model.
When we start flying again will we be able to afford the new costs of flights? As we come out of this and begin to travel again we can probably expect some very sweet deals to entice us back into the skies. But as the reality of a decrease in flights (guaranteed) and competition (ditto) and, undoubtedly, a huge debt that surviving airlines have accrued over the COVID-19 timeline, prices will increase. For many of us, the frequent international travel that we took for granted is going to become far more expensive and less of the norm. Domestic travel will also become challenging. I was frequently frustrated by the fact that I could get to North America from Australia for less money than it cost to fly domestically within Canada. If we don’t address airline survival appropriately, pricing like this could become the rule, not the exception. And that of course means fewer people flying, which means less demand, and so the vicious cycle continues.
Based on this, it may be that we end up going back to the golden era of flight - when it was something special. When I was a kid flying was an event. My dad wore a suit on every flight. It was an occasion to get dressed up and put your best self forward. No thongs (flipflops for you North Americans), shorts or bad attitudes. Wouldn’t that be a nice change!
We’ve been given a moment in time - a long one, I’ll give you that - to reconsider what we deem to be critical in our personal and professional lives. Whether we like it or not.
As the founder of a company selling a product specifically designed for long haul flights, I have spent a good amount of time (and many sleepless nights) hoping, stressing and wondering about what this new normal is going to look like. But, as the saying goes, with problems come opportunities. In this case - while we are lamenting the loss of long haul travel as we know it, we’re also looking ahead and working to be ready to support the new normal.
So, yes, we’re working with airlines and airport retail partners on some products to add to our range which will support the conscientious traveller post-COVID. In fact, we suspect that it will be a critical part of your carry-on luggage.
We look forward to the world opening again. And whatever our new air travel normal looks like, we will get used to it…...
Because we’re human and we adapt to change.