February 23, 2021
If I’d been able to see into the future 12 months ago that I’d still be mostly grounded now, my spirit may not have survived the year undamaged. While I’ve enjoyed a few excursions, they’ve been mostly terrestrial. Since arriving home from a South African journey last year (just a few days before the shutdown), I made just one round trip by air (four flights, with connections), and even though that was in First Class, I didn’t feel safe enough to try it again.
A year of no flying, but for that one itinerary. That’s the least I’ve been in the air since the 1960s. Hence my enthusiastic travel planning, often chronicled here in my blog (q.v.), so as to be ready to get back on the road when this dark period is over. Also, my pondering—some might say brooding—over what flying might be when we do get back on the road.
Looking forward: air travel uncertainty
Does a sea change in flying await us when the post-pandemic new normal comes? No precise analog exists to compare to in the history of commercial aviation which is, after all, only 107 years old and had not matured by 1918’s flu pandemic.
In my mind, fragmentation, if not downright disintegration, of pre-COVID air travel norms and expectations looms as the world’s airlines pick up the pieces of the disaster that has befallen the industry. In no particular order, here are some of the questions about future air travel rattling around in my head:
- Will there be fare hikes to make up for the huge Covid-19 losses? Lately, I’ve been searching flights and fares on every airline in the markets from Raleigh to Minneapolis, to Billings (Montana), to Seattle, and to Johannesburg, among many others, and fares seem to be all over the place. Not the usual tight bands of prices.
- Direct or connecting flights? I read that airlines will be more dependent upon hubs to return to profitability and skew away from the point-to-point trends of 2019.
- Matching flight supply with demand when fliers return to the airports? Too few seats to meet demand will of course drive up what I have to pay, especially in city-pair markets with little or no competition.
- Which carriers will survive? The conventional wisdom is that if United or American failed (the two weakest big U.S. airlines financially) that a stronger carrier will gobble up the remains and protect those exposed to future bookings bought and paid for. But I was working in Australia when Ansett Australia imploded and was liquidated in 2002, leaving ticketholders with no recourse. The collapse correlated to 9/11, a terrible moment for the airline business, and not without comparison to now.
- To what places will I be able to fly? Airlines may very well cut back on marginally profitable routes to recoup profits, coupled to travel hurdles to countries slow to vaccinate its people, and there are many places I’d like to go that may no longer be reasonably accessible.
- Health passports, testing, vaccination, and mask requirements? Speculation fails me in this regard, as so many competing virtual health passports jostle for becoming the standard. For now, I’ll take my hard copy vaccination record when I travel along with plenty of KN95 masks.
- Airport and security screen protocols? This is a more existential than concrete worry on my part, but history after upheavals like COVID tells me that traversing airports and TSA barriers isn’t likely to get easier. Although my status in the Trusted Traveler program may help.
- Will airline alliances and partnerships still matter? SkyTeam, oneworld, and Star are only functional when all the partners achieve a threshold of financial stability, reach, and consistent operational and service excellence. Those calculations will need reaffirming as “normal” comes back. Over the decades, I’ve benefited from all those inter-airline allegiances in fares, scheduling convenience, and service reliability. My trust in those elements was earned from years of flying over the globe. I wonder if I can still be sanguine about the smooth transitions I experienced stepping off one alliance airline’s flight and onto another’s airplane once the pandemic effects abate.
- What kind of on-board service can I expect in the aftermath due to both cost cutbacks and health concerns? Not that service before the coronavirus was stellar (except up front). But at least I could buy a snack and a mixed drink or beer to accompany my complimentary water or Pepsi. These days even the usual First Class beverage service up front is suspended. If I am sitting in 1A, I’d like to be offered a G&T and a basket of fruit and nuts to choose from even if I turn it down. Even more true on overseas flights.
- Will seat comfort become ever more Spartan? Again, the airlines were already approaching torture in seat design before the virus. Now that they’re broke (again), I don’t trust them not to “justify” the installation of chairs that reach new levels of torment. If so, I will fly only when I can afford (or luck into) the front cabin.
Looking way out, I’m no fan of this idea
This recent article speculates that windowless airplanes could be in my future. I read it in horror. One of my fundamental joys of flying is looking out from on high. I always try to get a window seat to places that intrigue me: beautiful cities, or ones that are just plain fascinating. Over mountains and oceans and deserts. The view from my perch way up in the sky is magic, MAGIC!
Okay, center seats on international flights aren’t adjacent to windows, but if I am stuck in one, at least I can SEE through the windows not far away on either side of the fuselage. I’d like to poll the passengers on the recent United 777 flight out of Denver that experienced a calamitous engine failure whether they would have preferred not being able to observe the flaming, wobbly starboard engine. It was a scary sight, but I’m betting no one would have wanted to be in the dark of a windowless airplane during those tense moments when the plane returned to land safely at Denver.
And even if you don’t care to look out a window, who wants to risk being bombarded with big-screen advertising for 16 hours on both interior walls of the plane? Because I know that’s what every airline will do if we let them void our right to see the world from above.