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Air Travel As We Know it May Change Forever With New Pandemic Protocols

16:39 May 19, 2020
By: Clara Lacey

As the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound economic impact on society and its functioning, the airline industry is changing to accommodate health concerns about flying, while still attempting to bring in revenue that airline companies are used to, The Wall Street Journal reports.

It's no surprise that due to the global pandemic and state stay-at-home orders, a great deal of people feel uncomfortable with or are fearful of traveling by plane. Because coronavirus is a contagious respiratory illness that is transmitted by contact with an infected person and can sometimes be transmitted through aerosols in the air, sitting aboard an enclosed aircraft space in close proximity to so many people is worrisome to many. In addition, the turn from regular business travel to virtual meetings from home has held negative effects for airline profits. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has reported a record drop in passage volume—by 96 percent—and many flights are nearly empty.

With the lack of demand and obvious health issues with the flight-packing strategies that had brought unprecedented airline profits in the U.S., airlines grapple with the economic crisis of bringing in revenue. Many carriers have decreased the frequency of flights, causing some planes to fill up more, and available flights are more likely to include risky stopovers rather than being direct flights. International travel has also been impacted, as airlines like American Airlines have gotten rid of international flights for the summer, and many of the massive wide-body planes used for high-revenue long international flights have been parked away for now.

Now, as stay-at-home orders begin to loosen up, airlines have begun implementing and considering more rules and new protocols to bolster public confidence in airplane travel and minimize health risks. Many U.S. carriers now require passengers to wear a face mask for their whole flight, but the policy is difficult to enforce, with flight attendants instructed to maintain the policy and de-escalate situations with non-compliant passengers. Signing health certifications and carrying "immunity passports," documenting those who have had and recovered from the virus, may become required by airlines in the near future.

Airlines like Air France, Korean Air, and Air Canada have already started using temperature checks for crew and passengers to check for high temperatures before boarding. The Trump Administration plans to begin similar standardized temperature checks at some airports by the TSA, but no final decision has been made. While temperature checks may give passengers more peace of mind, critics say this strategy is flawed in only instilling false confidence because it cannot identify those who are infected but not symptomatic.

Airports themselves are also struggling with ensuring health and safety for the public, but the lack of agreed-upon standards complicate this.

"It's impossible to socially distance in an airport," says John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of London Heathrow Airport. Still, he is working with other executives of major airports to create some standards and procedures for social distancing, like the Plexiglas screens at Heathrow's check-in desks and constant reminders to wear masks.

Airport screening and airlines are attempting to do everything they can to stop sick people from flying, but the new protocols and rules don't stop once passengers are in the air. On the flight, many familiar protocols have changed in order to minimize contact. Europe's biggest carrier (by passenger numbers), Ryanair, has eliminated bathroom lines by requiring passengers to raise their hand to request permission to use the toilet. Other changes include no meal services for shorter flights and the absence of the duty-free cart and in-flight magazines that may have been touched by others.

Airlines are also beginning to roll out new protocols for getting on and off the plane. Air France seeks to limit traffic and social contact in the aisle by starting boarding with those seated at the back of the plane. To control the long and crowded rush disembarking, some consider having flight attendants organize the flow with small groups standing up in turns to get off the plane one at a time.

Thorough cleaning of planes has become more of a priority than it was before, with equipment misting disinfectant through the cabin and wiping down every surface between every flight. Delta Air Lines is dedicated to cleaning procedures, even allowing for extra time between flights to ensure proper cleaning. However, ensuring proper cleaning may lead to increased flight delays that may become problematic.

Some airlines try to ensure some kind of social distancing on the aircraft by having maximum caps for seats or keeping the middle seats open. Frontier Airlines has capitalized on public fear by offering passengers a seat next to an empty middle seat for a $39 fee. While this may give passengers some enhanced idea of safety, experts don't see this as sustainable long-term policy with regard to the cost for carriers to leave seats empty. Flights need to be 77 percent full for the airline to break even, and, according to Air New Zealand, it would take lower than 50 percent of seats on a turboprop and 65 percent of seats on an A320 narrow-body to meet the standards for social distancing. In this crisis of demand, the International Air Transport Association estimates that fares will eventually double to make up for the decreased revenue of empty seats.

As airlines and airports start to make these policies more commonplace to restore public faith and safety in air travel as well as to keep up industry revenue, it's likely we'll see even more changes that will continue into the future.

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