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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?
Because it would have cost us who knows how many hundreds of dollars to
try to change the ticket?
There was this big incentive to fly sick."
Waiving change fees not only encourages people to buy tickets, but it also
motivates sick people to stay home.
According to analysts, if future plane tickets have some flexibility baked
in, and airlines are not able to collect change fees, carriers will try to
make that money back in some other way, like raising prices.
"I think what the airlines are going to try to do is find a balance between
satisfying the customer and saving money.
And frankly, if they have to do one of those two things, airlines will
always focus on saving money, because they value their profits ahead of
their customer satisfaction."
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What Does The Future Of Air Travel Look Like?

109 Folder Collection
day published on July 5, 2020
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