Global travel has been upended by COVID-19 and close to 90% of the world’s population now lives with travel restrictions.
Airlines and travel companies have been severely hit and put an estimated 25 million aviation jobs and 100 million travel and tourism jobs at risk.
Travel will resume, but it won’t be the same again. The big question that’s on everyone’s mind is: how different will travel be in the new normal?
According to news reports, a smaller number of carriers will operate, that too with reduced frequencies to keep up with social distancing norms. That means the middle seats might be empty on your next flight, shooting up the air fares.
New safety protocols
Airline companies are pulling out all stops to ensure the safety and health of their passengers.
Emirates has already introduced pre-boarding blood tests, while Air Asia recently unveiled new cabin-crew uniforms consisting of masks, visors and protective suits.
Delta Air Lines is blocking middle seats and even capping flight loads through June 30 for social distancing, by permitting only 50 to 60% of available seats on a flight to be booked. American Airlines, Japan Airlines, United and others are following the same protocol.
Aircraft engineer Florian Barjot has sketched out something called PlanBay, which would feature transparent panels installed into the middle seat and extend upward from the seatbacks to create a sort of shield between the rows.
Italian airplane interiors manufacturer Avio interiors has proposed another idea that would flip the middle seat backward and then use transparent panels to separate the space between passengers.
In China, the epicentre of the virus, passengers travel with a QR code that is either green, yellow or red. Green indicates that they have been tested and are free of the virus, while the other colours signify suspicion.
CISF personnel, who are posted at airports in India, will be equipped with thermal temperature scanners and will not allow passengers with fever to enter the airport. Queues will be strictly managed with a gap of at least one metre being maintained between passengers. This practice will be maintained during the check-in and security check procedure as well.
Technologies to implement social distancing
Currently, experimentation is on at a number of airports with UV lights, cleaning robots and other technologies as is part of an attempt to minimize the distancing that’s needed if you want to maintain throughput of passengers at airports.
Reports also suggest that airports could have some form of high-tech arch that passengers walk through that scans for metals, liquids and gels, and also checks the passenger’s health.
The new normal will be ‘touchless travel’ right from outside the airport until you leave one. Even though safety protocols are being exercised, exchanging travel documents and touching surfaces puts both travellers and staff at risk, which is why automation is being increasingly adopted.
Biometrics are widely used for identity verification, and post-Covid, their adoption will increase use as physical fingerprint and hand scanners are phased out. That’s not all – contactless fingerprint as well as iris and face recognition, gesture control and touchless document scanning are also likely to be introduced.
Digital health passports
According to a survey by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), measures such as visible sanitizing, screening and masks all increase passengers’ feelings of safety when thinking about travelling after COVID-19.
Until a vaccine is developed, the focus is shifting to assessing the risk of individual passengers. With the passenger’s consent, travel companies and airlines could use personal data such as their age, underlying health conditions and travel history to compile an individual risk profile.
Airlines such as Emirates are conducting on-site COVID-19 testing for passengers. Indigo Air will deep clean its aircraft more frequently, stop in-flight meal service for a brief period and will fill the maximum 50 percent seats in airport buses.
Apple and Google are close to finalizing a contact-tracing software scheme for developers to build compatible apps.
At Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), authorities are trying out CleanTech, a full-body disinfection facility. Passengers and airport staff undergo a temperature check before entering an enclosed channel for a 40-second sanitizing procedure, using “photocatalyst” and “nano needles” technologies.
Oil prices are dropping, so will airfares go down?
Blended and refined, crude oil becomes the jet fuel needed to literally power aviation.
Airlines levy fuel surcharges to help pay for it, which are included in the final ticket price as a “YQ” fee, which accounts for variations in fuel cost. At the end of April, prices for barrels of crude oil dropped off the cliff.
India has amongst the lowest air fares in the world. On a per kilometre basis, air travel generally costs about Rs 5 for an economy seat. These low prices have resulted in flying becoming affordable for India’s vast middle class.
Oil prices have now plunged by almost 50 per cent going from about USD 60 per barrel to USD 30 per barrel. Jet fuel accounts for about 30-40 percent of the total cost of flying.
Even though oil is cheap, jet fuel still needs to be refined from it, a process that adds to the price, and laying out cash right now to buy future fuel isn’t exactly at the top of an airline’s to-do list.
The coronavirus pandemic may bring down the curtain on vast international hubs. Entire economies have been built around city-like airports that bring in passengers from destinations around the world and then have them connect to their eventual destinations.
Unfortunately, these very same qualities make them highly susceptible to spreading highly infectious diseases.
This is good news for India’s aviation system. Now, instead of connecting at some hub airport and then travelling on to Europe, Japan, the US, or Australia, travellers will fly directly to these countries. Taking advantage of these trends, Indian airlines will likely add long-haul widebody planes to their existing narrowbody fleets.
Today, our Indian airlines fly only about 20-30 percent of international travellers from India. This number is likely to grow quickly and the majority of Indian travellers will be flying internationally on Indian airlines.
The way forward
The passenger experience in the airport and on the plane is also likely to become much more convenient.
Social distancing will be the norm and many operations are likely to be automated. With the new DigiYatra system being rolled out, passengers will be able to check-in, get their luggage loaded, and board their flights without coming close to any security person or gate agents.
Security checking will initially move more slowly, but body scanners will eventually speed up the frisking process. On board, passengers will naturally be wearing their masks and crew will also take more precautions.
In 2019, Indian airlines flew over 200 million passenger trips, including about 144 million domestic trips. Domestic flights have resumed in India, and once things settle, country’s skies will soon be buzzing again with the sound of jet engines!