With airports around the world closed and airlines grounded due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to imagine when all the travel disruption might end.
But the first signs are already there.
China has started domestic tourism again while Air New Zealand has seen a spike in flight bookings as travel restrictions lift.
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All this leaves us with the question of what will flying look like once the pandemic is over?
Here are some of the key questions and answers.
Who is flying right now?
Regular flights continue across much of the world, with London Heathrow, Frankfurt and Dublin key hubs. It is difficult to say who is travelling without actually interviewing them, but a significant proportion are likely to be:
People returning home; Heathrow is one of the most valuable hubs for repatriation.
Passengers with an essential need to travel – mostly for urgent family matters, but some with extremely urgent business trips.
Government officials and medical staff; often these are the same people.
Groups of skilled employees with long “commutes,” such as offshore workers travelling between their homes and oilfields in the North Sea.
What precautions are being taken at airports?
Heathrow, which is by far the busiest in the UK, says: “We have implemented signage across all terminals to remind passengers of the government’s recommendation to distance themselves at least 2 metres from others, and to wash their hands.
“Whilst this signage is already in place across every terminal today, we are looking at ramping this up even further over the next few days, in order to make the government’s advice even more explicit and easily understandable for every passenger.
“Our colleagues are also helping to manage queues across our terminals and provide more space where possible.”
For inbound flights, there are “enhanced monitoring procedures for flights, the presence of doctors and additional colleagues, and the provision of information leaflets”.
These leaflets give the usual information about how to “protect yourself, others and the NHS,” including washing your hands and minimising risk to others when coughing or sneezing.
What about on board planes?
The airlines are doing all they can to protect passengers and crew with minimum contact, very basic catering and rules on social distancing – which is not hard to fulfil when there are so few people onboard the typical flight.
Some airlines are leaving the middle seat unsold, to increase the sideways separation from around 50cm to one metre. But there is also (in economy at least) separation of less than one metre between each row.
When flying starts again for fun and for business, will I need to do anything special before heading for the airport?
Yes: homework on what restrictions the destination country may have. Plenty of nations will let you fly right now, but when you touch down you could be marched off for two weeks of isolation.
So check that there are no onerous rules at your destination; the Foreign Office advice is likely to be a good source (at present, of course, the FCO warns against all non-essential travel abroad, because of the many restrictions imposed by overseas countries).
Next, ascertain if any special rules are in place. For example, the Thai authorities say you must have a health certificate certifying that the passenger “pose no risk of being infected by the coronavirus disease” issued no more than 72 hours prior to the travel date – as well as insurance cover of $100,000 (£80,000) that “covers the Covid-19 disease”.
At present persuading a UK medical professional to sign a medical certificate of this nature for a holiday is likely to prove challenging-to-impossible – and many travel insurance policies may not specify or cover Covid-19. Until these rules change it might be best to go somewhere different.
What about getting to and getting through the airport?
Travel to the airport should of course respect the rules for public transport. It is very likely that access to the terminal will be restricted to staff and ticketed passengers, as many airports (but not in the UK) already do. Removing people who are simply there to wave others off will reduce the population inside the airport.
Some countries – including Canada – have their own rules on masks. All airline passengers travelling to, from or within Canada must have “a non-medical mask or face covering so they can cover their mouth and nose during travel”.
This is for use “in situations where physical distancing guidelines cannot be maintained,” according to Canada’s transport minister, Marc Garneau. Specifically, the mask must be warn at airport security checkpoints, and “as directed by the airline employees and when directed to do so by a public health order or public health official”.
The security checkpoint remains the most threatening place in terms of personal health due to the close proximity of other people and the handling of trays by many travellers.
Some people have called for stricter limits on cabin baggage to ease the pressure at the security checkpoints and make the boarding and disembarkation process faster.
But a shrewd traveller will take as much hand luggage as possible to avoid having to check in a bag – reducing the formalities required at the departure airport, and eliminating the need to hang around at the baggage carousel on arrival.
There are no special rules in place yet, though.
Are there changes at the gate?
Social distancing will be introduced, with airlines doing all they can to avoid the usual surge to the aircraft. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that individual rows could be called to reduce the scrum at the gate.
Will the process on board change?
Passengers may or may not be asked to wear a mask. That is one of many issues for which the aviation industry is looking for guidance from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), so that there is global agreement rather than piecemeal policies.
Officials may begin by looking at the rules the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) has put in place “aimed at preventing imported cases and domestic relapse” for flights to and within the People’s Republic.
The CAAC guidelines specify that the aircraft toilets must be cleaned after they have been used 10 times.
Airlines cannot sell the last three rows of seats on international flights, which must be “reserved as a quarantine area for handling possible in-flight emergencies”.
The guidelines add: “The rear lavatory on the right side should be designated for the exclusive use by those under quarantine.”
One flight attendant will be assigned to look after the passenger, and “should refrain from close contact with other crew members”.
What happens on arrival?
Once again, there may be measures to stop everyone leaping to their feet and crowding into the aisle upon arrival. A wise traveller will wait until the end. And don’t expect your nearest and dearest (or your limo driver) to greet you in the Arrivals area – they are likely to be barred from access.
How well will the plane be cleaned on arrival?
There are no international guidelines. Certainly, on low-cost, short-haul routes, practice hitherto has been to ask passengers to hand in their personal garbage and for cabin crew to carry out a quick inspection.
If specialist cleaners are brought on to clean tray tables, seat covers, etc, the length of turnarounds and the airlines’ costs will rise – with the passenger eventually picking up the bill. As they will do for all the increased costs and reduced capacity.
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