Air Travel in a Post-Lockdown World

Airlines and airports on a global scale are bracing for the impact of COVID-19, while preparing for a new normal of social distancing and amplified safety measures

In the face of the novel coronavirus, European airlines throughout the continent are struggling to remain viable amid a slow trickle of passengers as many fleets remain grounded due to national lockdowns and travel bans.

An April press release issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reveals a significant decrease in demand, with global passenger traffic having plummeted a striking 52.9 per cent on a year-on-year basis. Meanwhile, the European Commission predicts that airline companies could experience profit losses as high as 90 per cent in 2020.

And with the worst of the pandemic seemingly behind us, the aviation industry is now looking to shore up activity. Yet upping passenger demand will need strategies that creatively appeal to the public, comply with safety measures conceived to mitigate a possible spread of the virus, and be well-funded by Member State governments and the EU. For the foreseeable future though, achieving this fine balancing act may be easier said than done with air travel likely to never go back to the ‘normal’ we knew pre-pandemic.

Airports and Social Distancing

Covid-19 has radically changed airport procedures and will potentially only continue to do so in the coming months. Crowded queues for baggage, immigration, and boarding have been replaced by socially distant lines, manageable in a current world of scant travel, but likely to create massive bottlenecks once the industry picks up. This is especially true for smaller airports. They will almost certainly need to try to create extra space in boarding and baggage collection areas to enable passengers to comply with social distancing norms.

Increased accessibility to sanitation along with reminders of hand hygiene are currently visible across many airports. Some are taking even greater measures. In Hong Kong testing is underway for a full-body disinfectant system, which can completely sanitise passengers within 40 seconds by using a spray system that eliminates bacteria and viruses on skin, clothing, and baggage. The same airport is also developing autonomous cleaning drones that will target and clean heavily used areas with ultraviolet light. Meanwhile, temperature screenings are already being widely used in airports across Italy, France, and Spain. This measure is expected to be ramped up across EU airports, with thermal screening systems in the planning. UAE carrier Emirates has implemented rapid Covid-19 testing prior to boarding at their Dubai airport terminals.

According to James Thornton of Intrepid Travel Group, passengers will need to factor in more time when it comes to getting through airport security, social distancing, and sanitation procedures, anticipating that “immunity passports” could be an added measure. “Just as taking out liquids and devices before going through screening has become the norm, so too will new social distancing guidelines,” Thornton explained.

The European Commission predicts up to 90 per cent profit losses for airlines in 2020 as travel bans and closed borders have been enacted across the EU in response to the coronavirus threat. Meanwhile in a domino effect, a decline in air travel is contributing to one of the hardest hits the tourism industry has faced in decades as national economies find themselves desperate to salvage what remains of the year’s tourism season. Copyright: Pradpriew /

All Aboard the Aircraft

Airlines will have to tread carefully as they get back to business post-lockdown, striking a balance between attracting passengers while being mindful of the experience they provide to travellers on-board flights. A recent Belfast to London flight was heavily criticised after an unexpectedly large volume of passengers swamped any attempts at social distancing. While a number of airlines have stated that the middle seat will be kept free during the initial stages of post-lockdown flying, many carriers do not expect this measure to prevail as it would compromise any possibilities of the sectors commercial viability.

“In these conditions, there is no airline which is able to fly and make money on these flights,” the IATA’s Director General, Alexandre de Juniac, told CNN recently. Juniac added that air fares would need to go up dramatically – between 43 and 54 per cent on 2019 prices depending on the region – just to break even to cover the cost of keeping middle-seats free.

While seating may soon return to normal, increased sanitation and the compulsory wearing of face masks and other protective equipment is likely to be mandatory for travellers for quite some time. Some airlines, like Korean Air, have opted for full PPE for their cabin crews. Intense cleaning of baggage storage, seat pockets, and tray tables will likely be a welcome side effect of post-lockdown travel as airlines seek to reassure passengers. Currently inflight magazines, as well as any other paper products, have been removed from seat pockets. Inflight catering also faces a very uncertain future, with some airliners suspending it on a global scale during the pandemic.

Arrival Screenings

In a time of travel bans and closed borders, arrivals are likely to be the main stress point for travellers, airlines, and airports alike. Socially distant queues before lengthy screenings, form filling, and quarantine measures will mean that getting through the passport control check-point is going to take quite some time. Many airports have also incorporated temperature checks into their processes.

With European air traffic having slowed to a minimum, airlines and airports have been able to handle social distancing procedures for the most part. But what will happen when there is any serious increase in passenger numbers remains to be seen. As of now, all arriving passengers to any European country – and many more globally – will be subject to 14 days of either self-isolation or quarantine, which for many will create a longer trip than originally intended.

The extra processes, inconveniences, and delays that air travel now involves are likely to keep a significant portion of casual holidaymakers from embarking abroad this year. However, with the beaches of Portugal, Spain, Italy, Malta, Greece, and Cyprus lying empty, the tourism sector is facing a hammering blow and potential wipe-out for the year.

In Mallorca, tourism operators are pleading with authorities to open the airport on July 1 to allow the Spanish island to salvage a part of the tourist season. Other nations are thinking creatively as to how to restart travel and tourism, with Greece turning to diplomacy. The Mediterranean country, which has been one of the more successful EU nations in battling the virus, has opened discussions with other countries emerging from the worst of Covid-19 to create a “tourism corridor” as a part of a broader discussion on reopening the economy. If implemented, this could give Norwegian, Austrian, and Danish tourists priority access to Greece and its islands.

Whatever shape the tourist season of 2020 takes, it is sure to be a unique one as a whole new way of travelling will likely soon become standard for European travellers.

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Ruairi Kavanagh

Ruairi is an Irish writer, editor and author with 25 years of experience across national and specialist media. He specialises in reporting on matters relating to education, development,emergency services, international affairs, defence and security with particular interest in European affairs, the Balkan region, the Middle East and Africa.

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