By Sophie-Claire Hoeller
The last nine months have been anything but ordinary, as the global coronavirus pandemic affected practically every aspect of our lives.
However, few things were as affected as the travel industry, which has been all but devastated.
Amid bankruptcies, layoffs, and furloughs, airlines are scrambling to get travelers flying again, and both airlines and airports have had to completely rethink their safety and health regulations to earn passengers’ trust and avoid the virus’ spread.
Much has changed when it comes to air travel in 2020: some good, some bad, some temporary, some possibly here to stay.
Keep scrolling to see the 11 ways in which flying has changed amid the pandemic.
Air travel saw the lowest number of travelers in the last 10 years.
While the number of air travelers has increased slightly since the start of the pandemic, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) saw a 96% decrease in people passing through their checkpoints in April, recording some of the lowest passenger numbers of the past decade.
April 14 set a record low with only 87,534 passengers passing through TSA checkpoints — for comparison, the same day in 2019 saw over 2.2 million.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that 2020 will see a total of around 1.8 billion air travelers — 60.5% fewer air travelers than in 2019, and about the same number of passengers as in 2003.
While this is good news for climate activists, who have long advocated for a reduction in air travel to slow climate change, it has caused the airline industry to lose half a trillion dollars in revenue, per the IATA. Airlines around the world have cut routes, furloughed workers, and even gone bankrupt.
However, experts believe air travel will rebound.
“I think summer 2021 might be the biggest travel season we’ve had in decades,” Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and chief flight expert, told Insider, citing people’s desire to make up for lost time.
Middle-seat blocking was the norm, at least for a while.
While many flights were operating at low capacity and purposely keeping middle seats empty to help maintain social distance, this will soon be a thing of the past. By January 2021, only Delta will continue blocking middle seats.
Keyes said he’s not surprised.
“Seats, the real estate on a plane, are by far the most valuable assets that airlines have. They can’t run a profitable business if they’re taking one-third of their assets and just blocking them off,” he said.
Masks are now required on all flights.
Currently, all domestic airlines require passengers to wear masks. Most, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), require this of anyone over the age of 2.
Some experts think masks are likely here to stay, even after COVID-19 vaccines have become widely available.
Dr. Anthony Fauci recently told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union,” that he would “recommend to people not to abandon all public health measures just because you’ve been vaccinated,” suggesting that precautions implemented during the pandemic, such as masks and social distancing, should remain in place.
“I would be surprised if mask requirements have been gotten rid of on all airlines by the end of 2021,” Keyes said, citing the fact that it doesn’t cost airlines anything, and makes most travelers feel safer.
Amir Eylon, president and CEO of Longwoods International, a travel and tourism market-research consultancy, believes that even if masks are eventually no longer required on flights, people will keep wearing them.
“I think we’re looking at a new social courtesy,” he told Insider. “If you’re traveling and you’ve got a cold or a cough or something, you’re gonna put a mask on. It may not be an airline regulation, but it will probably be a social custom.”
Buying plane tickets is more flexible than ever and might stay that way for the near future.
One silver lining: Change fees might be a thing of the past. Pre-pandemic, the only domestic US airline that didn’t charge passengers for changing their flights was Southwest. But now, as airlines realize that planning ahead amid ever-changing travel bans is difficult, most began waiving those pesky fees. While some airlines have waived these fees through next year, others have canceled them indefinitely.
“Airlines had kind of built their business model on not giving flexibility and charging for every little thing. And what they realized was that business is down so much and people are so reluctant to book right now that it’s actually costing more to continue to have these change fees,” Keyes, said, describing the move as “almost the bare minimum airlines needed to do.”
He believes that these flexible fares might stick around for a while but warns of a huge loophole: that the change fees most airlines said they’ll get rid of permanently do not apply to basic economy tickets — the cheapest and most prevalent tickets (though he notes that these fees are currently waived temporarily).
He says it’s “definitely a step in the right direction,” though he’d prefer it if change fees weren’t reinstated for basic economy once the pandemic wanes.
Eylon echoes Keyes’ thoughts. “I don’t think change fees will be gone forever, but I think you’ll probably see a greater degree of flexibility than in the past,” Eylon told Insider. “I think the airlines that are being most flexible and most proactive in their communication are probably going to be at an advantage to gain more customer loyalty.”
There are fewer flight and route options, which could lead to more expensive fares.
According to an April CNN article, airline executives expect fewer flights and a decrease in demand for the foreseeable future, which would mean that they would have to employ a smaller workforce, fly certain routes less often to fill up seats, and even ground entire planes. This would mean less capacity, and, in turn, could mean higher prices.
“Fliers will have less choice — of airlines, of flight times, and of available routes and markets. All of that means passengers will pay more when they return to the air,” CNN’s Chris Isidore writes.
Eylon believes that demand will drive what routes will come back first, if at all, and thinks airlines will take this opportunity to “reconfigure or change the capacity for routes that were underperforming. They’ll reevaluate things.”
He thinks it’ll be years before airlines will fly the same size fleets and number of routes as they did pre-pandemic.
Airline communication and transparency has never been better.
Keyes says that airlines are more communicative and transparent than ever.
Early on in the pandemic, he said “airlines were not comporting themselves particularly well, trying to either prevent customers from getting refunds that they were legally entitled to or trying to pressure them into taking vouchers instead of refunds.”
The Department of Transportation issued a notice to airlines on April 3 saying that they must offer refunds on canceled flights, and airlines have been complying.
“I think the level of proactive service and communication has really increased since the start of the pandemic,” Eylon said. “The airlines I primarily fly with have done a great job regularly communicating with me and updating me on how they’re going the extra mile to make sure that if I choose to fly with them, it’ll be a safe trip.”
According to Forbes, citing data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), customer satisfaction with airlines in 2020 was higher than it’s been since 1994. In other words, travelers were happier with airlines than they’ve been in a while.
Most airlines have either scaled back or eliminated their meal service, and the future of in-flight meals remains uncertain.
We can all agree that the glory days of in-flight dining are long gone, but in the future, there might be no food offered at all.
To reduce touchpoints and crew and passenger interaction, most airlines have either scaled back or eliminated their meal service entirely: Most have turned to pre-packaged meals and cut alcohol. The main reason is the fact that food and beverage carts could carry germs up and down aisles, should someone infected happen to cough or speak loudly and get droplets on them.
Between an increase in airport dining options, many health-conscious travelers already bringing their own food, and fliers wanting to save money by bringing their own snacks (since meals included in economy fares have become more and more of a rarity), some believe that in-flight meals will be phased out entirely.
A report by airline strategy firm SimpliFying outlining ways in which air travel might be different after the pandemic suggests that passengers may begin buying their meals at touchless vending machines preflight. Some airlines, such as Transavia, a low-cost Dutch airline and KLM subsidiary, are experimenting with passengers ordering meals online ahead of flights that are delivered to them individually.
Keyes believes, however, that airlines will probably continue to serve meals in business class to lure back business travelers, which provide their highest profit margins.
Touchless technology is on the rise.
Airports were already embracing touchless technology pre-pandemic in an effort to streamline boarding, but this trend will only continue in order to minimize the spread of the coronavirus through touchpoints.
Touchless kiosks that can both check passengers in and test their health are already being trialed by Etihad in Abu Dhabi, and a fully biometric check-in and immigration process based on facial recognition is already widespread at terminals with international routes.
CLEAR, best known as a way to expedite getting through airport security, has long relied on biometrics such as fingerprints and iris scans. Amid the pandemic, it launched Health Pass by CLEAR, which links biometric information to certified documents, such as health questionnaires, vaccination records, temperature checks, and COVID tests, according to CNBC.
The company’s idea is to eventually also have CLEAR kiosks in public spaces that can take people’s temperature, verify their identity, and upload results immediately using facial recognition.
Representatives for CLEAR did not respond to Insider’s request for further information.
Digital health passports are becoming a thing.
Digital health passports are mobile apps that allow travelers to upload proof of vaccinations and coronavirus test results in a safe and encrypted way. More and more of these are entering the market.
Current frontrunner CommonPass is designed to establish a common international standard for health data — from lab results to vaccination records — and can provide airlines, border controls, and governments with test results and passenger health information via personalized QR codes.
“What CommonPass does is set up a framework for people to have their COVID tests and vaccination results in a secure place in order for them to pass across a border without sharing their personal health information,” Thomas Crampton, CommonPass’ chief marketing and communications officer, previously told Insider. The app is currently only available through the various airlines trialing it.
The IATA is in the final development phase of its own digital passport, called the IATA Travel Pass, which should be available in the next few months.
Like CommonPass, the IATA Travel Pass will create a personalized QR code with test results and proof of vaccination, which travelers will use at check-in to make sure they’re in compliance with entry regulations at their destination.
Keyes believes that in the future, countries may make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for entry and that it will be on airlines to check passengers’ vaccinations for overseas travel, much like they currently check passports and visas.
Planes are cleaner than ever, and these new and improved hygiene protocols aren’t going anywhere.
Planes and airports are cleaner than ever thanks to heightened cleaning protocols, and some experts say that won’t be changing anytime soon.
“People are going to pay closer attention to cleanliness and hygiene practices when traveling, that’s not going to go away quickly,” said Eylon, who predicts that cleanliness measures will be the cost of doing business in the future.
“There may be some scaling back of some cleaning protocols, maybe they’re not going to be fogging the planes between every flight, but I think you’re going to see a greater attention to making sure that those planes are tidy,” he said.
Ross Dawson, author and futurist, agrees, and previously told Insider “people will pay more attention to cleanliness records.” He even predicts the rise of a new kind of plane class, which he somewhat jokingly refers to as an “isolation class.”
SimpliFlying even suggests up the possibility of in-flight janitors whose job will entail regularly cleaning the lavatories and any other “high-touch” areas during flights.
Boarding processes have changed — and might keep changing.
New boarding protocols meant to minimize the number of passengers passing by each other means that many airline carriers have adopted back-to-front boarding. While it may still not be the most efficient method, it is the safest.
Eylon, who flew a few times during the pandemic and observed this new boarding protocol, said “You weren’t passing by a lot of people that way, but I think it actually sped up some boarding time.”
“They finally implemented some practices that kind of decluttered the aisles,” he added.
Research has for years been touting more efficient boarding methods than the one used by most airlines that had people board by class, loyalty status, or cost of a ticket. Due to the pandemic, airlines might finally experiment with new ways of streamlining things, especially considering that boarding and deplaning is probably the riskiest part of flying, as they involve crowded gangways that don’t have the same hospital-grade air filters that planes do.
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