The pandemic is reshaping airlines — and how you fly will never return to ‘normal’

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Face mask airplane coronavirus
File photo: Passengers wearing face masks on board a plane at Geneva Airport, March 1, 2020.

Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

  • The coronavirus pandemic has changed air travel dramatically.

  • Some changes and measures may be undone once the pandemic is over, but in some ways, flying may never be the same.

  • We spoke with experts from across the airline and travel industry who told us what to expect when we return to the skies.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

On a flight to South Africa in March, just before the novel coronavirus outbreak was officially classified as a pandemic, I spent nearly 10 minutes wiping down my seat with Clorox wipes.

I'm a frequent flyer, but until this trip, I'd never done that before. I knew that planes weren't scrubbed sterile before each flight, but it never really bothered me.

But this flight was different, as was my emergency flight home a week later, when South Africa announced it would effectively ban Americans due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I saw evidence the plane hed been cleaned as we boarded, but I wasn't taking any chances.

Three months later, it's clear that those flights weren't an aberration. They were a harbinger of what is to come.

The role of air travel in the spread of the novel coronavirus has been evident since the the CDC deployed to five US airports and began screening passengers arriving from Wuhan, China, where the virus originated.

Since then the airline industry has reckoned with an unprecedented collapse of travel demand and revenue and carriers have worked desperately to prove that it is safe to fly.

Most of the industry expects demand to pick up during the summer, according to Helane Becker, the lead airline analyst at Cowen. Numbers already began to climb in May and June, TSA passenger data show, albeit at a snail's pace, and with little guarantee the improvement will continue after the summer travel season, or during a second (or third) wave of the pandemic.

As the air travel industry seeks to accelerate growth, and to keep their businesses sustainable through the rest of the pandemic, airlines, airports, regulators, and travelers will need to make previously inconceivable changes.

These changes will have three interlinked purposes: first, to protect passengers and crewmembers' health; second, to convince potential passengers their health is taken care of; and finally, to generate enough confident customers to get their business back to growth.

What that adds up to is a future of flying that will look a lot different than the past. Business Insider spoke with experts from across the industry to get a better understanding of what's to come for the airline industry.

It's certain that the experience of air travel will be different during the next few years. But what happens once a vaccine has been developed and the fear of the pandemic subsides? Will things go back to the way they were, or has flying changed for good?

The coming months and years: Social distancing and masks on planes, widespread sanitizing

The experts I spoke with for this article had a range of opinions and predictions, but there was one thing they each agreed on: social distancing will not be coming to airplanes in the long-term.

US airlines including American, Delta, and United have introduced policies to encourage space between passengers — there have been notable incidents of flights ending up being full, but as of June 21, the average domestic flight had just 68 passengers, according to a weekly update from the trade organization Airlines For America — more than double a month earlier, but still well below capacity.

Blocking middle seats outright for the length of the pandemic to maintain the recommended six feet of distance, however, would be economically impossible, according to the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), a global industry trade group.

Coronavirus airport virus mask China Hong Kong
Travellers wearing face masks as a precautionary measure to protect against the possible spread of a SARS-like virus outbreak walk in the arrivals area at Hong Kong International Airport ahead of the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong on January 23, 2020. - Hong Kong has turned two holiday camps, including a former military barracks, into quarantine zones for people who may have come into contact with carriers of the Wuhan virus, officials announced on January 23. The international financial hub has been on high alert for the virus, which has killed 17 people since the outbreak started in central China.

VIVEK PRAKASH/AFP via Getty Images)

Aside from that, experts say, it wouldn't make much of a difference.

"Even if implemented, keeping the 'middle seat' open will provide less than the recommended separation for social distancing," said Dr. David Powell, an aviation medicine specialist who serves as IATA's medical advisor, in an email. "Most authorities recommend 1-2 meters (approx. 3-6 feet) while the average seat width is less than 50 centimeters (approximately 20 inches)."

While Delta has said it will continue to cap flights at around 60% capacity through at least September, most other airlines, including American and United, have bet that they'll be more successful selling every seat they can.

In place of social distancing, each major US airline is requiring passengers and crewmembers to wear masks on board. Evidence suggests that wearing a simple face covering can prevent an unknowingly infected person from passing the virus on to others.

Airlines have taken a generally piecemeal approach towards enforcing masks, although the major US carriers have said they will ban passengers refusing to wear them. Some predict that, as flying picks back up, masks will be the next source of passenger confrontations.

"It's just a matter of time, and the more people go out there and fly, it's inevitable that it'll happen," said R. W. Mann, an airline consultant and former executive.

In addition to masks to help prevent infected people from passing the virus to fellow passengers, stricter cleaning routines have helped airlines reduce risk and make people feel safer. During the start of the pandemic, cleaning quickly escalated from wiping down hard surfaces with disinfectant to electrostatic fogging with disinfectant before every single flight.

Aircraft fogging
Aircraft fogging

Delta Air Lines

According to Helane Becker of Cowen, newly-adopted sanitation measures will stick around for at least the medium term.

"We expect a lot of the safety, cleaning and customer comfort-focused initiatives to remain in place as stay at home orders are lifted, museums, restaurants and theme parks open and people travel again," she said in a May research note.

Enhanced sanitization and disinfection throughout the airport is also likely to become commonplace.

"You'll find everything door-to-door has been sanitized," Mann said. "Public transit, the airport, the airline experience, everything."

But beyond mask wearing and cleaning, a more effective solution would be a pre-flight testing protocol to prevent contagious people from getting onto planes in the first place. But there is little certainty on what that will actually look like.

One option is some kind of "immunity passport," a certificate showing that an individual had tested positive for coronavirus antibodies.

Airport temperature screening
A airport worker wearing a face mask checks the temperature of a young passenger at terminal 2 Don Mueang airport on May 1, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand.

Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto via Getty Images

While that remains a possibility, it is not yet known whether having antibodies actually generates immunity — and, if so, for how long. It's also unclear how widespread the virus has been, and how many people might have those antibodies.

The easiest screening option is temperature scans at the airport, although it would not help prevent asymptomatic carriers from traveling.

The most effective option would be rapid testing for the virus at the airport — either before boarding or when a passenger reaches their destination.

However, there would still be some challenges, even if rapid testing could be deployed at a sufficient scale.

First of all, testing is not a panacea, according to Dr. Elisa Choi of the American College of Physicians, partly because of the possibility of inaccurate or inconclusive results.

Mass testing could also be difficult to implement because of the uncertainty passengers would face at the airport or their destination.

"The last thing in the world you want is to get there and find out you don't pass," Mann, the consultant and former airline executive, said. "There has to be some kind of organized method of advance screening."

There are also questions about who would perform the screening, and how long it would remain in place.

One option would be for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to add a temperature scan or testing protocol. The Wall Street Journal first reported in May that the agency was preparing to begin temperature screenings.

Some changes are here to stay. Others may be fleeting.

Masks are something that could become the norm for a while, Gary Leff, a longtime airline and travel industry blogger, thinks, based on experience during his extensive personal travel seeing how they've been adopted as commonplace in other cultures.

"I think they'll persist, not universally, but for a lot of people, even after the requirement is gone and the virus is done," said Leff. "I think there may be less of a willingness to accept others who travel when they're sick."

And while testing nay be unnecessary after a vaccine is developed, temperature screening could stick around as part of an effort to detect the spread of new diseases in the future. Plus, Leff said, there isn't much precedent in the 21st century for airline screening ever being relaxed after having been increased.

While cleaning will likely remain enhanced even after the pandemic, it is not clear the degree to which today's sterilization standard will remain.

According to Shashank Nigam, CEO of SimpliFlying, an aviation strategy and marketing consultancy, passenger expectations for disinfection could make such measures a long-term necessity.

In an April report by SimpliFlying titled "The Rise of Sanitised Travel," the firm argues that this will be the end of the "30-minute turn," a rapid turnaround that many airlines use to minimize time on the ground and maximize margins.

"Every aircraft, after every flight, will have to be deep cleaned, fogged, and perhaps even sterilized with UV lights or other new technology," the report said. "Doing it overnight only will no longer be sufficient."

United CleanPlus
United signs encouraging social distancing in airports and use of face coverings, part of the airline's "CleanPlus" initiative.


However, the expense that such frequent, intense disinfection would impose on airlines could mean that it won't be kept in practice any longer than absolutely necessary, according to Mann.

"I would hope airplanes stay clean, but history tells us they won't," Mann said. "It's a necessary point of attention right now, but it probably won't last very long after the arrival of a vaccine. It's a costly thing to maintain."

Cleaning could also be used as a product differentiator, Nigam said. Airlines have already begun to introduce branded cleaning programs, such as United's "CleanPlus" initiative, in some cases partnering with well-known cleaning brands or medical institutions.

Post-pandemic itineraries: Recalibrating routes, rebuilding networks, and redeploying fleets

With airlines cutting anywhere from 50% to 90% of their capacity through the worst of the pandemic, grounding planes and suspending routes, bringing their sprawling, complex networks back online will be a challenge.

"Humpty Dumpty not only fell off the wall, but was smashed into very tiny pieces," said Henry Harteveldt, cofounder of the Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry research and analysis firm. "So it's going to take a long time to reassemble the airline network."

Domestic travel is one thing. American Airlines, for instance, plans to fly 55% of its domestic capacity in July, compared to 2019.

But international networks are another story. While American begins to restore its domestic network, international capacity will stay at just 20%, and because of various travel restrictions and uncertainties, many flights are expected to fly fairly empty.

In recent years, airlines began looking toward new markets and routes, seeking untested opportunities for profits and market share. But as debt-laden, struggling carriers limp back from the pandemic, that kind of experimentation will likely remain on the back burner. Some routes may use smaller aircraft than before as demand builds back up, and unless there's strong demand from a corporate client, some nonstop flights to international hubs will have to wait.

"Flights from the major hubs, like Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, sure," Harteveldt added. "But you may not see some nonstop routes like Nashville to London, or Raleigh-Durham to Paris, or New Orleans to London return in the first wave."

One thing most experts agree on: airlines are highly unlikely to abandon any of their previous hubs.

"They've invested time and money to develop those," Harteveldt said. "They know that if they pull out, a competitor will step right in."

Delta Air Lines Airbus A350
A Delta Air Lines Airbus A350-900.


When frequent flyers return to the skies, they're also likely to find themselves on a different plane than they would have before.

Airlines have accelerated retirements of older, larger, and less efficient plane types as they've cut capacity during the pandemic. So when travelers return, they can expect to see smaller, more efficient, nimbler aircraft.

Narrow-body jets like the Airbus A321XLR and the Boeing 737 Max — once it's cleared to return to service — are also expected to cover longer routes, according to Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant with Boyd Group International.

The good news for budget travelers: Cheap flights are here to stay

The past decade and change has seen a remarkable phenomenon in the air travel market: airline revenue and profits soared, but international flights became cheaper than ever.

In the short term, as airlines try to drum up demand and various restrictions are lifted, discounts are likely to be abundant.

"Cutting fares is the single biggest lever airlines can pull to try and entice travelers," Scott Keyes, founder of a subscription service that sends out flight deals, said in a phone call.

While fare discounts will only be enough to attract the most intrepid travelers during the pandemic, Mann thinks that they will be enough to stimulate demand.

"I think it's going to start tentatively, but then as some people respond to the deals, and have good experiences on emptier planes, or fun trips, word of mouth spread," he said.

In the longer term, Keyes thinks that the cheap international fares travelers have grew accustomed to will come back, partly thanks to revenue models that focus more on higher margin premium seats and frequent flyer programs, and less on money made from the cheapest coach seats.

FILE PHOTO: A Norwegian Air plane is refuelled at Oslo Gardermoen airport, Norway November 7, 2019. REUTERS/Lefteris Karagiannopoulos
File photo: A Norwegian Air plane is refueled at Oslo Gardermoen airport


Harteveldt also thinks that travel will remain affordable once the pandemic ends, but added that there could be one big danger for international routes: if either a major airline, or the low-cost trans-Atlantic torchbearer Norwegian Air, were to collapse.

The reduced competition or reduction in pricing pressure from the low-cost airline could lead to airlines seeking higher margins on the cheapest coach seats.

"It would be a shame," he said, but added that if low-cost carriers like Norwegian hang on and travel demand picks back up, they may be able to ride out the storm. Norwegian Air's shareholders recently approved a survival plan, and the airline received a bailout from Norway's government.

But even with cheap flights available, many people are unlikely to travel due to shut down destinations remain shut, uncertainty surrounding cancellations, and the real threat of getting sick.

"People need to feel safe before they're willing to leave their homes and go somewhere," Keyes said.

My next flight

The next time I fly, I don't expect that I'll feel the need to wipe down my seat with Clorox wipes again.

Instead, I expect to see an email from the airline the day before my flight detailing the sterilization that my plane will have undergone.

As travel restrictions are relaxed around the world and I take advantage of a cheap flight deal to Europe, I imagine having to show a health form before the flight, and at customs, certifying that I carry antibodies to the virus. Or else having to put up with a quick nasal swab and temperature scan at the airport — likely the only time I pull my mask down from my face, except possibly to quickly eat or drink on the flight.

What I'm less sure about: when I'll feel safe traveling again, let alone when destinations will once again let people from outside their country enter.

International travel seems to be off the table for at least a little while longer, and as social distancing guidelines are relaxed, I expect most of my immediate travel to be closer to home, accessible by car.

I imagine I'll fly again before the pandemic has been eradicated, but regardless of when that may be, I can be certain that the flight won't be the same.

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