Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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?