In Depth

What will global air travel look like after coronavirus?

EU planning future rules amid debate over social distancing on flights

European transport ministers are meeting today to discuss what airlines will need to do for international travel to resume.

Several nations on the Continent have begun to relax their coronavirus lockdown measures, but the airline industry has already taken a battering.

The UK Foreign Office is currently advising British nationals against “all but essential international travel”, with the vast majority of flights grounded across the globe.

British Airways this week set out plans to make up to 12,000 of its staff redundant, and several other airlines are on the brink of collapse.

BA’s parent company, IAG, has warned that a return to 2019 passenger levels is likely to take “several years”. So will air travel ever look the same again?

Spacing

As Forbes reports, there is “an active debate within the industry about whether spacing out passengers, as has been done on public transport, would work in planes”.

Airlines including Lufthansa and easyJet have pledged to keep some seats free - such as those in the middle of rows - as a temporary social distancing measure. However, lobby group Airlines for Europe (A4E) has said social distancing is not “viable on board an aircraft”.

In a letter to EU ministers, the Brussels-based organisation argued that it would be impossible for passengers and crew to maintain a two-metre distance from each another and that it would not be financially viable for any airline to fly a plane that was only two-thirds full.

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary echoed those concerns in an interview last week with the Financial Times.

“We can’t make money on 66% load factors,” O'Leary said. “Even if you do that, the middle seat doesn’t deliver any social distancing, so it’s kind of an idiotic idea that doesn’t achieve anything anyway.”

Best practice

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is drawing up safety guidelines for the industry - and “in the meantime, airports are working on their own best practices that require changes in disinfection routines, installing coronavirus testing facilities and temperature checks, and reorganising gates to ensure space between people”, Politico reports.

The Italian government also set out rules this week for mandatory masks and one-way corridors in airports to prevent over-crowding.

Conde Nast Traveller suggests that airports may also introduce “far more automation  – from DIY check-ins and bag drops to robotic cleaners”, and that “immunity passports” may enter into widespread use.

“Travelling will feel intimidating – people will be on high alert,” says the magazine. “It’s been suggested that coronavirus is the new terrorism. But after months of confinement, it will also feel incredibly freeing to be on the move again.”

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Increased prices

Although there might be some good deals for travel this autumn, the promotions are unlikely to last as airlines seek to cover their racked-up debts.

 “The new reality will likely be fewer, more expensive flights on slimmed-down airlines that have laid off thousands of employees and cut ties to many contractors,” says Politico transportation reporter Brianna Gurciullo.

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