Grounded in the pandemic: Will travel ever be the same again?

How will a global industry worth trillions recover and what will it look like?

Ryanair aircraft parked on the apron at Dublin Airport earlier this month. More than 90 per cent of the airline’s fleet is currently grounded across Europe. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

Ryanair aircraft parked on the apron at Dublin Airport earlier this month. More than 90 per cent of the airline’s fleet is currently grounded across Europe. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

 

As the sun set on the Easter bank holiday weekend the public address system outside Dublin Airport’s departures area crackled into life to tell travellers what they should and should not be doing as they made their way through the complex. But there was no one in the departures area to heed the tinny instructions about smoking and set-downs. There was no one in arrivals either.

On a day when the airport would normally be teeming with life as tens of thousands of people raced to and from gates and danced impatiently through crowds as they came and went, and queued irritably at check-in desks and security points, there were only a couple of cleaning staff and two guards, at a different kind of security checkpoint, asking questions of the handful of people who came and went.

Almost every aspect of life as we know it has been turned on its head over the last six weeks as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but the scale of the upheaval on display at the airport was still a borderline terrifying glimpse of what a post-apocalyptic world might look like.

According to the Dublin Airport Authority (DAA), which runs the airport, the number of people going through its doors in these dark days has fallen below 1,000. On the Monday of last year’s Easter bank holiday weekend, well in excess of 100,000 people took off or touched down.

It is the same story in almost every airport in the world.

On April 12th, the number of people passing through US airport security checks stood at just 90,510 – more than 2.35 million fewer passengers than the same day last year. The number of daily flights across the world has fallen by at least three-quarters, and almost two-thirds of commercial aircraft is now in storage. There are fewer planes in the skies today than there were in the early 1990s, and the Ryanair schedule today is the same as it was in 1995. About 20 flights bearing its logo take to the skies each day now compared with 2,500 on any normal day last year.

Ryanair and the Aer Lingus parent company IAG, alongside Air France-KLM and Lufthansa and airlines across the world, have grounded most of their fleets until the end of May at the very least. In the US, there has been “total pandemonium”, according to the union representing flight attendants there, and airlines have been forced to borrow billions just to stay afloat.

The Sydney-based research network Centre for Aviation has warned that the international airline industry could collapse within weeks with the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs worldwide, unless massive amounts of state aid is provided.

And the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has calculated that Europe’s carriers could lose €70 billion worth of sales as the Covid-19 pandemic virtually halves demand for flights this year.

Upheaval

With upheaval on this scale, questions are being asked across the travel and tourism industry about what will happen next? How will a global industry worth trillions of euro recover and what will it look like when it does?

“I think if we look forward to 2022 and passenger traffic is only a third less than it was in 2019, then we will consider that a success,” says British travel journalist and broadcaster Simon Calder.

He believes there will be a “very sharp contraction in the numbers going off on holidays and on weekend breaks and visiting friends and relatives overseas” in the short term, and people will think long and hard about if and when they travel.

“I think 2019 will prove to be the year of peak travel and I don’t know if we will ever get back to that, certainly not in my lifetime.”

Signs asking people to not use seats in Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London on Wednesday. The airport expects 90 per cent fewer passengers compared to April last year, as governments continue to advise against non-essential travel due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Signs asking people to not use seats in Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London on Wednesday. The airport expects 90 per cent fewer passengers compared to April last year, as governments continue to advise against non-essential travel due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
The most dangerous part of the journey is going through the airport because it can be such a biohazard

Calder has bad news for those who do choose to fly and says airfares will almost certainly climb.

“The era of the €20 flights across Europe was never sustainable and I think when people start flying for fun again you will see airlines shift from having three flights every day to cities across Europe to having three flights there a week and filling all of those flights for €200 a ticket.”

He suggests that even when this “wretched business” is over, the psychological trauma caused by Covid-19 will mean a significant percentage of the population “will want to stay at home”, but he stresses that “there will still be a lot of people who will be travelling and it will be interesting to see just how high that demand is because, of course, there’s also going to be the enormous economic shock and a lot of people simply will not be able to afford it.”

Calder believes that, by June, “there will be people turning up at airports to go on holiday but I think we will all have learned a good deal about threats and I think people will realise that the most dangerous part of the journey is going through the airport because it can be such a biohazard. Mind you, that awareness will probably last six months and then we all forget about it.”

Jesse Neugarten is the founder and chief executive of the Dollar Flight Club, a Seattle-based cheap flight alert service. Speaking to The Irish Times this week, he pointed to a recent survey of 20,000 of his company’s most active members which found that most would feel comfortable travelling during the second half of 2020 if travel restrictions are lifted.

“However, we do believe that the travel industry will gravitate to a ‘new normal’ thanks to technological innovation, policy changes and the overall impact this pandemic had as it shed light on public health and safety in the travel space,” he says.

He suggests that social distancing “will have to be prevalent in travel throughout the rest of 2020” and airlines will adjust by innovating how they interact with passengers. “We can expect to see the boarding process move to a back-to-front system to help customers follow social distancing guidelines and limit the spread of Covid-19.

“In addition, in the short term, airlines will not allow passengers to book middle seats as well. Another major change that we can expect to last through 2020 is less food and drink services on flights in order to limit interaction with crew members and passengers.”

More difficult

Neugarten says that international travel to some countries will get more difficult.

“We believe that getting through customs, getting visas and travelling through the airport in most major international cities will take significantly more time than before.”

He sounds a note of optimism when he adds that the travel industry will most likely take “drastic action” to win back customer trust as travel demand rebounds.

“Airlines will need to make an investment in technology and updating processes across the board. For example, Etihad Airways is testing new self-service kiosks that will monitor temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate of people checking in to flights or passing through customs/immigration.”

Another change that might materialise in the months ahead will be a requirement for passengers to have documentation stating “that they are immune or are Covid-19 free when checking into flights as they pass through immigration into certain countries”.

Dr Ailis O’Carroll is a virologist who has studied the spread of Ebola and HIV and recently returned to Ireland from Melbourne to help in the fight against the pandemic.

“I don’t understand how we can quickly go back to a case of big gatherings of people, movement around the place, without proof you’re not extremely sick,” she told The Irish Times earlier this week. “Before this, you could move around a lot while being sick.” In the future she believes that “will be completely cut out” and the idea of someone walking freely through public spaces while coughing and sneezing will be a big no-no.

“Human mobility is a vector for disease, hence the stay-at-home orders. Aviation and mass transit are also all about density, which is the antithesis of social distancing,” said Devin Liddell, a futurist at the design firm Teague, which specialises in transportation systems,

Writing in US business magazine Fast Company earlier this week, he predicted that the future of travel will be automated and interactions with human beings will be reduced to a minimum and said that when looking through a utopian lens, “passengers who are increasingly repulsed by unnecessary queues, interactions with strangers, and touching anything would welcome the acceleration of automation”.

Thermal camera monitors are used to check the body temperature of passengers at Fiumicino airport, near Rome, Italy, on Wednesday, as the country remains on lockdown in an attempt to halt the spread of coronavirus. Photograph: Emanuele Valeri/EPA
Thermal camera monitors are used to check the body temperature of passengers at Fiumicino airport, near Rome, Italy, on Wednesday, as the country remains on lockdown in an attempt to halt the spread of coronavirus. Photograph: Emanuele Valeri/EPA
Trust has been badly damaged, primarily by airlines, but it has also impacted the tour operators and travel agents

He suggested that the post-Covid era would include basic measures including the eradication of all remaining doors requiring pushing or pulling to more advanced steps which “might include gesture and eye movement-based interactions with payment kiosks... robots and drones equipped with UV lights that continuously sanitise surfaces; and artificial intelligences that govern our previously clumsy attempts at everything from bus scheduling and kerb usage to security screening and aircraft boarding.”

And he warned that with “all of the unnecessary humans stripped out of our transportation systems” there would be efficiency but little or no empathy. “This would be especially true if you’re a passenger or rider who suffers an anomaly in the system. Lost and found, travelling with special needs, and the inevitable quirks of biometric and AI systems would all be occasions that beget an elaborate, almost-mystical rite of summoning a real person.”

He painted a picture of passengers bristling at “hygiene” robots “bumping into them or unseen artificial intelligences telling them where to sit and where to walk... Our transportation systems would be cleaner and more efficient than ever, but the people they serve would silently muse that a few germs would be better than these punctuated moments of humiliation and alienation.”

Breakdown in trust

Closer to home and in a more immediate sense, we are unlikely to see cleaning robots, but what we might see is a breakdown in trust between the travelling public and the companies who facilitate it after many companies in the tourism space went to ground and refused to engage with or help customers who have lost out on trips aboard.

“Trust has been very badly damaged, primarily by airlines, but it has also impacted the people on the frontlines, the tour operators and the travel agents, and they’re the ones taking the flak,” says travel writer and publisher of the TravelExtra magazine Eoghan Corry. “If you are a small travel agent in a town in rural Ireland you will probably know your customers personally and they’re asking you for the money back and you say you just don’t have it because you haven’t got it back from the airlines – that could be taken as a breach of trust and it will be a big issue in the months ahead.”

He is optimistic, however, that the travel industry will bounce back. “There is a desire for travel and that is not going to go away, be it business travel or leisure travel. People like to travel but will need to see the restoration of trust and we will need to see what kind of backlash airlines face.”

He points out that Ireland is in a position to get back up and running quickly because of the presence of Ryanair. “But we will move at the pace of the slowest-moving part in the chain,” he warns.

Mary McKenna of Tour America says it has been “soul-destroying seeing my industry going through this” and says that while she is “very much a glass-half-full kind of person, now I’m looking at it and saying it is just getting worse”.

She and people in her business have been taking much flak as airlines have refused to process refunds, but she has done all she can to support customers and is hopeful that they will come back in the months and years ahead.

She says the experience with a tour operator may change. “I think you will see a lot more business being virtual. There might be more consultations done via Zoom because that technology is showing us all how work can be done differently. We could see people contacting us via Zoom and we could show them slides of hotels and accommodation or whatever remotely.

John Cassidy of the travel agency that bears his name said there could be a reduction in the number of travel agents and tour operators doing business in Ireland once the crisis lifts, and the companies that will survive this will need “deep pockets”.

He expresses the hope is that “we have all spent so much time trapped in our homes that when it all ends will be so desperate to get out. Maybe we won’t be going on three or four holidays a year, but that was probably changing anyway. But people will still want to travel.”

Calder agrees. “I think people are still going to go on holidays when all this is over and will still like to travel for fun but maybe in smaller numbers. And hopefully we will all cherish travel more.”

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