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  • Summer vacations used to mean wine tasting in Tuscany, backpacking in

  • Southeast Asia, and trips to the Grand Canyon.

  • But fears that airplanes could be a breeding ground for Covid-19

  • infections have wreaked havoc on the air travel industry.

  • "We know that this could take several years before we're into our new

  • normal of traveling."

  • On June 28, 2020, less than 640,000 passengers flew out of U.S.

  • airports, compared with more than 2.6 million travelers a year earlier.

  • With passenger demand in sharp decline, Delta, United, and American have

  • parked hundreds of planes and posted their first quarterly losses in more

  • than five years.

  • American Airlines said it expects second quarter 2020 revenue to be down

  • about 90% versus the second quarter of 2019.

  • The U.S. airline industry is in turmoil.

  • "This is the biggest crisis of all, bigger even than 9/11, than SARS, and

  • the Great Recession and all of that.

  • And every crisis changes the airline industry.

  • So it's only reasonable to think that the biggest crisis of all will cause

  • some of the biggest changes of all."

  • According to the International Air Transport Association, global air travel

  • won't return to pre-crisis levels until at least 2023.

  • To lure panic-stricken travelers back, U.S.

  • carriers have implemented new rules, deep-cleaned planes, and waived some

  • fees. Some airlines are also limiting the number of seats they sell.

  • But analysts argue that even with all the changes, it's impossible to

  • maintain social distancing rules on an airplane.

  • U.S. airlines are facing their biggest crisis in a generation, and the

  • stakes have never been higher.

  • So will all these changes keep passengers safe?

  • And what can travelers expect in six months?

  • Without a vaccine or an effective treatment against coronavirus, air travel

  • in January 2021 could look radically different than it did back in 2019.

  • Passengers arriving at airports could see new checking procedures face

  • even longer lines and be subject to health screenings.

  • "Well, the airline industry has never faced anything like this in I think

  • its history. A lot of the executives have kind of looked back to 9/11,

  • which was obviously disastrous for the industry.

  • But this is a lot worse.

  • We've never had just a complete shutdown of pretty much a shutdown of air

  • travel demand and have it last as long as it has."

  • "But the reality is that airports are not designed for social distancing

  • and it's going to be tricky.

  • The good thing, if you could call it that, is that they're having a chance

  • now to kind of work through some of this at a time when not so many people

  • are traveling." In May 2020, United Airlines began testing touchless

  • kiosks that can print your boarding pass and luggage tags directly from

  • your phone. For flyers without a smartphone, traditional kiosks are still

  • available, as are check-in counters with sneeze guards manned by airline

  • employees wearing masks.

  • Delta and American said they're both sanitizing their kiosks regularly and

  • adding plexiglass shields at counters as well.

  • "When you get to the terminal, it is going to look very different.

  • There will be plexiglass shields everywhere to support physical

  • distancing." Airports in general will look and feel a lot cleaner.

  • United teamed up with Clorox to improve their disinfection process on and

  • off the plane. And experts from the Cleveland Clinic are advising the

  • airline on the latest technologies.

  • But while airports can expect to see fewer travelers because of social

  • distancing measures and potential health screenings, lines could be even

  • longer. "We need to prepare to actually see more lines.

  • There may be fewer people in them.

  • But remember, within six months, we will probably have some kind of health

  • screening protocol as part of airport security screening."

  • According to IATA, when proven and available at scale, testing for Covid-19

  • could be part of the boarding process.

  • Even without a national policy, some airlines have already started to

  • implement their own medical screenings.

  • In June 2020, U.S.

  • budget carrier Frontier Airlines started screening passengers and crew for

  • fevers. Anyone with a temperature over 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit is denied

  • boarding to their flight.

  • That same month, United said passengers would be given a series of health

  • questions at check-in, asking if travelers have been diagnosed with

  • Covid-19 or if they have had any symptoms in the last two weeks.

  • "And in a situation where somebody is sick and they can't travel, we'll

  • obviously work with them to find an arrangement that will work for them."

  • Facial recognition technology already in place at some U.S.

  • airports could be adopted faster in terminals, too.

  • Delta has tested biometric screenings to board passengers at several

  • airports, including Atlanta, Detroit, and New York's JFK Airport.

  • "In six months, we may see biometrics, facial or iris scanners being used

  • to help you board the plane rather than the traditional boarding pass.

  • We will continue to limit, I think, the number of people being allowed to

  • go down to the loading bridge to the airplane."

  • While creating a safe environment at an airport is challenging during the

  • best of times, keeping passengers and crew safe on a plane during a

  • pandemic is arguably even harder

  • "On the airplane, physical distancing is an illusion."

  • "It's very difficult to socially distance on an aircraft.

  • Nevertheless, airlines are trying to keep some space or at least make

  • passengers feel comfortable with sitting near other travelers."

  • In April 2020, Delta Air Lines announced passengers would start boarding

  • planes by row, starting with the back of the plane to reduce contact

  • between travelers and crew.

  • The measure will be in place through September 30th, 2020.

  • Passengers seated in Delta One or First Class, as well as Diamond

  • Medallion Members can board at any time.

  • United and JetBlue also suspended their normal boarding procedures and are

  • boarding passengers from back to front.

  • But how do you social distance on a plane where passengers are generally

  • packed in like sardines?

  • Since April 2020, Delta has blocked middle seats on all flights and is now

  • blocking some window and aisle seats in cabins that don't have a middle

  • seat configuration.

  • The carrier is capping seat capacity at 60% in the main cabin, Delta

  • Comfort Plus, and Delta Premier Select, and 50% in First Class through

  • September 30th, 2020.

  • Southwest said their middle seats would remain open through at least

  • September 30th, 2020.

  • "There's no question that until customers feel safe tr aveling, this

  • business in terms of air travel is not going to return at scale."

  • But airlines have struggled to adapt.

  • In May 2020, a doctor flying on a United Airlines flight from Newark to

  • San Francisco claimed every seat was full and tweeted about "scared" and

  • "shocked" passengers.

  • The post was shared thousands of times.

  • In response to the backlash, United said they would begin notifying

  • travelers in advance if their plane was near full capacity and allow them

  • to rebook or receive a travel credit.

  • "Keeping the middle seat open, to be really blunt about it, that's a PR

  • tactic. That doesn't actually make you safer.

  • What makes you safer is wearing a mask, disinfecting the aircraft, and

  • overhauling procedures and working with experts at places like the

  • Cleveland Clinic about what you need to do to keep people safe.

  • And that's exactly what we're doing." "So what airlines like American and

  • United are doing is they're sending alerts to travelers when their planes

  • start to fill up. Would you rather fly on another flight?

  • And they allow them to switch to another plane so that they don't have

  • that surprise when they get to the gate or when they get on board."

  • American Airlines resumed full flights July 1st, 2020.

  • The carrier said through September 30th, it would continue to notify

  • passengers when their plane was full, allowing them to switch flights at

  • no extra cost.

  • Analysts say seat blocking is unlikely to last.

  • And questions remain about the effectiveness of blocking the middle seat.

  • While health experts recommend staying six feet apart, the average seat

  • width on a plane is a little more than a foot and a half wide.

  • And as airlines try to move back to profitability, blocking seats might not

  • be financially viable.

  • Not allowing passengers to use the middle seat would bring the maximum

  • seat capacity of a flight to just 62%.

  • That's well below the average industry breakeven level of 77%, according

  • to IATA. With fewer passengers on board, airfare would need to go up

  • dramatically, between 43% and 54% just to break even.

  • "The math is pretty straightforward.

  • If airlines are going to be trying to get all the money from just

  • two-thirds of the passengers or less, then that would put upward pressure

  • on airfares. I mean, look, they're probably not going to be able to get

  • all the money from fewer passengers, which is why they're against this

  • being a rule. But on the other hand, there's no question that airfares

  • would go up somewhat."

  • While the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the airline industry into

  • turmoil, analysts say the silver lining could be that airlines are doing a

  • better job at cleaning their planes than they did in the past.

  • "We've doubled down, in fact, tripled down on sanitation and hygiene and

  • cleanliness and making certain that every aircraft that we're on are being

  • fogged every single day.

  • The facilities, the social distancing practices on our planes, making

  • certain people are at least six feet away throughout the cabin."

  • "The pandemic has brought about some improvements.

  • Airlines are cleaning airplanes more thoroughly and more frequently than

  • they did before." Delta, American, and United are now deep cleaning tray

  • tables, arm rests, entertainment screens, and overhead bin handles

  • regularly, as well as using electrostatic sprayers in their cabins.

  • But one reason cleaning is easier is that airlines have scaled back their

  • meal service. Delta trimmed back its service to essential foods and

  • beverages and is encouraging passengers to pack their own meals.

  • It's a similar story for rivals American and United.

  • American Airlines encouraged passengers to bring their own snacks and soft

  • drinks, saying food and drink service in the main cabin is limited, though

  • on some longer flights, snack bags will be available.

  • United Airlines flights under 2 hours and 20 minutes will no longer have

  • snack service, and beverages will be available only on request.

  • On flights over 2 hours and 20 minutes, passengers will receive a snack

  • bag that includes a sanitizer, a bottle of water, and a package of

  • pretzels. That means ice, coffee, tea and poured alcohol are out and water

  • bottles are in.

  • "What we're doing on some of our shorter flights is actually greeting our

  • customers right when they come on board and handing them a sealed bag that

  • includes a couple of sealed snacks, a bottle of water, and essentially a

  • sanitizing wipe that they can use to wipe down their area.

  • That way they have everything that they need right when they get on the

  • plane, and they don't have to have an extended interaction with our flight

  • attendants." Delta has also banned all glassware, including coffee mugs

  • and champagne flutes.

  • Hot towel service is suspended while air sickness bags remain, in-flight

  • magazines are out.

  • Simplified catering makes the airplane not only easier to clean, but it

  • also reduces the interaction between passengers and flight attendants and

  • lowers crew movements.

  • And analysts say a lot of those perks that we've seen in recent years may

  • not be coming back anytime soon.

  • "You know, there's free snacks that we've seen again recently on American

  • and United, for example.

  • Those are a want, not a need.

  • The kind of thing that, hey, if it cost the airline $10 or $20 million

  • dollars a year to give that out, even if they couldn't exactly prove that

  • they were finding that revenue somewhere, what was $10 or $20 million

  • dollars when they were earning billions of dollars in profits?

  • Whole different story now when $10 or $20 million dollars could make the

  • difference between making money and losing money and certainly trying to

  • stay out of bankruptcy for these airlines.

  • So I don't expect all of the amenities to come back even once it's safe to

  • bring them back." While some changes the airlines are making may be short

  • term, others could be here to stay.

  • On May 4th, 2020, Delta, JetBlue, and United began requiring passengers to

  • wear face coverings onboard the aircraft.

  • American Airlines and most other carriers followed suit.

  • Since then, many people on social media have complained that the rules

  • aren't being enforced. But in June 2020, United, Delta, American, and

  • several other airlines announced that face covering rules would be

  • vigorously enforced.

  • Each airline would set its own policy, but noncompliance could result in a

  • ban from flying on the airline while face coverings are required.

  • "For people who refuse to comply with that requirement, risk a

  • ban of flying on United Airlines in the future."

  • And then there are those travelers who may choose to wear a mask years

  • after restrictions lift.

  • "So there are going to be some permanent changes.

  • Even once the worst of this is behind us, you're going to see people

  • wearing masks in the airport just because they decide, hey, I don't want

  • to get sick and don't want to get other people sick, even from me common

  • illnesses, even if there is a vaccine."

  • And while those profitable baggage fees are unlikely to go away, airlines

  • have started to cut back on pricey change fees.

  • American Airlines waived their change fees for tickets purchased through

  • September 30th, 2020.

  • Travel must be completed by December 31st, 2021.

  • If you book a flight on United by July 31st, 2020, you can change it for

  • free over the next 12 months.

  • And tickets purchased on Delta between March 1st and July 31st, 2020 can

  • be altered without a change fee for a year from the date of purchase.

  • "Let's all be honest with ourselves.

  • Have we ever gotten on an airplane when we were maybe sicker than we

  • should have been to fly?