The Pandemic Could Change Air Travel Forever

The pandemic could change air travel forever
Some say the pandemic will lead to a transformation in air travel that the world hasn’t seen since 9/11. Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Airlines are weighing a return to a (socially distanced) sky, but the pandemic may reshape the future of flying.

Christopher Schaberg has been watching airlines evolve since he worked as an agent for United, checking bags and checking in passengers at Montana’s modest Bozeman Yellowstone Airport. He’s been noticing shifts in how air travel works over the years, especially the transformation in airport security that happened after 9/11. That was only the beginning.

As airports got locked down, terminals transformed into malls full of bars, shops, and even spas so passengers could kill time without leaving the airport. Restaurants filled with iPads replaced crowded food courts, and seats loaded with power outlets filled the areas around the gates. On board the aircraft, free cocktails and meals steadily gave way to vacuum-packed snacks and half cans of Coke. Just as steadily, legroom disappeared, and those planes were full.Then came the coronavirus pandemic.

Air travel is in the midst of another sea change, not just because of the public health crisis but also the corresponding economic collapse. Schaberg, author of The End of Airports and several other books about air travel, believes that even the essential elements of flying have always remained the same — boarding at the gate, drinks on ice in the air, waiting at baggage claims — will never be the same. Even as the effects of the pandemic ease, air travel as we know it probably won’t ever return.

“Finally, this thing is kind of radically changing, in the sense that we’re not doing it,” Schaberg told Recode.

He’s right. The number of people flying has plummeted. The Airports Council International estimates the industry has lost 4.6 billion passengers and nearly $100 billion for this year alone. Airports have become ghost towns, and the American air giants are still weighing layoffs despite receiving a $25 billion bailout.

Now, the industry is trying to figure out what happens next and how the experience of flying must evolve. Recode spoke to nearly a dozen experts about the future of flying, and they collectively said travelers should anticipate a whole host of changes, including an intensified focus on sanitation and air purification, health screenings at security, and even more facial recognition-based boarding. Some even mentioned surveillance technology that can measure how well people are social distancing throughout the terminals and boarding areas.

Whether those changes will be enough to bring passengers back to the skies is unclear. It’s possible we might never return to the same frequency of air travel. After all, even when people start planning long-distance trips, some might not feel comfortable crammed into a cabin breathing recycled air. The Covid-19 pandemic has also reminded everyone to consider the massive carbon footprint created by the airline industry. Unfortunately for frequent fliers, there’s even evidence that flying will be prohibitively expensive in the long-term. Perhaps trips once deemed worthy of a flight, especially business-related ones, could just happen over Zoom.

“If we all decide, ‘What the hell — I’m not getting on an airplane,’ we know what it’s gonna look like,” Schaberg said. “It’s not gonna look like much at all.”

Expect more contactless interactions and fewer humans

As the pandemic wears on, airlines and airports will want to limit passengers’ contact with high-touch surfaces and exposure to airport staffers. One hope is that deploying new contactless technologies will not only cut down on lines but also reduce our overall time in airports and potential exposure to carriers of the virus.

This new, touch-free experience will likely start as soon as passengers arrive at the airport and need to drop off checked luggage. At four different airports, United is already testing a contactless method of tagging bags that involves customers registering their bags before their flight and then confirming that bag with a QR code and a smartphone at the airport. Airlines could also opt to use biometrics, such as facial recognition, to confirm someone’s identity at baggage drop-off, in concert with a permanent, or RFID, bag tag.

Then there are the check-in kiosks, which no one will want to touch. Instead, passengers might operate these machines with their phones and use facial recognition to confirm their identity, explained Andrew O’Connor, a vice president at SITA, which sells technology to airports and airlines. The Australian airport technology company Elenium has debuted similar technology in its kiosks, which let people navigate with their voices and by moving their heads.

“There’s going to be an acceleration in terms of touchless options to passengers, [and] biometric ID is definitely one of them,” said Antoine Rostworowski, the world deputy director of programs and services for the Airports Council International. “There’s now an extra motivation from governments and regulators to look at this more rapidly and find solutions.”

Even before the coronavirus hit, some United States airlines were installing biometrics-based check-ins for certain international flights. This system uses a database maintained by US Customs and Border Protection along with an algorithm from the company NEC, a firm that the blog OneZero earlier this year called “the most important facial recognition company you’ve never heard of.” While facial recognition might struggle to identify people when they’re wearing face masks, NEC told Recode that, anecdotally, despite some slight loss in accuracy, its system still works with masks, so it could carry over into pandemic-era travel.

Get ready for invasive health screenings

When travelers finally arrive at security, they should brace themselves for potential health screenings, including temperature checks and questions about possible symptoms. Experts Recode spoke to were skeptical that fever detection alone could be a useful metric, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has warned about the risks of fever detection systems that rely on technologies like thermal imaging or temperature-screening guns. Remember that there are also asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus, and plenty of people have fevers who don’t have Covid-19. But it still appears some airports will check temperatures.

London’s Heathrow Airport recently announced trials of thermal-based temperature screenings, and the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is expected to begin doing the same, according to the Wall Street Journal’s sources. A TSA spokesperson told Recode that “no decision has been made regarding specific health screening measures at airports.”

A flight attendant uses a thermal device to check a passenger’s temperature.
Passengers might encounter multiple health screenings both before departing and after arriving at their destination.

But fever detection — even if inaccurate — may just be the beginning. On one Emirates flight, passengers actually had their blood tested for Covid-19. LeAnn Ridgeway, a vice president at Raytheon subsidiary Collins Aerospace, even suggested that the government might require “triangulating vitals” during screenings, collecting not only temperature but information like blood pressure and heart rate through various sensing technology. Passengers themselves could also self-report health information before entering a country, Rostworowski explained.

There are several security companies already trying to streamline and standardize this health-screening process. One widely used service comes from the biometrics ID company Clear, which lets its paying customers skip security lines after a scan confirms their identity. The company also recently announced something called Health Pass. This new service lets people upload the results of a health status quiz about possible Covid-19 symptoms and will soon let those customers link to their recent lab test results. The idea is that people who have paid for the Health Pass service can scan a QR code at a Clear kiosk to confirm their Covid-19 status. It’s unclear if and when this new service will hit airports. A spokesperson told Recode that the Health Pass technology is well-suited for airports and that the company is in talks with travel industry stakeholders.

The use of biometrics will probably extend beyond airport security, however. Face scans can also help with contactless payments at airport shops and regulate who enters VIP lounges. Airports already use tools like Lidar, a remote sensing technology that relies on lasers and artificial intelligence to monitor passenger flows. A handful of airports, including those in Las Vegas and Miami, are reportedly repurposing these tools to measure social distancing, avoid large influxes of people, and potentially warn airport operators ahead of time of crowds that could form in any given area within the airport.

Planes will also change, but in ways you might not notice

When you board your next flight, you’ll probably notice some changes, like blocked-off middle seats and mandatory face coverings. Airlines might also decide to board economy-ticket holders first in an attempt to prevent any clogging of the aisles. The coming months could bring even more dramatic shifts in the way things work in the cabin, especially as airlines look for ways to get passengers to feel more comfortable while flying. Several ideas involve either removing middle seats or rearranging rows in order to minimize contact with other people. Designers are already mocking up concepts.

Aircraft engineer Florian Barjot has sketched out something called PlanBay, which would feature transparent panels installed into the middle seat and extend upward from the seatbacks to create a sort of shield between the rows. Barjot explains that the idea is to mitigate the spread of droplets while also ensuring that the flight crew can still see what’s going on throughout a cabin.

Italian airplane interiors manufacturer Aviointeriors has proposed another idea that would flip the middle seat backward and then use transparent panels to separate the space between passengers. A downside of this design is that the person in the backward seat is then face-to-face with the passengers in the row behind. Paolo Drago, the company’s CEO, told Recode that several airlines are already interested and considering prototypes of another model, which would use the preexisting seat model but install transparent shields over and beside the seat.

A woman sits in a middle airplane seat that’s been turned around so that she’s facing the back of the plane.
The Janus design from Aviointeriors would reverse the middle seat and install plastic barriers between passengers.

With that in mind, a more socially distanced flight may become not only a new safety standard but also yet another way that experiences on board are separated by class.

“You could imagine an airplane that has the front half for first-class, and the seats are truly like 6 feet apart. And the back is really crammed in, but everyone’s wearing masks and spraying each other with disinfectant,” Schaberg, the author, tells Recode. “Everyone’s just crossing their fingers and hoping you don’t get sick.”

At the same time, many of the changes that airlines are already making are ones that might not be as noticeable. Airlines have beefed up sanitation efforts, using electrostatic spray guns and antimicrobial coatings in between flights. Passengers might look to use their mobile phones for entertainment rather than in-seat entertainment screens, which some airlines started phasing out a couple of years ago. And passengers should also expect to hear more about hospital-grade HEPA filters installed in the air-filtration systems, though many aircraft had these systems long before the pandemic. While air filters can be helpful, they won’t necessarily protect you from the droplets of a nearby passenger who coughs or sneezes.

Some airlines might consider changing the materials used inside the aircraft, explained Grant West, a vice president for Collins Aerospace Interiors products and aftermarket services, in an email to Recode. Currently, his team is looking into materials that could suppress pathogens, including some coverings that would be single-use, that could coat high-touch areas like seats, belts, meal trays, and armrests.

Brandon Wilson, owner of AvidJet, disinfects a Frontier airplane with a fogger at Denver International Airport on May 6.

During the pandemic, airlines have limited or in some cases eliminated onboard food and drinks service. American Airlines, for one, eliminated alcohol sales in economy class, although it’s still offering it in first class. Delta has limited its beverage options to bottled water. United did away with refills. (Weirdly, one grocery delivery company is selling excess snack trays from airlines like JetBlue to nostalgic travelers customers.) Still, it’s not clear how service will change long-term, but alterations made now could reset our expectations for good. Schaberg, for one, warns that in-flight service could ultimately become more expensive.

Things will never be the same

Some say the Covid-19 pandemic could usher in a new era for surveillance and air travel, one that rivals the transformation seen after 9/11. The more radical shifts likely won’t happen overnight.

“How much of a new world it will be in the airports really is back in the government’s lap,” said Johnathan Tal, a security and risk management consultant.

We might have to make new privacy sacrifices when we fly, and that’s bound to invite new forms of discrimination. Existing forms of screening, for instance, disproportionately impact passengers of color. People who are or who are perceived to be Muslim, for instance, have been particularly subject to religious and racial profiling at airports. The ACLU has now warned that the inaccuracies of remote fever detection could lead to “harassment or selective enforcement against people because of their appearance or political views.”

Will the TSA be proactive in limiting this type of discrimination? It’s hard to say right now. While we don’t yet know exactly how long measures taken during the pandemic will impact people’s air travel experience, leaders in the industry say that in the short-term, at the very least, some sort of health screenings will probably become a part of the security process. That will be a new and potentially very significant addition. And even if all these measures make air travel safer from a public health point of view, it will take time for people to feel comfortable flying again. The Airports Council International is estimating that it will be years before commercial flight returns to its 2019 levels.

“After 9/11, there were all sorts of concerns about terrorism, weapons of mass destruction,” said Benji Hutchinson, a vice president at NEC. “A pandemic is so much harder, in my opinion, for people to grasp. It’s so abstract and spaceless.”

Meanwhile, we’ll be forced to reconsider what airports themselves are actually for. Recent years have seen billions of dollars poured into transforming airports into dazzling arcades of experience where travelers are encouraged to show up for flights earlier and earlier, as that would give them more time to spend money on food, entertainment, and clothing in the terminal shopping malls.

Schaberg points to his own airport in New Orleans, which opened a $1.3 billion terminal a few months ago and became the third airport in the country to allow people without a boarding pass to enjoy its amenities, which were designed as an homage to the city’s culture and history.

“That’s completely changed now,” Schaberg said. “Even if we like return cautiously to travel, I still think that we’re not going to see airport bars teeming with revelry.”

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