How Has the Pandemic Changed Air Travel?

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The far-reaching effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic took a toll on almost every industry imaginable, but the travel industry was hit particularly hard. With travel bans and shelter-in-place directives limiting folks’ ability to fly, airlines began canceling a record number of flights as the number of people traveling by air-dropped sharply. According to The New York Times, the number of commercial flights had, in August of 2020, dropped by 43% of what they’d been pre-pandemic, but to some experts, this was cause for celebration. They considered this the “best figure” since March of 2020 — and since the 77% drop in flights that occurred in April of that year.

Needless to say, the once-booming aviation industry was hit hard by the pandemic. So hard, in fact, the industry received $54 billion in bailout money from Congress — and it took more than a year from the beginning of the pandemic for even one airline to begin posting profits again. 

Since restrictions began lifting and the COVID-19 vaccines became available to most of the U.S. population, it became evident that people were itching to fly the friendly skies again, with NPR reporting that, in just over a year since the pandemic began, air travel had risen back up to pre-pandemic levels.  What’s also become clear is that we shouldn’t expect things to just “go back to normal,” no matter how much we might want them to. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that there’s no going back, period — there’s just going to be a new normal to adjust to, and for airports, airlines, and passengers, this new standard likely means new rules.

COVID-19 Began Changing Air Travel Almost Immediately

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For those who still needed to travel when the pandemic first hit, airlines enacted fairly drastic changes, all in the name of safety and, of course, to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. For example, JetBlue, known for having a grab-and-go snack cupboard on most of its flights, suspended beverage and snack service, while airlines like Delta blocked off middle seats, started boarding the planes back to front, and only allowed 10 passengers to board at a given time to maintain social distancing. Speaking of social distancing, most big-name airlines capped their occupancies at around 50% — not that flights were selling out anyway — making more room for passengers to spread out and maintain safe distances from one another.

Still, it’s difficult to predict how cross-country and interstate travel will continue to be impacted. By May of 2021, all major airlines had officially ended their social distancing requirements and stopped blocking off middle seats. Mask mandates weren’t lifted, however, which begs the question, “How strict will airlines become when it comes to practicing social distancing in the near future?” In the aftermath of September 11, air travel changed drastically in the United States. From bulletproof cockpit doors and stricter ID guidelines to the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the aviation industry and other powers that be reshaped not only how we travel but also our perception of travel. The COVID-19 pandemic stands to do the same, perhaps to a lesser degree.

Scott Duncan, a partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, was interviewed by Vogue and asked how things, particularly airports, might change from a design perspective. One of Duncan’s projects, a high-rise in Wuhan, China, brought to light the fact that elements like ventilation, sunlight, and green spaces have all become higher-priority features. “Outdoor spaces are going from ‘Oh, this is nice to have to ‘It’s a genuine amenity and maybe a necessity to travel,'” Duncan told Vogue.

While redesigning or revamping airports in a thoughtful way is likely on the horizon, there are other safety considerations that the pandemic caused facilities and companies to implement more quickly. For example, United began testing touchless kiosks so customers could print tags and check bags without being exposed to germs unnecessarily; Southwest installed plastic shields at ticket counters and gates to protect their workers; and some airlines, like Frontier, started taking passengers’ temperatures. Ahead of the eventual travel uptick, the U.S. travel industry released guidance for “Travel in the New Normal” so airlines could stay on the same page across the board when it came to emerging sanitation and other protective measures.

What Further Changes Can We Expect When It Comes to Traveling in the “New Normal”?

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In addition to taking temperatures and installing plastic shields, airlines can be expected to do everything in their power to uphold social distancing standards. Regardless of how various states reacted — some began loosening or eliminating guidelines and lockdowns very early on, while others kept things fairly rigid until larger segments of their populations had been vaccinated — there remains a need for airlines need to err on the side of caution. Even as demand for flights has begun to increase, airlines still need to earn consumers’ trust, and that means practicing an abundance of caution.

Another way to win over audiences? Flexible cancellation and rebooking policies. Having the ability to change travel plans was key during the pandemic, and it remains this way in our post-COVID-19 world. Most airlines allowed passengers to rebook flights and travel plans impacted by the pandemic, no questions asked, and even extended miles benefits into the next calendar year. Here’s hoping that mentality sticks around.

In addition to lower cabin capacities, we’re hoping airlines might rethink their decision to reopen middle seats to continue to allow for mile-high social distancing. Aviointeriors, an Italian company, has an interesting solution in the “Janus” seat — a backward middle seat that’s surrounded on three sides by shields to allow for “maximum isolation between passengers,” or so its press release states. Adopting new cabin interior design features would, of course, take time. For now, leaving middle seats empty (as much as possible) and requiring face coverings is an easier solution, and most airlines are still requiring passengers to mask up if they want to board their flights.

Some other things we’d love to see? A more widespread use of temperature checks, pre-packaged meals, fewer (if any) touchscreen kiosks, and boarding policies that limit how many passengers can congregate near the gate. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, flying had its stress factors, but here’s hoping that the aviation industry pulls together to put passengers’ and workers’ safety first far into the future.