The British romantic comedy “Love Actually” is saccharine, and occasionally creepy, but it’s hard not to be touched by the documentary footage that bookends the movie of families and friends embracing in the arrivals hall of London’s Heathrow airport.
Today those scenes look alien and jarring: A pandemic has turned the world’s airports into ghost towns. Even after the coronavirus abates, air travel will be scarred permanently. No wonder the investor Warren Buffett is giving up on his bet on U.S. airlines.
How to get passengers off their plane and through passport control, baggage reclaim and arrivals without putting them in close proximity to each other is just one of countless air-travel challenges created by Covid-19. Assigning the necessary space for people on flights won’t be any easier.
Years of airline cost cuts and rigorous counterterrorism checks have made flying a frustrating experience for passengers. Even those fortunate enough to turn left when boarding often complain about the indignities and delays of modern airports. Hygiene measures, health checks and social distancing will only make the experience feel more dispiriting, whether you’re in economy or business.
Unless accompanied by higher ticket prices, the new health measures could also make flying less profitable, regardless of whether demand returns. That’s bad news for the world’s airlines, which are currently burning through vast amounts of cash. In some cases, companies’ net borrowings will far exceed their revenues by the end of 2020.
Besides China, where domestic services have restarted, airlines have pretty much grounded their entire fleets. The few aircraft still in service often take off almost empty. The silver lining of this near hibernation is that it provides a less pressured environment for testing out new hygiene measures. These will be essential to reassuring passengers and governments that more flights won’t lead to a second wave of infections, but they’re unlikely to make flying any more fun.
The biggest American carriers say customers will have to wear face masks. Armrests, tray tables and seat-belt buckles are being disinfected after every journey; and in-flight magazines have been removed. To minimize physical contact with airline staff and other passengers, we’ll scan boarding passes ourselves and we’ll be offered less food and drink on board. Instead of boarding first, business class passengers may have to wait till last.
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It’s not yet clear how passengers will be screened for Covid-19 until there’s a vaccine. At a minimum we’ll probably have our temperatures checked when we arrive at the airport, but this won’t weed out the high proportion of asymptomatic virus cases. Blood tests or so-called “immunity passports” may be required for international travel but even these have limitations. Passengers who disembark from a high-risk location may still have to enter quarantine, which could put many off from booking a ticket in the first place.
Health checks will slow down getting through immigration and you can probably forget arriving only two hours before a flight. This could mean even more passengers waiting inside (or outside) the terminal. Imagine the parking queue at your local grocery or hardware store right now, only much worse. No wonder Heathrow’s boss, John Holland-Kaye, thinks keeping the required two meters gap at all times will be “physically impossible” at large airports. A less palatable alternative for Holland-Kaye and his peers, though, is that governments cap the number of departing flights to prevent crowding.
European airlines, chief among them Ryanair Holdings Plc, say much the same thing about physically distancing inside the aircraft. Some carriers are leaving the middle seat unoccupied but the health benefits are dubious. Modern aircraft have air-filtration systems that remove viruses, but these might not protect you if the person in the seat in front or behind has a cough. Leaving seats empty also creates more carbon pollution per passenger carried.
Naturally, airlines worry how they’ll make money if they’re only allowed to sell two-thirds of their seats. European carriers typically need to fill about 80% of them to break even. To compensate they’d have to cut costs or raise prices. Doing the latter won’t be easy until demand recovers.
Quick turnarounds are imperative for budget airlines, so the longer time needed to clean the cabin between flights and to load passengers onto the aircraft isn’t good news either. Hygiene rules could make it harder to generate so-called ancillary revenues from things like food sales and priority boarding. And Ryanair and its low-cost peers can forget about holding passengers at cramped departure gates that feel like cattle pens, or packing them into just a couple of buses to reach the plane.
It will probably take years for demand to recover fully because millions of potential passengers have lost their jobs. Business travel will be an especially tough sell. Companies will worry about protecting employee health and videoconferencing has proven itself a viable alternative during the lockdowns. Trade shows and conferences won’t recover quickly.
Hence airlines are already reducing expenses and retiring older aircraft to prepare for structurally lower demand. British Airways is poised to cut about 30% of its workforce; U.S. and European peers will no doubt do similar once government furlough subsidies expire. Airports may have to rethink plans for shiny new terminals and extra runways.
On the plus side — for the aviation industry, if not the planet — cheaper jet fuel will help everyone. But, in Europe, only a privileged few airlines are benefiting from lavish government bailouts, which could distort competition.
If weaker airlines collapse, the survivors will face less rivalry and may eventually be in a position to raise fares. Consolidation transformed U.S. airline profits and even convinced Buffett to abandon his aversion to investing in the sector — until coronavirus came along. Customers whose taxes rescue the airlines, and who haven’t always got a ticket refund when they’ve asked for one during the pandemic, may wonder why they’re paying more for a worse experience.
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