SINGAPORE: Airlines round the world are expected to face a long and painful road to recovery.
Border closures and curbs on air travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with lingering concerns over travelling in crowded and confined spaces, will make it difficult for travel demand to surge, at least in the near future.
So what can airlines do to ensure their continued survival beyond tapping government support, accessing credit facilities and even considering mergers?
Experts believe the answer lies in airlines restoring public confidence by making the travel experience as safe as possible.
This means, however, that travellers will have to get used to stringent health checks, minimal inflight entertainment and even the way food is served on board.
Here are five ways flying is set to be different once people can travel again when countries start lifting their restrictions.
1. MIDDLE SEATS MAY BE BLOCKED
Several airlines, including Garuda Indonesia, are planning to keep middle seats empty.
This, said Garuda chief executive officer Irfan Setiaputra, will keep the load factor on its aircraft “decreased significantly” — even if Indonesia lifts its current regulatory limits on flight capacity.
For example, on Garuda’s Boeing 737 aircraft with three-plus-three seating configuration in economy class, the middle seats will be kept empty “so there’ll be distance between passengers in the same row”, he told the programme Insight. (Watch the episode here.)
In the United States, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways have also blocked seats in the name of social distancing.
Recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that blocking the middle seat on airplanes could halve the risk of being infected by the coronavirus — with the assumption that all passengers are wearing masks.
But if airlines are going to be forced to keep the middle seat vacant, “they’re not going to be able to make money”, pointed out Asian Aviation editor Matthew Driskill.
Compared to pre-COVID-19 times, airfares will be more expensive “for sure”, said Irfan. “We’re in discussions with the regulator to make sure that the increase in the price is still at acceptable levels.”
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said social distancing measures on aircraft would “shift the economics of aviation” by slashing the maximum load factor to 62 per cent, “well below” the average industry break-even point at 77 per cent.
“Compared to 2019, airfares would need to go up dramatically — between 43 and 54 per cent, depending on the region — just to break even,” the IATA stated on its website.
2. EXPECT INTERACTION TO BE MINIMISED
There will be not only fewer passengers, but also less interaction on board.
On Garuda flights, the crew enforce safe distancing “from the moment (passengers) board the aircraft” to when they sit down and when the plane lands, said senior flight attendant Thamy Karamina.
“We need to make sure the interaction in the airplane isn’t going to spread the virus,” Irfan explained. That includes interaction between cabin crew and passengers.
“In business class, we used to kneel to maintain good eye contact when we interact with passengers,” said Thamy. “The aim was to make passengers feel more comfortable. We no longer do that right now.”
United Airlines has also reduced contact between flight attendants and customers, for example during snack and beverage service. And its passengers would be asked to disembark in groups of five rows at a time.
Thamy feels that travellers will see the merits of the new measures.
“This is a new form of attention that we’re giving our passengers. In the past, passengers would be happy to get attentive service, but now, social distancing is part of the service,” she said. “It’ll make passengers feel more comfortable.”
3. INFLIGHT SERVICES WILL BE PARED
Passengers will be served “properly”, promised Irfan. But with the new realities, that service will look different in other ways too.
IATA regional vice president (Asia-Pacific) Conrad Clifford said on-board catering could be “very simple”.
“It’ll be delivered to you probably as you board, and then it’s up to you to sort of serve yourself,” he added. “There won’t be the elegant, big meals that you’ve seen in the past, unfortunately.”
Singapore Airlines, for example, has suspended meal services for flights within Southeast Asia and to China; upon boarding, passengers are given a snack bag with water and refreshments instead.
Newspapers, magazines and back-of-the-seat literature have also been removed from SIA’s aircraft and replaced with its electronic library, which is available via the SingaporeAir mobile app. This provides access to more than 150 international newspaper and magazine titles.
Some airlines have even removed pillows.
4. WEARING MASKS WILL BE MANDATORY
What the IATA has emphatically recommended is that crew members and passengers wear masks, "to make that risk of infection very minimal”, said Clifford.
“(But) we don’t want to see too much movement around the cabin in order to reduce any risk of movement of air from possibly infected people to other people,” he added.
SIA’s cabin crew will be wearing masks throughout their flight, as well as goggles or eye visors when interacting with customers, and gloves when serving any meals.
Since last month, all airlines in the SIA Group have also provided passengers with a “care kit” containing a surgical mask, anti-bacterial hand wipes and a hand sanitiser.
American Airlines and United Airlines have even taken steps to ban passengers who refuse to wear a mask.
5. COVID-19 TESTS MAY BECOME A NORM
As global travel resumes, COVID-19 testing could become the new normal.
The IATA said last month that this should, ideally, take place prior to travel or at departure. A positive result would mean the passenger cannot travel as planned.
If testing is required on arrival and a passenger tests positive, then the passenger should be treated according to the requirements of the receiving country, said the association.
Hong Kong International Airport was one of the world’s first airports to introduce mandatory COVID-19 testing — in April — whereby inbound travellers are sent to an off-site testing centre. They must also wait for their test result at a designated location.
In South Korea, the government introduced “walk-through” COVID-19 testing stations at Incheon International Airport in March, where a medical staff member collects samples from arriving passengers.
New arrivals must also download a government smartphone app that tracks their location and requires them to report any symptoms, reported Reuters.
With such measures proposed or already implemented, including safe distancing, Singaporeans “can expect inconvenience and delay” when air travel rebounds, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in a Facebook post in May.
“But public health safety mustn’t be compromised, if we want passengers to take to the skies again,” he added.