Up In The Air
In our COVID-19 pandemic-ravaged world there’s probably no more horrifying scenario than sitting trapped in a long metal tube for hours on end, elbow-to-elbow with complete strangers, all of you breathing the same air continually circulated around the interior.
Couple that with fellow passengers aged from a few months to old age and you have the perfect petri dish for fast transmission of COVID-19 infections.
That’s why air travel – with its innate ability to transmit infection across international borders - was one of the first elements of normal life to be severely restricted when the world began to comprehend COVID-19’s virulence and potential for spreading far and wide.
It seems incredible now, but not too long ago we were all quite happy to sit cramped into these long metal tubes alongside perfect strangers and breathe re-circulated air, sometimes on long haul flights across the globe that stretched for many hours on end.
In fact – many of us looked forward to it, especially those up at the sharp end in Business or Economy with more space to stretch out and indulge themselves in the in-flight luxuries.
It was a scenario that was entirely commonplace and repeated all over the world multiple times each day.
But now that COVID-19 is entrenched worldwide throughout practically every aspect of our lives and has already changed so much - what’s the future of air travel?
Will we ever see a return to those halcyon days of routine air travel – or are our hopes for such a return up in the air?
Welcome Aboard the New Normal
Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury has described the COVID-19 pandemic as: “The gravest crisis the aerospace industry has ever known.”
Elsewhere, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents almost 300 airlines, said the industry: “…is only at the very beginning of a long and difficult recovery,” and added there is: “…tremendous uncertainty about what impact a resurgence of new COVID-19 cases in key markets could have.”
To put it in cold perspective, in April, Heathrow Airport’s passenger numbers were down by 97 percent; and it was estimated that 30 percent of the world’s 26,000 commercial jets were grounded.
However, despite all the stark realities of cancelled flights, staff lay-offs, passenger numbers dwindling to almost nothing and mothballed fleets of aircraft, it’s worth remembering that even before COVID-19 the air travel industry had a resilient legacy of bouncing back from setbacks.
A comparable crisis came in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, which engendered fear in the travelling public and as a result, created tumbling passenger numbers.
Those passenger numbers eventually came back, although the healing process in the industry incorporated adjustments in activities and operations to align with reduced demands.
Some airlines went out of business, while others with expansion plans were forced to scale them back to keep operating efficiently and profitably, to keep pace with an altered business environment.
A graphic illustration of this is the high-demand lucrative US market, which prior to 9/11 had eight dominant airlines, but now only has four.
But the overall result was a leaner and arguably more efficient industry, although passengers forced to cram into the fewer flights available might take issue with that.
The air travel industry has also come under concerted fire in recent years from the climate change lobby, which demonised aircraft emissions as a major cause of global warming.
This argument has achieved a certain degree of ratification during the COVID-19 pandemic, with sharp drop in worldwide flights allegedly resulting in clearer skies and even some repair of the ozone layer.
But those who vilify the air travel industry as a malignant global polluter would do well to consider the many and diverse benefits it’s brought to many fundamental aspects of our modern life.
Its transport and distribution of cargo is an integral component of international trade and industry, without which many modern businesses and the societies in which they operate would face very real struggles.
And no matter your opinion of the growth of international holidays, this burgeoning industry and its associated tourism businesses provide employment and career opportunities to millions of people around the world.
All this now faces serious and long-standing consequences caused by the onset of COVID-19.
The shutters came down on international passenger air travel when many governments made it public policy – quite rightly - to close their borders to limit the spread of COVID-19 infection.
Now with vaccines being rolled out and even forecasts made of returns to “normality” in the near future, some are assessing whether or not to lift the shutters, and to what extent to meet demands of the much-mooted New Normal.
So, the easing of government entry restrictions is the basic consideration for getting airlines flying - and the business and tourism dollars flowing again.
What signs are there of this happening, with governments still shouldering the responsibility of protecting their citizens from COVID-19 infection?
The growing availability of vaccines give optimism and it’s likely that soon permissions for travel will be granted to passengers holding vaccine certification.
Travel Bubbles and Travel Corridors have also been proposed and introduced in some markets as ways to develop flows of air travel between countries that set up reciprocal arrangements, based on assessed COVID-19 rates in each other’s populations to exclude potential new infections.
But this may also involve testing all passengers at both departure and entry, a potentially cumbersome bottleneck which would require administration, create stress and stretch travel times.
In-Flight Signs of the Times
Airlines who’ve managed to operate limited flights within the restrictions of the pandemic have already given some clues about how the air travel experience for passengers will be re-set for the post-pandemic world.
Many on-board amenities, such as in-flight magazines, pillows and blankets, have been scrapped.
Even some meals served by cabin crew from trolleys are no more, replaced by snack bags and refreshments.
These pared-back services are for a good and pragmatic reason – to reduce person-to-person contact that may give rise to transmission of the virus.
They also have the added benefit of reducing costs, a vital factor for airlines that have been hemorrhaging money during the pandemic.
And it goes without saying that masks and face shields will be de rigueur in post-pandemic passenger cabins. Most predictions are for these to still being mandated for public environments even when COVID-19 infection rates reduce.
Of course, that probably means requirement of social distancing will also still be place, so it remains to be seen how airlines will square that particular circle with the need for passenger numbers to maximise load factors.
They’ll also be trying to do this in the face of a recent US government mandate that now - and in the foreseeable future - airlines fill no more that two-thirds of their passenger cabins.
Unfortunately, it seems that all these efforts to make airlines Lean and Mean won’t necessarily extend to lower fares.
Some analysts have forecast fares will drop in line with passenger demand, but with aircraft grounded and fewer seats to go round in the global market the airlines may – even with potential lower fuel costs – be tempted to make hay by hiking prices to compensate for all their months of lost operations.
Another aspect to consider in this is the very real possibility of the crisis forcing some airlines into bankruptcy.
For it’s a sad fact that when an airline goes bankrupt it reduces the number of competitors in the marketplace, which forces up prices.
The air transport industry’s standard MO of forcing hordes of people to share the same confined space for hours on end flies in the face of any COVID-19 considerations - no pun intended - and makes it a prime candidate for rigid implementation of restrictions.
So, it may very well be that we never return to the days of crowded terminal queues and being crammed into poky aircraft cabins.
Like everything else about this unprecedented pandemic, there’s widespread uncertainty about how - if at all – the industry which has become such an essential and ubiquitous part of modern life – will survive.
Though as we’ve seen, efforts to adjust to the New Normal have already been made and the industry has previously shown that it’s resilient and flexible enough to tailor operations around new restrictions.
And it’s more than obvious that air transport’s essential role in supporting and driving tourism economies around the world has to be revived.
Whether we’ll ever again sit cheek-by-jowl with complete strangers in a long metal tube for hours on end remains to be seen.
However, it’s pretty certain that in our future post-pandemic world we’ll still be buckling up and enjoying the ride – maybe just not that many of us as before, and perhaps in slightly more comfort.
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