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Flying In the Midst of a Pandemic

By The Biz Team (Siam)

The COVID-19 pandemic has created havoc in every aspect of our lives. Millions of people have lost their jobs, hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed and the global economy has come to a screeching halt. The tourism industry has been set back to the Neanderthal era. There are nearly 25 million jobs in the airline industry and over a 100 million tourism jobs that remain at risk. The pandemic has decimated almost 5-7 years of airline growth and more agony will follow if no vaccine becomes available. 

For the average traveler, no longer flying is not the biggest of deals. Even during the pre-COVID era, flying was a hassle with the intense long lines. Now, the procedures have become even worse. Airlines are now making it mandatory to wear a mask, most food items are no longer served on the plane and the airlines have stopped flying to various destinations. Even when flying is permitted, many nations are requiring 2 weeks quarantine at the expense of the traveler. There is absolutely no fun left in flying. Experts are wondering what the flying experience will look like once the COVID pandemic ends. While the future of flying is unsure, it may be safe to say that some careers will end prematurely and while others may hold be able to on for a few more months, only a few will have the certainty of a permanent job.

On the consumer side of traveling, most Americans feel that flying is no longer safe. In order for the industry to recover, travelers will need to feel safe and confident that their health is not compromised. Consumers are also limited to where they can fly. Even if the US opens travel to everywhere, we have no say on what other nations will decide. Will they continue to have restrictions? Will they continue to force travelers to undergo the Corona virus test and be placed under quarantine, if tested positive? For the traveler, there are many uncertainties. 

Another area in the airline industry that is set to transform is the touchless travel. The entire process of checking in at the airport and the curbside to hotel arrival will be with touchless travel. However, because of security issues, exchanging travel documents will still require some type of physical encounter with the airport staff.

The second area of transformation is automation, where biometrics will be used to identify the passenger. This new process will eliminate the widespread use of hand scanners and physical fingerprints. There are also plans to introduce iris and facial recognition, but there is a concern that these technologies may also be later used for profiling.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has also proposed measures like mask-wearing in all areas of the airports and on the plane, visible sanitation supplies, and screening passengers for temperature. However, these measures may lead to extremely long line ups and mandate even earlier than the advised two hours, arrival to the airport. So far, there have been no universal agreement on the acceptable level of risk for allowing the public to fly or reopening borders. Until a vaccine is available, the major focus will be to identify the ill passenger. There is also a plan to use questionnaires to identify passengers at high risk. Data like age, health condition, and travel history may be used to compile the profile of all individuals. Anyone deemed to be high risk could be barred from boarding.

Already some airlines like Etihad, have started to conduct onsite COVID testing for passengers and the plan is to make this a standard practice. Today, the use of thermal cameras at airports are more widespread; in addition, there are apps that can track symptoms and contacts. It is hoped that the use of tracking tools and regular health screens at the airport will encourage more people to fly. However, passengers are weary of how much data the airlines want to collect and how the data will be used.

The COVID pandemic has fast-forwarded the era of the digital journey, but at the same time, consumer behavior must be changed. The airlines need to regain the trust of the passengers because not too long ago, they were reluctant to even refund airfares that had been pre-booked prior to the pandemic.

Already the airlines have initiated a consortium with the government and the travel industry to help facilitate a seamless and safe journey. The plan is to allow the passengers to manage their own profile and decide what information to share. Whatever plans are introduced, regular temperature and health screening are going to create more problems such as: long line ups, early arrival, and most likely higher cost of airline tickets. Ultimately, all these novel tools will need to be paid and the cost will as always be passed on to the consumer.

The good news is that the travel industry has shown resilience; it was in a similar predicament after 9/11. However, to regain the trust of passengers, this time the onus is on the airlines. The public still has not forgotten the rigid rules of the airlines, the narrowed seating space, the nickel and dime for every bag and carry on and charging for water. Over the past 4 months, the public has learned that travel is not an essential component of life or happiness. Questionnaires reveal that most Americans have no desire to fly again. Whatever the case, the post COVID era will be associated with less frequent travel, long line ups, and probably higher expenses. All in all, the airlines have a lot of work ahead of them.


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