Social distancing in the skies, temperature checks on the ground: Welcome to the new era of air travel

May 21, 2020, 2:20 PM UTC

Flying hasn’t been an option for many people during the coronavirus lockdowns of recent months, but the experience is increasingly back on travelers’ calendars.

Daily passenger throughput at American airports cleared the 250,000 mark in recent days—less than a tenth of the throughput a year earlier, but still a marked uptick from the 90,000 daily travelers recorded in mid-April. In Europe, countries such as Italy and Germany will reopen their borders to visitors from some countries next month.

But air passengers should not expect a swift return to the normality they once knew. Much as was the case in the wake of 9/11 and 2001’s failed “shoe bomb” attack, the flying experience is about to get a whole lot more tedious—and, this time, less predictable too. So here’s what to expect.

New airport procedures

Airports have always been full of queues—now those queues will be spaced out, as airports try to maintain social distancing. As is the case in many shops these days, a plexiglass screen will separate you from check-in staff, who may be wearing masks and gloves.

Other measures will differ depending on local regulations, but here’s a typical selection: not being allowed to enter the terminal without a mask (Berlin); not being allowed to enter the terminal unless you yourself are flying (London); and not being allowed to show up at all if you feel ill (Atlanta).

It’s increasingly likely that you will encounter some form of health screening at departure or on arrival. London Heathrow is now conducting temperature checks on arriving passengers, and the TSA could start doing the same across the U.S. next week. Emirates has been trialing COVID-19 blood tests on passengers ahead of boarding (it claimed results were available in 10 minutes), and Hong Kong has been testing all arriving passengers for a month and a half now.

The quarantine question

Hong Kong doesn’t just test arrivals for COVID-19—it also puts most of them into a compulsory two-week quarantine, enforced with a tracking wristband. (Got a visa that’s valid for 14 days or less? You won’t even be let in.) If your saliva-based test comes back negative after your initial night at a holding center, you get to spend those two weeks at home or at some other designated location. If it’s positive, welcome to two weeks in a quarantine center.

In Austria, passengers arriving at Vienna Airport get to choose between an automatic 14-day quarantine and a COVID-19 test, which will cost them just over $200 (results are available in a few hours). The airport’s management is clear that this is not a scalable procedure and is intended only for those who need to travel with urgency and believe they are uninfected.

The airline industry is not keen on quarantines. Last week, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said that such measures would “further damage confidence in air travel” at a time when passenger numbers are already way down and many airlines face the very real prospect of bankruptcy. The industry body said it had surveyed recent air travelers and found more than two-thirds would not even contemplate a trip if it meant a two-week quarantine.

“Even in the best of circumstances this crisis will cost many jobs and rob the economy of years of aviation-stimulated growth,” said IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac in a statement. “To protect aviation’s ability to be a catalyst for the economic recovery, we must not make that prognosis worse by making travel impracticable with quarantine measures.”

Masks? The rules aren’t clear

The industry’s unwillingness to overly hassle passengers is also evident in the way it is handling onboard mask rules.

In early May, the big U.S. airlines all announced that both crew and passengers would have to wear masks during flights. Within a week, it emerged that—although masks are a clear way to reduce the spread of infection—American Airlines was quietly advising its employees not to strictly enforce the rule on passengers while in the air.

This lack of clarity is not just a U.S. problem. At the end of April, Germany’s Lufthansa Group issued a statement saying it was introducing a “mandatory mouth-nose cover,” before going on to describe this rule as both a recommendation, a request, and an obligation—all within the space of four paragraphs.

So which is it? “The airlines of the Lufthansa Group are asking all passengers to wear a mouth-nose cover onboard their flights,” says a spokesman. “For the time being, this has been accepted very well by our customers.”

Delta seemed a little clearer in an email it sent passengers this week: “Safer travel starts as you check in, where you will be required to wear a mask until you reach your destination. Our employees will be wearing them as well—just ask for one if you don’t have your own.”

Social distancing in the skies?

The issue of seat-blocking is another gray area. For a while, it looked like airlines might enforce their initial idea of blocking middle seats in aisles, to keep passengers farther apart. But, as demonstrated on social media by an appalled United passenger a couple weeks back, the policy is not as clear-cut as it initially seemed, and some flights still seem tightly packed.

Again, the idea of leaving middle seats empty is one that is meeting strong resistance from many in the industry (though Delta’s email this week says it is instituting the rule). As Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary pointed out last month, an airline on thin margins simply won’t be able to run its business sustainably with planes at two-thirds capacity—and in any case, the idea does not work.

“It’s almost impossible to do social distancing in an airplane, even leaving the middle seats vacant, because the guy sitting behind you is barely half a meter away, and literally breathing down your neck,” says aviation analyst Shukor Yusof, of Singapore-based Endau Analytics.

But there are some ways in which risks can be minimized. Ryanair may not be blocking middle seats, but—when it reintroduces 40% of its flights on July 1—it will ban toilet queues, meaning passengers will need to ask the crew for permission to use the restroom. The European budget airline will, like most of its peers, also do a lot of surface disinfection. And it is “encouraging” passengers to wear masks onboard.

What about the air circulation?

Both Ryanair and Lufthansa are keen to stress that the air circulating in their cabins passes through filters similar to those used in hospital wards and operating theaters. In-flight air circulation also tends to run vertically rather than horizontally, which should lessen the risk further.

Aviointeriors' Janus Seat concept, which makes it easier to shield passengers from one another.
Aviointeriors’ Janus Seat concept, which makes it easier to shield passengers from one another.

That said, there are some ideas out there for creating new breath barriers between passengers. For example, an Italian aerospace supplier called Aviointeriors came up with two new products in the past few months: a system called the Janus Seat that reverses the middle seat in a row to face backward, so passengers can more easily be separated by a transparent barrier; and a somewhat simpler shielding system called Glassafe that can be installed on existing seats.

Aviointeriors CEO Paolo Drago tells Fortune that his company is talking to around 20 airlines about its new wares—mostly Glassafe, though it is preparing a couple of Janus Seat prototypes to send to potential customers.

As Yusof notes, “Any new additions to an aircraft involve money,” and airlines are already in financial distress. However, Drago points out that some carriers are still upgrading their fleets to improve fuel efficiency—and when that happens, “they have the choice between a traditional seat or the new concept” when they order or lease new planes.

Expect the unexpected

We all take for granted the ability to book a ticket way in advance of the trip, when we know we have a vacation or conference coming up. But at least for the next while, that may not be a smart idea.

For a start, airlines are in a precarious financial position right now. The coronavirus pandemic has already claimed the scalps of multiple debt-laden carriers—Virgin Australia and Norwegian Air and its subsidiaries—and Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun recently horrified his U.S. customers by predicting out loud that one of them would probably go bust this year.

Countries are also only tentatively emerging from lockdown, and if things don’t go well and infection rates spike again, they might reimpose border controls or introduce heavy quarantine measures that weren’t in place before.

So if you book now for a trip toward the end of the year, you might be taking a leap of faith regarding both the viability of the airline and your ability to spend your trip somewhere more pleasant than a quarantine center.

“Airlines can’t do much when borders have been shut,” says Yusof. “The aviation industry in the past has been susceptible to uncertainties brought about by weather, terrorism, oil prices, and now government proclamations. It’s tough to book anything at the moment, as airlines don’t have any idea when and where they can fly.”

Ultimately, Yusof predicts, the old normal will take a long while to return. “Even if prices were to be slashed—which I’m not expecting—it would be difficult to lure people back into the aircraft in the same volume as pre-COVID-19,” he said. “When people are comfortable and satisfied and assured (with a vaccine), then the recovery will start in earnest. Until then, it will be very, very gradual.”

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