Even as we write this, news has come from the Supreme Court of India, which rejected the Indian government and Director General of Civil Aviation’s (DGCA) submission on keeping the middle seat of aircrafts occupied for all future flights.
“Outside, there should be a social distancing of at least six feet, and inside you’re eliminating even middle seat difference. Shoulder-to-shoulder seating is dangerous and against the government’s norms,” observed the bench.
This, then settles the dust on what flying will look like for India as we open up: several empty seats to maintain social distancing; passengers, crew and ground staff donning masks and visors; medical checkups from the airport you fly from to the airport you fly off to; four to five-hour-long check-ins, meals that are packaged completely, and the crew in PPEs.
Worldwide, airlines and civil aviation offices are writing new rules that will shape the future for the aviation industry. It is, literally, a whole new beginning for aviation, as the industry draws protocols to protect ground staff, crew and passengers. Right now, though a few flights across the world have taken to the skies, airports continue to wear a deserted look. Airlines and airports are putting in place safety protocols and screening, expecting to see more people to start flying once the pandemic ebbs.
Helane Becker, an analyst with Cowen, an investment bank in the US, says that American airlines are expected to downsize by 20 to 30% this year. The initial days, after the shelter-in-place orders are eased out, will see slim pickings. “But by the end of the year or early next year, we see people slowly taking to flying again.”
American aviation consultant Thomas Aberry believes that airlines will offer smoking hot deals to draw the people in. “I expect the business and well-to-do leisure travellers, particularly those who have homes in other parts of the world, to travel first.” However, in the immediate future, expect long layoffs and several connecting flights to different parts of the world, he adds.
First the good news, then
Domestic airline capacity in China is beginning to recover, with over a return of 30% of its capacity in the last two months, according to a new analysis by Cirium, a travel and analytics company. Hope floats, ultimately. As many countries in Asia have passed what is hoped to be the peak of the pandemic, Cirium’s data reflects trends of increased air travel capacity for the region, with intra-Asia capacity improving by 10% between 14 and 22 April 2020.
And last week, European travel and leisure stocks soared on Tuesday amid reports that Spain and Germany would ease travel restrictions, as no noticeable increase in infections was reported during the re-opening of businesses after a two-month lockdown. British Airways owner IAG, easyJet and Whitbread shares jumped 15% to 30%, driving London stock indices higher.
The German government wants to end a travel warning for tourist trips to 31 European countries from June 15 if the coronavirus situation allows.
Christoph Mueller, the former chief executive of Malaysia Airlines and former chief digital and innovation officer of Emirates Group, was confident that many airlines would emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic better equipped to deal with such disruptions. Mueller, who runs an aviation consultancy, said that financial resilience, the speed of decision-making, and the way airlines communicate with their staff and customers were a necessity to ride out the storm.
The air in an airplane is far cleaner
Aviation, across the world, is slowly opening up, then, to welcome passengers in a world that has been changed forever by the pandemic. It can take heart from what Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote, “People don’t get sick on airplanes any more than anywhere else. The air exchange rate is very high [on planes]. The air goes through HEPA filters that capture 99.97% of airflow particles, and the air only moves within your row or a row or two beyond.”
According to Allen, if airlines require passengers to wear masks and properly space them apart, these measures will further reduce the risk of transmission. Besides, as a spokesperson of Netherlands-based aerospace firm Airbus said, the air inside the aircraft is rather clean. “Health and hygiene inside the cabin are ensured using multiple highly efficient airflow and filtration systems. The constant downward wash of air at one metre per second reduces the risk of cross-contamination.
There is no right-to-left or front-to-back airflow and cabin air is completely filtered and renewed every two to three minutes. The air is sucked out through vents on the floor and transported through highly efficient HEPA filters, which trap harmful particles such as pollen, pet dander and dust mites, and flush out 99.9% of particles, including coronavirus.
What will India’s airspace look like?
The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has put in place procedures for the flights that are operational. Flight operations are limited between major cities before being gradually scaled up. AAI expects most flights to be up and running by June-end or the first week of July.
According to the AAI communication, “Initially, the airline operations will be limited to Tier-l cities, for instance, metros, the state capitals and major Tier-ll cities.” Every day, AAI and the airlines will clear a flight schedule on city pair basis, which means both the origin and destination airports are open.
The AAI has released a set of the standard operational procedure (SOPs). As per those protocols, Indian airports should get ready to facilitate limited domestic and international scheduled flights in phases lasting right up to August or September (which is when international flights are likely to be allowed to fly into India), but at between 30 and 50% capacity to facilitate the required social distancing.
Every airport will have a host of doctors and paramedics deployed by the state government or APHO (Airport Health Organization) to check both the protocols and the health of the passengers.
“Based on the social distancing norms, airports will work out the terminal building capacity and forward it to CHQ (central headquarters) so that slot allocation for the planned scheduled flights’ post-COVID 19 lockdowns by airline operators can be done accordingly,” AAI said in an internal communication which we are privy to.
Mumbai and Delhi airports, the busiest in the country, have put out their own set of rules for those who wish to fly: Check-in from home, and carry along your mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, and if needed, blankets as airlines have decided to do away with facilities such as blankets and magazines to keep the virus under check.
The Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport has floor-marked passenger areas on the curbside and in-terminal; trolleys are being sanitised. Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) is pushing cashless transactions at restaurants and retail stores.
Downloading the Aarogya Setu app will be mandatory for all the passengers. Only those with a “green status” will be allowed to enter the airport. Airlines will open check-in counters three hours prior to departure and close them almost 60 to 75 minutes before departure, to allow ample time for security and health checks. Boarding will commence an hour before departure time.
Passengers will be frisked only via the door frame metal detector beep for now. The AAI communication also states that limited F&B and retail outlets will be open on the airports beginning July, but over the next few months there will be gradual openings of all outlets. Air India, in the meantime, will have about 35 to 40% of its flights in the air by the first week of June.
At the food court, seating has been reshuffled to allow for social distancing, which means several tables and chairs will be unavailable for even months after they reopen. The John F. Kennedy airport has announced the suspension of spa services such as massages and facials for now and the closures of restaurants serving buffets. Instead, people will have to buy their portions and sit at least six feet away from the next person, according to a statement released by them.
Among the steps under consideration at all airports across the world: no cabin bags, no lounges, no automatic upgrades, issuing immunity passports, and on-the-spot blood tests. Onboard, the last three rows of the aircraft have to be kept vacant, according to AAI SOPs, in case the crew has to isolate anyone who develops a medical condition.
While DGCA has recommended that the middle seat in the aircraft should be left empty, airlines also have an option of providing wrap-around gowns for those in the middle-seat to keep them and those around COVID-free. The order recommends frequent sanitisation and a ban on meals and drinking water on board, except for health reasons.
Airports experiment with safety protocols
The global protocols
The Indian protocols are much similar to what airlines and airports across the world are putting in place, in keeping with World Health Organisations (WHO) guidelines. Heathrow to John F. Kennedy International Airport and Istanbul to Munich airports have put out a notice stating that every passenger will be checked for temperature or any other signs of COVID, and will not be allowed to fly if found with even one of these symptoms.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)’s Council Aviation Recovery Task Force recently released the “Take-off: Guidance for Air Travel through the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis” report, with inputs from more than a dozen different countries and international organisations. The report was designed to provide a global framework for enabling a safe, phased return of domestic and international commercial aviation.
The report recommends risk-mitigation measures for all phases of passenger and cargo air travel, including enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols, social distancing, health screenings and more. Among ICAO recommendations are electrostatic cleaning, back-to-front boarding, adjustments to food and beverage services, and mandatory face coverings for employees and passengers.
Some airports such as Hong Kong and Vienna have begun testing passengers, even domestic ones, for coronavirus with a blood test before allowing them to enter the country. These tests will be in place till the virus abates or a vaccine is found, predicts World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Major airports such as Heathrow, JFK, Changi, and Mumbai have put in place systems for online check-ins and contactless dining.
At the Hong Kong International Airport, testing is underway on a full-body disinfectant device. This, the airport says, can sanitise users within 40 seconds, using sprays that kill bacteria and viruses on skin and clothing. The airport has also put on trial an autonomous cleaning robot that kills microbes by zapping them with ultraviolet light.
Several airlines such as British Airways, Qantas and EasyJet are using a biometric boarding technology that allows passengers to board planes with their face as a passport.
However, some experts are of the view that these checks are rudimentary in a COVID-afflicted world. Airports, which are large indoor spaces, will have to implement stringent measures that allow for air checks and humidity control between 40 to 60%.
Airlines lay down the rules for health checkups and social distancing
Airlines, too, have their protocols in place. Emirates Airlines has announced that it would test all its passengers for coronavirus at the check-in destination, using a 10-minute blood test. But passengers who have already recovered from coronavirus will be given a health passport which will allow them to breeze through.
Emirates and Gulf Air have announced the adoption of biometric identification and broader use of CT scanners for luggage inspections, for contactless clearance at checkpoints. Emirates, Turkish Airlines and Qantas will also put baggage through a disinfection fogging tunnel.
Emirates, in fact, is the world’s first major airline to create a manual on every single safety and hygiene precaution that will need to be taken. The airline, which halted all flights on 25 March, resumed passenger flights to nine destinations on 21 May, including London, Paris, Milan, Madrid in Europe, as well as Sydney and Melbourne.
The Emirates representative says that all its cabin crew, boarding agents and ground staff, who will be in direct contact with passengers, will wear personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes a disposable gown over their uniform, gloves, masks and a safety visor. While at the airports physical indicators have been placed on the ground and at the waiting areas to ensure travellers maintain a safe distance, the seats onboard Emirates flights will be pre-allocated with vacant seats placed between individual passengers or family groups to observe physical distancing protocols.
However, the vacant seats may just be a temporary arrangement for Emirates, till they are able to figure an alternative. At a webinar session organised by Arabian Travel Market (ATM), Emirates airline president Sir Tim Clark stated that employing social distancing on aircraft doesn’t make sense from an economic or an environmental perspective. “If we start leaving seats in the economy inventory open or unsold because of social distancing, one has to accept that you have to be consistent about this. There’s no point in leaving the seat next to you empty because the seat behind you, if somebody sneezes of coughs, irrespective of the seat back, meant to be deflecting it, this will not happen. These will travel 20 feet down the cabin and into the air. What it basically means is that you will have to take 50 percent, in the case of economy, of your inventory out. It doesn’t stack up for anybody to do that. Equally, on the environmental side, it makes absolutely no sense to fly empty aircraft or half-empty aircraft, because we’re all very conscious of this.”
Instead, Emirates has initiated a number of health and safety measures on board, including presenting passengers with their own kit, which includes face masks, gloves and sanitisers. “There’s a degree of personal control,” said Clark.
Emirates’ modern aircraft cabins have been fitted with advanced HEPA air filters. After its journey and on landing, each aircraft will go through enhanced cleaning and disinfection processes. In a modification of Emirate’s inflight services, food and beverages will be offered in bento-style boxes to reduce contact between the crew and customers. The boxes would include sandwiches, beverages, snacks and desserts. No cabin bags will be allowed right now, except for a laptop, handbag and baby items.
According to Emirates’ chief operating officer, Adel Al Redha, “We have spared no effort in reviewing and redesigning every step, from check-in to disembarkation. Every measure implemented is an additional reduction in risk. We aim to make flying as safe as possible. We are working with all the stakeholders such as airports, immigration, health, and aviation authorities to implement such measures.”
Turkish Airlines is expected to resume scheduled flights as of early June (while the domestic sector opens on June 5, the international flights will take off on June 11). Expect truncated service on-board from an airline that has made it their business to offer superlative catering service. On flights that are under two hours long, business class passengers will only receive a bottle of water. On flights of two to eight hours, business class passengers will be served a box containing a sandwich, a cold mezze, a salad, a dessert, and water. On flights of over five hours crackers will be served as well, but there will be no second meal.
United Airlines has introduced a United CleanPlus℠ programme in partnership with Clorox and Cleveland Clinic. In a communication, CEO Scott Kirby sought to reassure its frequent fliers, “Teaming up with Clorox allows us to leverage expertise from the #1 trusted brand for powerful cleaning and disinfecting. And Cleveland Clinic is advising us on our cleaning and disinfection protocols so we can innovate quickly as we learn more about how to protect against COVID-19.”
Like other airlines, United Airlines has put in systems that make flying safer, such as better cleaning of seat-backs and tray tables, and electrostatic sprayers to disinfect every nook and cranny. Australia’s Jetstar, owned by Qantas, has asked passengers to download the government’s contact-tracing app, COVIDSafe, on their phone.
The app runs in the background and uses Bluetooth to log what other users it is in close contact for 15 minutes or longer. If a user is believed to have contracted COVID-19, the app makes it easier to contact trace other users for testing or quarantine.
British Airways is recommending its passengers to carry more than one disposable mask and discard one every four hours of the flight. To keep contact to a minimum, passengers will be requested to download the British Airways app before the flight and save their boarding pass to their phone.
Contact tracing apps are likely to become globally acceptable, as Apple and Google partner with contact tracing software that will work across their iOS and Android systems. Almost every major airline is likely to mandate the contact tracing app a necessity while flying. Jetstar’s Chief Customer Officer Catriona Larritt says, “This way the governments can ease travel restrictions soon while keeping the community safe.”
More airlines are sharing protocols with each other to create a common ground form which they can function. In the US, both Delta and United have said they want to resume flights to China in June, while Finland’s national carrier Finnair is planning to add flights to China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Thailand and South Korea in July if lockdowns are eased. Qatar Airways, which never fully grounded its fleet, is planning to increase the number of destinations available from 30 to 80 by the end of June.
In India, too, airlines are bracing themselves to up their safety protocols. SpiceJet now has non-porous synthetic leather seats that don’t allow COVID-19 virus to penetrate inside them and can be easily wiped out. AirAsia India is providing safety kits to passengers: a mask, a face shield and a bottle of santiser. In a statement, it said, “We have renewed our operating procedures to maintain adequate social distancing with floor markets at queuing areas, including check-in counters, aerobridges and coach connecting from the terminal building to the flights. AirAsia India will follow a reverse zone boarding process starting from the rear of the aircraft.”
So, what will the flying experience be like?
US-based airline strategy firm SimpliFlying, in a recent report, has analysed what flying will be like in the After-COVID era. The report states, “Only those fit-to-fly will be allowed to enter. Among other predictions: bags will be sanitagged after going through the fogging and planes as well as airports will be UV-disinfected to improve passengers confidence in flying. “
SimpliFlying forecasts that international passengers will have to show an immunity document/passport, which has been advocated by International Air Transport Association, which, IATA says, can be shifted to a document proving a vaccine has been taken.
IATA has recommended thermal testing. In the US, the government is toying with the idea of creating a federal health agency to coordinate all screenings inside airports.
WTTC, in a report sent out to us, has stated that airports will install hand sanitizer stations and encourage use of staircases rather than lifts, in which the two-meter rule is hard to maintain. Significantly, the WTTC report states that they are confident the airline sector will bounce back as travel gradually returns to normal by the end of the year, even before a vaccine has been made available, but with very stringent health and safety protocols.
Gloria Guevara, the organisation’s President and CEO, says, “Travelling in the new-normal age will require major coordinated actions on safety and hygiene fronts. We have to take a responsible road to recovery.” More importantly, air travel is likely to become far more expensive. Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian predicts that safety will not be limited to flight safety, but [will expand] to personal safety. “People will pay a premium on service excellence like never before.”
Flights, which before the pandemic were operating 80-90% of their capacity, may only be 65-70% full now. Although Bastian did not speculate on whether airfares will rise, he stressed that airlines will be “different” than they were 60 days ago and will focus on a premium experience, inflight and in airports.
Volodymyr Bilokach, a lecturer in air-transport management at the Singapore Institute of Technology, who wrote the book The Economics of Airlines in 2017, says airlines might also increasingly charge economy passengers separately for things like baggage check-in, legroom and meals.
The final word predictably comes from the Emirates Group. Gary Chapman, CEO of air services company dnata and an Emirates Group executive stated at a webinar: as a hub-and-spoke operator globally, Emirates will be among the last to recover from the pandemic given that “we have no domestic market” and “we are also bringing people (to and from all continents)”. He underscored the necessity of setting “consistent and clear standards,” adding it will be a “different world, a different tourism industry in general”.