Will flying post-pandemic be the end of style and class? Will on-board service notch down again in all cabin classes like it did following previous economic setbacks (the dot-com bust, 9/11, the Great Recession)?
Heck, forget about comfort: Will even some level of tolerable flying return?
I don’t know. No one yet knows, but it’s a pretty sure bet that flying won’t be as agreeable (poor word choice unless in first or business) an experience as it was before.
Trouble is, I don’t have any specific answers; I only have explicit questions. Reading through the prognostications of scribblers like this one only raises more questions.
Only thing I know for sure is that until there is a vaccine, these are going to be very difficult times to be flying. In the meantime, changes—whether short-term or long-term remains to be seen—will add more angst to flying.
KEEPING US APART?
How will airports, already so crowded before the pandemic, be able to cope with having to keep passengers at a minimum of five feet distant from one another? Where will the necessary space be created from airport drop-off points to check-in counters and bag drops to security to airport retailers to boarding gates? Will airports have to be rebuilt to accommodate all the space required to keep human beings apart? Or airport occupancy restricted like at grocery stores? If so, how will that work to ensure not missing a flight?
Not to mention airport clubs. Will lounges go the way of the dinosaurs?
Will barriers and personal protective gear (masks, gowns, plastic hoods) proposed for all airport and airlines employees make flying even more oppressively impersonal than it has been? How far will this distancing go between staff and customers? Why even have customer-facing staff at airports? With today’s technology, could not check-in, security, and boarding all be automated using video monitoring and robotics aided by A.I.?
Could not cabin crews, too, mostly be replaced by robotics and artificial intelligence?
Once we are on board, will the current distancing continue? Will middle seats be kept empty? Is that enough to make a difference when seat pitch (distance between rows) is only 31 inches or so? Does that mean that only every other row can be occupied to ensure the minimum five feet of separation?
Or will something like this Italian company’s cabin layout and seat design be tried? Looks expensive to me, even assuming it would create more than an illusion of safe distancing, and might be comfortable, too, but we know all too well that airlines don’t like to spend money on seat comfort and unproven concepts.
Assuming that conventional cabin layouts remain the norm, however, if flyers must be kept separated by five feet or more, then current seat capacity will be drastically reduced, perhaps by more than half. Won’t that drive airfares through the roof?
And what about restrooms, both at the airports and on airplanes? How will that work? Everybody has to go, sooner or later, and lavatories cannot be sterilized between each use. Isn’t the health value of keeping customers apart mooted if folks are exposed to each other’s germs via the toilets? Of course, this problem is exacerbated once on board because of the dearth of aircraft lavs, coupled to very small size.
Between flights, how will planes be disinfected to ensure the next to board are not exposed to lingering microbes inadvertently deposited on seats and tray tables by flyers who just landed?
PRE-FLIGHT HEALTH SCREENING?
Already Emirates is piloting a program to perform fast blood tests on every passenger before they are allowed to board their flight. Where does this lead? Perhaps every passenger will be required to be tested before being allowed to enter an airport. Will we need a health certificate to fly? Are the eugenics in the sci-fi flick Gattaca becoming a reality?
IN-FLIGHT SERVICE CHANGES?
Already, flight attendants on most airlines are wearing gloves and masks and only providing minimal levels of service using disposable cups and utensils. Will this lead to virtually no service, even in First Class or Business Class?
Wearing a mask throughout the flight doesn’t seem so bad, but will we be restricted to our seats and not allowed to get up at all to stretch, even on long flights? Perhaps business class amenity kits will come now with face coverings, or at least eyeshades that double as face masks.
Will some of the current carry-on restrictions, such as limiting flyers to a small briefcase or computer case become permanent? Airlines have consistently lost or damaged or delayed my bags every time I have checked luggage, and I don’t want to start now. I’ve been very careful to use only legal-size carry-on bags and to pack light.
If boarding from rear to front becomes the norm to ensure separation, won’t that kill early boarding for premium and elite passengers? Okay, with load factors around 10%, priority boarding is right now superfluous, but will these practices last when the crisis abates?
Will FAs ever again be able to hang our coats and jackets in first class? It’s a small courtesy, but meaningful, and quite helpful to those of us who wear suit jackets when traveling on business.
Will U.S. airlines ditch domestic first class and copy Euro carriers’ practice with all-coach seating, but not sell center seats in the first few rows, calling those “business class”? In the United States, domestic first class seats are not only wider, but they are pitched with more distance between rows. Sitting in a coach seat 31 inches from the row in front is cramped and uncomfortable even if the adjacent seat is empty. And, anyway, it is not five feet away from the person sitting in front of me and behind me, as I mentioned already.
SYSTEMIC CHANGES TO FLYING?
With demand in the dump, will airlines keep lots of airplanes mothballed in order to cut capacity so they can keep charging through the nose?
Are frequent flyer programs now well and truly dead? If so, then are airline-affiliated credit cards with their bonuses now worthless?
Will there be new airline start-ups that take advantage of the grounded aircraft in perfectly good condition and well-trained cockpit and cabin crews who have lost their jobs?
Will I be able to use nearly two thousand dollars of e-credits that Delta has stuck me with after canceling four itineraries? They say they are good through the end of September, 2022, but who really knows what flying will be like then?
If the small joys that make flying tolerable are eliminated, will that leave nothing except getting from point A to B while being kept separated at the airport and on airplanes? If these are to be the measures, I will reluctantly reassess what I’ve been saying that I can hardly wait to fly again. This sounds like a sterile hell to me.