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How air travel has changed amid uncertain future

By Wole Oyebade
08 May 2020   |   4:20 am
A philosopher once remarked that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The next couple of days will tell how true this is in aviation business.

PHOTO: Aviation24

As cities and countries are beginning to ease the coronavirus-imposed lockdown, air travellers will realise how fast the travel protocol has changed ahead of a difficult future for aviation business. WOLE OYEBADE writes.

A philosopher once remarked that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The next couple of days will tell how true this is in aviation business. But fact is that the face of air travel has rapidly changed and so soon too.

Air travellers – and hope they fly sooner than later – will come to realise that aviation is no longer the a la carte customised settings they were used to some three months ago. In the era of physical distancing, they will find that even family members can no longer freely huddle and cuddle for too long. The inflight sitting arrangement is new, more health and security checks to be admitted, and limited or no meal services during travels, among other evolving possibilities. Welcome to the freaking COVID-19 era and a new travel experience!

A golden age gone burst
Many would remember the last couple of years as the golden age of modern commercial aviation. It was the period of state-of-the-art airplanes and massive competition between the two leading commercial plane manufacturers – Boeing and Airbus. While the American manufacturer made 777, 737Max series, its French counterpart, Airbus, deepened expertise in 330 and 320neo series. Across the board, they are super-efficient machines and the pride of modern innovation.

Air travellers were also treated to customer-centric regal services onboard. Before boarding are fit-for-comfort luxury lounges. Taste became everything in the highly competitive market. So, the airlines lure travellers to VIP experience that was erstwhile exclusive to private jets. The retinue of charming air hostesses was as courteous as they were personal. Special wine brands went well with culinary dishes as designed by the best of chefs. The goal was to make travellers call again.

But that golden age may be behind us now. The outbreak of coronavirus disease pandemic in the last three months has not only grounded the industry, it has thrown all airlines into debts, yawning financial distress and crew out of jobs. None of the carriers, including the big ones, can now survive without a heavy bailout.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects the airlines to see full year passenger revenues fall by $252 billion (-44 per cent) in 2020 compared to 2019. The second quarter is the most critical with demand falling 70 per cent at its worst point, and airlines burning through $61 billion in cash.

Today, Virgin Australia, just like Air Mauritius, has gone under following the refusal of the Australian government to offer a bailout. South African Airline (SAA) has also gone into administration, throwing about 5000 workers out of jobs, as the government eyes a fresh start, but this time with a new national carrier.

Experts have predicted that things would not return to normal for two to three years. In fact, many companies will follow the path of travel agencies and go out of business too. It took three years for the industry to recover after the 2008 crash, and this crisis may not be different.

Aviation consultant, Chris Aligbe, said the recovery, following the lift on flight restrictions, would be a long haul and most difficult for both operators and agencies to survival without a great deal of support from the government.

Aligbe said no one should expect normalcy to return to air travel in Nigeria until about 18 months. Because, in the absence of vaccines, travellers will still be afraid of infection, there will be restrictions in some countries, and then due of economic recession, the lack of funds will prevent people from travelling like before. “This will have impact on airports and the agencies,” Aligbe said.

Fresh safety, security measures
But the difficult recovery route and newer measures await all as parts of efforts to reduce the risk of coronavirus disease infections. The aviation regulatory bodies would be saddled with newer procedures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease by the airlines, airport facilities and the travellers.

The Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has already issued a national interim guidance on aircraft and aviation facilities’ cleaning ahead of the easing of current restriction. The guideline was, among others, focused on preventive disinfecting of all passenger aircraft arriving from high risk area, taking into account the size and stopover time of aircraft.

At airports, the passengers may as well prepare for queues for boarding with two-metre spacing. Passengers may be sent text messages calling them to gates to avoid crowding. Earlier check-in times and turning up four hours before flights could be commonplace, so start getting set.

Walkways to planes with ‘disinfectant tunnels’, in which passengers are checked and bags ‘sani-tagged’ after electrostatic cleansing or UV disinfection are most likely. Travellers may soon get used to plastic hoods and smaller hands-on to avoid leaning over others to use the overhead locker.

More facial recognition systems and fewer passport checks, which might make immigration faster, are also on the cards. It may as well include more sophisticated security machines that do not require you to remove laptops or liquids.

Already, some carriers have made it compulsory for all passengers to wear face masks during flights. Air France and KLM said they would be telling customers to wear a mask throughout their journey from next Monday. German airline, Lufthansa, earlier adopted the rule, saying passengers must wear a face mask covering the nose and mouth.

Aviation Security Consultant, Group Capt. John Ojikutu, said compliance with Civil Aviation Health Protocol, factored into a relevant International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Safety Standards, Recommended Practices or Programmes designed by the state, would force a lot of changes in operations and passenger facilitation.

Ojikutu advised local airlines to operate flights that are not more than one hour for the time being. “If they can manage seat distancing without it affecting their operational cost, it is okay. If not, they could carry passengers in the middle seats but can suspend catering services.

“If not possible to eliminate or suspend, reduce the numbers of meeters and seers at the airports particularly for the VIPs, whatever the numbers and whoever they are, they must be made to observe same checks as the passengers.

“If possible, eliminate or suspend passengers carry-on luggage, but the hold or checked-in baggage could be reduced,” Ojikutu said.
Mandatory health certificate or testing of passengers

More stringent measures are possible. Already in Dubai, Emirates is carrying out blood tests on select flights before passengers board. This makes the airline the first in the world to carry out such action.

Speaking of the testing initiative, Emirates Chief Operating Officer, Adel Al Redha, said the testing process went smoothly and they were working on plans to scale up testing capabilities in the future and extend it to other flights.

“This will enable us to conduct on-site tests and provide immediate confirmation for Emirates passengers travelling to countries that require COVID-19 test certificates.”

This week, Heathrow boss, John Holland-Kaye, called for the government to set up a common international standard for aviation health screening.

Thai authorities already demand that documents showing visitors ‘pose no risk of being infected’ are issued no more than 72 hours before landing. Thailand already requires Covid-19 insurance cover for up to £80,000.

There is a chance that, once systems are well established, which may take years, movements could be smoother than ever.

Keep middle seats vacant
Passengers will also have to practice social distancing at the airport, while Plexiglass screens will also be installed onboard.

A local airline, Dana Air, has disclosed plans to keep the middle seats on its entire aircraft empty upon resumption of flights in line with the social distancing guideline on Covid-19.

The Accountable Manager of Dana Air, Obi Mbanuzuo, said Dana Air would commence this initiative when flights resume, maintain it for a while and listen to the feedback from the airline’s customers.

The alternative to keeping a seat vacant is a new design for two post-coronavirus economy cabin concepts aimed at helping to prevent future pandemics.

The Janus, as one of the design is called, takes its inspiration from the ancient two-faced Roman god and has a reversed centre seat, while the other design – Glassafe concept – sees each seat fitted with a hood.

Onboard either way, passengers will be spread out as much as possible, with Air France saying the current low load factors “make it possible to separate customers as required”.

Aircraft will also be cleaned daily with surfaces including armrests, tables and screens disinfected by onboard cleaner. Air France will also introduce a specific procedure for “the periodic disinfecting of aircraft by spraying an approved virucidal product effective for 10 days”.

The in-flight service is limited with no meals and drinks offered on domestic and short-haul European flights. On long-haul flights, cabin service is also limited and preference is given to individually wrapped products. That is no alcohol, no hot meals to avoid interactions!

However, social distancing by keeping middle seats empty and other extra measures will prove uneconomical and unhelpful to already stressed airlines. Keeping passengers two metres apart would require 26 economy seats per four passengers, experts say. That is a lot and IATA said as much too.

Someone has to bear the extra cost. Therefore, ticket prices will soar. As it is, fares could rise above pre-crisis levels as airlines struggle. The golden age of low-cost tickets may be over. But are the passengers ready – either for air travels or at extra cost at a time of mutual cash crunch? Time will tell about these defining changes.