Forbes: Jamie Carter, Senior Contributor – How does mass-transit work if everyone has to stay two meters apart, and where national borders can open and close at short notice?
Exactly how international travel can operate smoothly and safely in the COVID-19 era is really anyone’s guess at the moment, but technology is going to play a huge role.
That’s according to Geneva-based air transport communications and IT specialist SITA (Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques), whose new paper “A ‘New Normal’: The changing face of air transport post-COVID-19” outlines how aviation can use technology to help cope with the “long and complex” impact of COVID-19.
Here are the paper’s key takeaways:
- Borders could open and close with no notice period as governments take a new, more rigid approach to monitoring the health of incoming passengers.
- Flight schedules will be unpredictable and flights subject to short-notice cancellation and rescheduling.
- There could be fewer short-haul flights as online video conferencing replaces business travel.
- Leisure travel could be limited to infrequent long-haul trips as pressure intensifies for a more sustainable air transport industry.
- As demand for flights drop, airlines might shrink their fleets.
- Touch-less travel will accelerate as automation, contactless and self-service technology creates a “social distancing-friendly” passenger experience.
- Biometrics—digital IDs stored on phones verified with facial recognition—will be used to let passengers through security and onto aircraft.
- Airlines will constantly update your phone with information on your flight’s status and relevant border openings/closures to your journey.
How bad is aviation’s plight?
The problem is, of course, that international travel is literally the scapegoat for the spread of COVID-19, and that’s not going to suddenly stop being the case. There’s been a global effort to contain the movement of people—precisely the function of aviation—firstly by the shutting of national borders, and secondly by people choosing not to travel.
SITA’s data from April 2020 shows the number of flights dropped by almost 80% globally and more than 90% in Europe compared to last year. In the U.S. the number of passengers screened by the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) dropped from about 2.5 million passengers per day to between 130,000 and 215,000 passengers during the first week of May 2020.
Some think that it will take until 2022 before demand for flights starts to reach pre-COVID-19 levels.
That’s going to have big ramifications that could re-shape the airline industry.
‘Worse than 9/11’
A lot of the predictions on what happens next to the travel industry have been based on the massively reduced demand for flights after both the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. and to a lesser extent in the aftermath of the global recession of 2008/2009. In the wake of both of those events, airlines dropped prices to stay competitive, reduced the number of routes offered, and decreased the frequency of flights. COVID-19 could be much more profound. “Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic will not be easy,” reads SITA’s paper. “It will have a far deeper impact on the way the air transport industry will operate in future than previous industry shocks, such as 9/11, had.”
“We can no longer consider returning to a normal operating environment for our industry, but rather one that will become a ‘new normal’.”
So what does this “new normal” look like?
Towards totally ‘touchless’ travel
Boarding passes have been available on smartphones for a few years, but the reaction to COVID-19 will see this trend become all-encompassing as the industry goes totally touch-less. The touchscreens at check-in kiosks will likely be out, replaced entirely by biometrics systems—face recognition—as touching physical infrastructure in airports becomes a big no-no. “Using biometrics, passengers can be identified at journey points such as check-in or boarding without having to touch a screen,” reads the paper.
That will include self-service baggage check-in kiosks and even waiting in queues when your baggage fails to arrive on a carousel; everything will be done via apps, while new cloud-based platforms will help airlines and airports be more flexible and scalable. “Open application programming interfaces (APIs) will unlock the data needed for mobile boarding passes, baggage check-in and tagging, security, boarding, transfers and baggage claim,” reads the paper.
Real-time updates and ‘digital identities’
“New kinds of digital identity will facilitate this smooth, touch-less journey,” continues the paper. “This will allow passengers to breeze through the airport using digital IDs stored on their phone verified with facial recognition. Passengers will expect this to be both simple and safe.”
In short, smartphone apps are likely to become more pivotal to travel than they already are; if the status of flights, baggage, borders, and rules on quarantining arriving passengers is going to constantly be in flux as international borders open and close, passengers will need to be frequently informed and reassured with accurate, up-to-date data, according to SITA. “Apps and real-time information will be accessible from anywhere, at any time, for both passengers and employees,” reads the paper.
Will all this mean ticket prices rising or falling?
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says the global aviation industry will lose $252 billion in 2020 in the wake of COVID-19, though demand for flights is impossible to predict.
In the long-term, we could see airfare prices increase substantially above 2019 levels as pent-up travel demand picks back up, according to Dollar Flight Club, whose “COVID-19 impact on the airline industry and airfare prices” report predicts that beyond 2021 prices of airline tickets could sharply increase 27% on average through 2025. It also suggests that, just as in the wake of 9/11 and the 2008/2009 recession, we could see mergers and acquisitions, more codeshare flights, and a reduced number of flights. All of which means less competition, and so higher prices.
In the short-term, there could be bargains. Dollar Flight Club predicts that airfare prices will decrease by 35% on average through 2021 compared to 2019 prices. Its report even found some roundtrip fares departing in 2020 and 2021 reduced by as much as 65% compared to pre-COVID-19 prices.
The ‘middle seat’ conundrum
Predictions surrounding airline ticket pricing could depend on whether or not airlines have to leave middle seats empty in the interests of onboard social distancing. Alexandre de Juniac, the Director General and CEO of IATA, doesn’t think airlines should go that far, not least because it would mean leaving a third of seats unoccupied, necessitating a doubling of ticket prices. “Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low,” he said, though he confirmed that IATA wants passengers to wear face coverings, while airline crew wear face masks. “We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable,” he said. “One without the other will have no lasting benefit.”
What else will change in airports and on aircraft?
IATA recommends these temporary biosecurity ideas:
- Temperature screening of passengers, airport workers and travelers.
- Boarding and de-planing processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew.
- Limiting movement within the cabin during flight.
- More frequent and deeper cabin cleaning.
- Simplified catering procedures that lower crew movement and interaction with passengers.
- When proven and available at scale, testing for COVID-19 or immunity passports could also be included as temporary biosecurity measures.
Meanwhile, airline strategy firm SimpliFlying reports this week that the touchless cabin could mean:
- No more seat-back pockets, which can easily get contaminated.
- An end to unhygienic seat-back touchscreen inflight entertainment systems; you’ll have to bring your own tablet from now on.
- All food and drink will be pre-packaged—no sharing of water/wine bottles. It’s even possible that all inflight food service could stop if passenger see it as risky.
No one can predict what the future may bring, but it’s beginning to become clear that flying will almost certainly never be the same again.