It’s the question on every frequent flyer’s mind – when can we get on a plane again? With the global lockdown of the passenger aviation industry imposed by governments to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, there are a number of unanswered questions about how and when it will be possible to board an international flight.
With the right of sovereign governments to impose restrictions on entry based on public health concerns, the prospects for travellers remains very uncertain. What we are fairly confident about is that air travel has to resume soon if the industry is to ever recover and that probably, it will be business, rather than leisure, travellers who will be let back on the planes. What criteria will be used to give confidence to governments on who can be let in to the country however is still a major issue to be resolved.
The European Union has just published a Joint European Roadmap towards lifting COVID-19 containment measures. Of note is two key recommendations from the roadmap as regards facilitating free movement of people as EU member states emerge from lockdown. First, EU internal border controls should be lifted in a coordinated manner and that travel restrictions and border controls currently applied should be lifted once the border regions’ epidemiological situation converges sufficiently and social distancing rules are widely and responsibly applied. The gradual opening of borders needs to prioritize cross-border and seasonal workers and should not involve discrimination against EU mobile workers. Second, external borders with the EU should be reopened and access of non-EU residents to the EU should happen only in a second stage considering the spread of the COVID-19 outside the EU, and of the dangers of reintroduction back into the EU. Even in the unlikely event that EU member states will follow this roadmap to the letter, the message is clear: flying in to the EU from outside will start later than within the EU and it is not clear at all, what kind of documentation will be needed to facilitate entry.
This approach is likely to be replicated around the world. As of the first week of May 2020, there is no evidence that countries have begun to come up with an approach that could be scaled and replicated internationally. It has been suggested that “immunity passports” could be issued for people that have taken tests that demonstrate that they are ‘immune’ to COVID-19 having recovered from it and developed antibodies in their blood. First, the World Health Organization suggests that there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an “immunity passport” or “risk-free certificate.” Second, most estimates suggest that at most 20 percent of populations of countries that have had epidemics of COVID-19 have now gained ‘immunity’. The obvious question is how does the remaining 80 percent resume economic activity involving travel?
Departure Gate and Onboard Safety
Ahead of boarding their Emirates flight from Dubai to Tunisia on April 15, passengers were asked to take blood tests for Covid-19, with results produced in just 10 minutes. This is the first passenger aviation operator to carry out such blood tests. Emirates expects to ramp up its ability to destinations requiring Covid-19 test certificates currently under consideration by countries around the world. Etihad announced that it was currently setting up kiosks at Abu Dhabi airport to take the temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate of passengers all signs of COVID-19 infection. If a passenger displays these symptoms check-in will be suspended.
As air traffic has collapsed to 10% of normal capacity, testing at airports has not yet been seriously stress tested. As the world moves out of lockdown, country by country, scaling up testing protocols may be difficult to achieve. At Tokyo Narita Airport, Japanese people and permanent residents returning home from places with high infection rates are made to take a virus test before they board public transport and leave the airport. In ordinary circumstances, these tests produce results in six hours, but due to delays, test results are now taking as much as two days to arrive.
Even before you get on the plane, boarding a plane may become a more structured process. For example, to enforce physical distancing requirements, long lines of people waiting to board may have to be a thing of the past. Passengers will only be able to board when individually notified via mobile phone; the jetbridge will also comply with physical distancing requirements.
As physical distancing is considered to be key to limiting the spread of COVID-19, airlines such as Easyjet have considered blocking middle seats to create distance between passengers. Alongside, many other carriers Swiss International Airlines requires all passengers to have masks to cover their nose and mouth but doesn’t intend to leave middle seats empty. One of the bigger airplane seat makers, Avio Interiors from Italy, has suggested retrofitting seats with plexiglass barriers. Of course, others have pointed out that the cost of retrofitting aircraft at a time of massive losses, will make the idea redundant even before a single one has been sold. Some of these ideas may get published in a book of ideas that appeal to current impulses but not long-term needs. Aircraft already have better circulation than standard air conditioners. Airflow on a passenger plane is vertical, reducing the number of people it comes into contact with, in contrast to a typical air conditioner that blows air horizontally across many people. Planes also include air filters that meet some of the most exacting standards in the world.
The inflight experience may also face changes. Cabin crew will wear protective gear and all passengers will be regularly checked, to ensure masks and gloves are worn – like when we are checked for seat belts during take off/landing and during periods of turbulence. Seats will be disinfected with alcohol wipes, the cabin will be disinfected by spraying a mist through air vents and hand sanitiser may be provided to passengers. Multi-course meal service in business and first cabins may be changed: passengers in all could be served a pre-packaged, sealed meal to avoid any potential for contamination. Seatback pockets will have magazines and newspapers removed and personal device use will be strongly promoted. Upon arrival, passengers are likely to be thermally-screened and checked for any health abnormalities. Aircraft may require a deep clean after every flight, not just every night.
Some, if not all, of these changes will stick around as long as there is no scaled up vaccination program available. Realistic estimates put this at between 12 to 18 months away. What had already become a time consuming and stressful experience may just get worse in the short- to near-term.