Flight Path Unknown
Airlines and airports are struggling to restore passenger confidence and answer public health concerns, but standardization remains the elusive goal.
Face masks. Blocked middle seats. Extensive aircraft cleaning and disinfection. Health screening before security. Flight attendants in protective gear. These are among the many ways in which airlines, airports, and governments around the world are grappling with a raging viral pandemic. Some are effective and can scale up when demand and traffic start to return. Some are not and may not last. Regardless, it is clear that the measures that either airlines choose to maintain or are mandated to implement will fundamentally change the air travel experience and the way airlines operate. And warning to airlines as they wait for progress on vaccinations, therapies, or herd immunity: The new measures could impose significant costs.
It is unclear when traffic will begin to return in anything like it was at the end of 2019. How sharp the recession is worldwide will determine much of the return, as this will determine companies’ and people’s wherewithal to travel again. Delta CEO Ed Bastian said it could be 2-3 years, a timeline with which Boeing concurred. Although the palest of green shoots are appearing in China and elsewhere, the consensus is that it will be years, not weeks or months, before air travel resumes its former growth trajectory. And before effective therapies emerge and even after, airlines will have to ensure the traveling public they are taking necessary steps to promote health and restore consumer confidence in taking to the skies.
And that last point is key. Poll after poll has shown passengers are fearful of being confined to the close quarters of an aircraft cabin and are wary of waiting in line at security checkpoints and of facing exposure throughout airports. Anything airports and airlines can do to instill confidence is worthy at this point in the pandemic, but it bears remembering that these measures must be feasible and effective in addressing public health.
The parallel is security in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and what evolved in response to attempted terrorist bombings of commercial aircraft in the first decade of this century. Some measures, such as reinforcing cockpit doors and beefing up airport access and security, worked and remain. Some, such as removing shoes at security checkpoints in the U.S. and banning liquids beyond 100 ml the world over — both of which were implemented in response to specific terrorist attempts — remain in place due to what has been called “security theatre.”
At least in the near term, face masks and gloves, which a growing number of airlines are requiring crew and passengers to wear, will become the norm. Strict social distancing in the airport, during boarding and inflight at the lavatories will become best practices. Inflight magazines are being removed and are unlikely to return (eliminating a cost center for airlines as a bonus). Aircraft disinfection and cleaning before every boarding, rather than just during line maintenance or overnight, could be here to stay as well, as could disinfecting check-in kiosks. Infrared thermometers, already a fixture at many airports worldwide, could screen every passenger going through passport control.
But what of some of the other tactics airlines and airports are trying? Emirates started field testing rapid-result Covid blood tests on some Dubai-Tunisia flights. Etihad has started testing health kiosks at its Abu Dhabi hub to gauge a passenger’s temperature, heart and respiratory rates. Yet, both raise serious health and privacy concerns. Experts say at best the health kiosks will identify passengers with current fevers, possibly not caused by Covid, and will not be able to screen asymptomatic carriers. The Emirates blood test raises privacy concerns if widely adopted worldwide. The possibility of “mission creep” is significant — how to prevent testing blood for diseases other than Covid. In the first decade of this century, the EU and the U.S. had a fierce row about passenger name record data, which the U.S. wanted the airlines to share, causing the EU to object out of privacy concerns. Data gleaned from a blood test is almost immeasurably more sensitive than PNR data, so if this solution is adopted more widely, governments and passengers will want reassurances that data will be safeguarded. And both tests, and others like them, burn something that is in short supply at airports: Time. The test Emirates is using delivers results in 10 minutes. Boarding a fully loaded A380 would become almost impossible.
Ty Osbaugh, who heads the aviation practice at architecture firm Gensler, recently told Skift Airline Weekly that the entire architecture of airports will have to be rethought to prepare for future pandemics. In the near term, he believes airports will move some functions, like health screenings and check-in, to parking garages. Passengers could be required to report to security and boarding at specific times, ensuring social distancing at checkpoints and in gate hold areas. Airports will have to limit crowded inter-terminal trams, and concessions will have to meter people entering food, beverage, and retail shops. Airlines have already begun disinfecting check-in kiosks (or eliminating them altogether) between each passenger, which requires more staff time and slows down throughput at check-in. Right now, this is not an issue, as few people are traveling, but as traffic ramps back up, even the seconds it takes to disinfect a kiosk will slow the process.
Similarly, airlines the world over are rightly touting their enhanced aircraft-cleaning procedures. These likely will remain after the pandemic begins to recede, experts say, not merely for the huge public-health benefits but also for public relations in allaying passengers’ fears. Yet, cleaning an aircraft between each boarding will add costs, yes, but these will be minor compared with the effect on airline operations. New disinfecting protocols could end the quick turn. Increased time at the gate will reduce the number of flights airlines can operate. This, in turn, could result in airlines reducing the number of connecting banks they operate at their larger hubs. “Yesterday’s gate availability might only accommodate some level of reduced service in the new world of longer ground times,” said industry analyst William Swelbar.
Another question hangs over social distancing on aircraft. A growing number of airlines are blocking middle seats, in an attempt to space out passengers. This is fine now, when traffic has collapsed by 90% in some areas and aircraft are operating at 20-50% load factors, but it is unsustainable in the long term. If this practice is mandated by governments, it will hurt all airlines, but ultra-low-cost carriers, which built their business models on dense cabins and cheap fares, could find it an impossible standard to meet. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary has already threatened that the carrier would not return to the skies if this practice becomes law.
Some in the industry have called for “health passports” to transport previously screened passengers in some semblance of normalcy. Chile recently said it would begin issuing certificates for people who have survived Covid, but reportedly is walking back the plan. Other proposals posited by industry insiders is for passengers to upload the result of health screenings before showing up at the airport or at booking, but this raises other issues, says Atmosphere Research founder Henry Harteveldt. Questions remain about how long before a flight is a health screening valid, who is authorized to conduct a health screening, and how to reconcile results from different tests used by each jurisdiction. And this last point further complicates plans such as those being tested by Emirates and Etihad, for example. If tests differ and there is no standardization, will passengers connecting through megahubs have to be re-screened? And will transiting passengers who test positive have to be quarantined, and where? And who bears the cost?
None of this is known yet nor has been worked out. The key going forward will be standardization of every aspect of the air travel experience, from what types of data are needed at booking, through check-in, security and screening, inflight and even arrival. IATA’s focus now has been on ensuring the airline industry’s survival by beseeching governments to step up with financial aid for airlines. But the group also has said governments must work with ICAO to standardize regulations and procedures.
“We are not expecting to re-start the same industry that we closed a few weeks ago,” IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac said. “Airlines will still connect the world. And we will do that using a variety of business models. But the industry processes will need to adapt.” And in a key statement, he added, “another stream of activity will involve working with governments and health authorities to understand what measures will be needed.”
Traffic will start to return, however slowly. Businesses will begin sending their road warriors back out. Visiting friends and relatives (VFR) and leisure travel, most believe, will rebound even more quickly than business travel. Countries that took drastic measures, like Argentina, which shut down its airspace until September, will relax their strictures. Airlines and airports will need to maintain some measures to restore confidence and convince passengers that it is safe to fly, and they’ll need to balance these measures against what is financially and logistically feasible. But without a coordinated global approach to public health, none of these measures will be entirely successful in that aim, leaving airlines in a tenuous and uncertain position until a vaccine or therapy is found, or herd immunity is achieved.