Restarting Aviation: COVID-19 And the New Era of Air Travel

After months of experiencing significant drops in traffic, the industry welcomes what seems to be the first positive signs towards restarting aviation. In its April Market Analysis, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that daily flight numbers rose 30%, primarily due to the reactivation of domestic routes. Although the organization estimates that the global air transportation sector may not fully recover until 2024, commercial carriers expect a greater demand in the coming weeks.

In Europe, several countries are about to reopen their popular destinations just in time for the summer season. After continuous evaluation, governments are cautiously moving towards lifting travel restraints as the spread of the coronavirus dwindles. To facilitate this process, the EU has unveiled an action plan that includes setting up “tourist corridors” between states least affected by the pandemic. Such a strategy would make travel easier in any of the partnered territories and enable the implementation of targeted sanitary measures.

Today more than ever, the aviation reaffirms its commitment to the public: Safety and security come first. For this reason, airlines and airports are working hard to enhance their protocols at every stage of the passenger journey. Close collaboration with competent health authorities is taking place to address the new needs. But what are all these precautions about? How are they changing the travel experience?

Global guidelines to get the world flying again

Whether on long-haul or domestic routes − travelers get in contact with numerous people and surfaces along their way. To minimize COVID-19 transmission risks, several initiatives are being introduced. Deeper cleaning procedures, a more extensive use of contactless technologies, and the enforcement to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) are part of the so-called “rise of sanitized travel”.

1. Restricted access at airport terminal

Some airports around the world have been allowing non-ticketed visitors to enter gate areas. Through special pass programs, friends and family members could hang out together a bit longer and save the goodbyes until boarding. But there were also other benefits coming from this airside access: From grabbing food at 24-hours restaurants, over shopping at duty-free stores, to checking out the aircraft. The requisite was to register beforehand and pass through usual security controls.

Since physical distancing is being enforced for a safety restarting of aviation, the entry to such areas is now restricted to those who have a scheduled flight on that day. Moreover, the circulation of tourists itself shall be limited to the terminal where their respective airline is being serviced. In the case of passengers with restricted mobility (PRM) and children flying alone, exceptions apply, allowing a relative to accompany them.

2. Use of face coverings

Keeping at least 1 m distance between oneself and another individual can be challenging and sometimes unfeasible. Wearing a face mask at ticket counters, upon embarking, and during the flight is a recommended practice to maintain respiratory hygiene. Therefore, operators are requesting visitors to bring their own PPE and keep it on during the whole journey. If someone plans to eat or drink before getting on the plane, they can remove their face protection but for a short time.

What kind of coverings are accepted? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises wearing cloth masks with ties or ear loops. Surgical ones are also a good option. For those who prefer to make their own gear at home, the CDC has prepared a DIY guide that shows what optimal protection looks like. Bandanas, old t-shirts, and scarves are enough to quickly fabricate a custom mask without any sewing. The important thing to note here is that the PPE must cover nose and mouth completely.

Good to know >> Face protection was forgotten at home? Some airlines are providing personal health kits that include disposable personal protective equipment and hygienic wipes.

Mobile first − carriers are encouraging travelers to get updated information via app rather than at service points.

3. Touchless technology takes center stage

Self-service kiosks for check-in and baggage drop are not new in the airport universe. Though, customers seeking more personalized assistance can opt to hand over their documents and bags at the counter. In order to cut down on queues, airlines are switching to almost exclusively remote check-in and contactless payment. That includes asking travelers to print their boarding pass and bag tags in advance or to save them on the phone.

Hubs might be going one step further by looking into more sophisticated biometric devices. Most of the current solutions require multiple touchpoints and are based on reading the passport information. Using software for facial recognition could optimize ID verification processes. Especially once traffic starts ramping up, such a method can help to avoid long lines. By directly cross-checking the tourists´ data against their photo, agents can become improved instructions in real-time.

4. Entry/Exit thermal scanning

In its restarting aviation roadmap, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher should be reported as ill. Since fever is not always present with an infection, it will depend on the local authorities to decide whether the person can get on the plane. If the departure time allows, a second check of passengers’ temperature could be conducted. In case that the value measured is still high, the traveler would have the possibility of rebooking at a later date.

Upon arrival, in addition to the temperature screening, visitors could be requested to fill in a health questionnaire. Towards more precise results, some airports are combining these evaluations with COVID-19 rapid tests. It is the responsibility of the governmental authorities that such procedures are performed by professional medical staff. Transfer passengers might be exempted from these tests, relying on the measures taken at the city of origin.

5. Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning

New protocols are being developed to enhance the disinfection of public spaces. At some terminals, self-guided robots that use UV-C ultraviolet rays help to remove dirt in high-traffic areas more efficiently. Cleaning staff will give high-traffic areas an extra round of disinfection by wiping down frequently touched surfaces several times a day. Airlines have also imposed wider sanitary techniques. In addition to their usual program, carriers are using electrostatic sprayers with high-grade, EPA-registered products to sterilize galleys and lavatories.

But not only regular surface hygiene is crucial to prevent coronavirus contagious. Following the recommendations of the CDC, travelers will notice more sanitizer stations at several facilities worldwide. For instance, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has installed over 200 new dispensers throughout its concourses. Other hubs count even with vending machines that offer items such as antibacterial gel, masks, and gloves.

6. Reducing contact during boarding and on the plane

To comply with effective measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, some changes in the flying experience include:

  • Adopting the rear-to-front method to fill the aircraft, instead of following the traditional embarking group system.
  • Reducing catering to pre-packaged snacks and drinks to simplify cabin service. Travelers are advised to bring their own food or beverages.
  • Asking the crew to use the washrooms before getting out of the seat. This way, queues in the cabin are avoided.
  • Customers will be encouraged to perform hand hygiene frequently. Authorities like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are now allowing to carry one 12-oz. container of hand sanitizer in the handbag.
  • Seatback pockets may no longer contain magazines as part of the new sanitary approach.

Passenger confidence is key for a sustainable restarting of aviation

As the coronavirus creates a new normal, customers expect different things from the flying experience. Amid unpredictable circumstances, certain concerns like “When should I wear masks?” or “Am I required to print my boarding pass beforehand?” pop up. All these questions revolve around one main issue: The global community has a heightened need of feeling safe.

A proper communication is just so important as the development of protective measures for optimally restarting aviation. By providing the necessary information at the right time, visitors can optimally prepare to new rules that have no the aim but to safeguard their health. A professional and transparent customer service is paramount to boost the confidence of those yearning to be back up in the sky soon.

It might not be possible to predict the future, but one thing is clear: Air transportation needs to reinvent itself. The development of high-tech solutions will take a leading role as the industry will need to cope with possible increased processing times. The challenges of this new era demand stakeholders to plan operations and cooperate actively. This is key to reactivate a sector that supports the livelihoods of millions by contributing to the sustainable economic growth.

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