Here's how COVID-19 could change the way we fly

Data and tracking are key to our return to the skies.


As the world slowly eases its way out of the COVID-19 lockdown, we're on the verge of a new era in air travel.

We could soon encounter armies of robotic cleaners patrolling airport concourses, disinfecting check-in counters and ticket kiosks. We might see passengers wafting through security and baggage checkpoints without touching anything.

And we might be boarding aircraft where hand gestures and eye movements open overhead stowage bins and navigate our inflight entertainment screens.

Everything could become touch-free. Out go the tailored uniforms, in come astronaut-style flight attendant suits.

Most of these concepts are trials but could soon morph into realities that become as ubiquitous as the biometric gates and body scanners to which we've already become accustomed at airport terminals.

From the cloud to the clouds

As we shift from the virtual world of Zoom meetings and Houseparty chats back into the skies, what will the touchpoints along that journey look like — and when might things get going?

"I'm making an assumption, and I think many of our clients are making an assumption, that at some point in 2021, this will be largely behind us," Alex Dichter, senior partner at McKinsey & Company, tells CNN Travel.

Dichter points to stringent measures implemented in China requiring validation that travelers are coronavirus-free, using a system whereby passengers travel with a QR code that is either green, yellow or red. Green means they've been tested and are free of the virus, and authorities know exactly where passengers have been.

"You need to scan in and scan out of every location, your temperature is checked multiple times, you're signing forms. It's hard to imagine those kinds of processes implemented in the West."

But data and tracking are key to our return to the skies.

Dichter suspects some countries are going to focus on these. Therefore protocols need to be established so that if a passenger tests positive for COVID-19 after being on a flight, the airline can contact every other passenger that was on the plane.

"Airlines will take this opportunity to accelerate self-service. That's a trend that's been in place for some time, but airlines were probably slower at scaling these technologies out than many customers would like," he says.

Until these new technologies fully materialize, passengers returning to the air may have to make do with what's already out there.

Therefore, Dichter says, "there may be a bit more focus on premium products, providing people with the ability to be alone" — already a long-time aspiration of the weary business traveler.

Dichter expects positive reaction from passengers to the middle seat experiments that some airlines are launching. Colorado's Frontier Airlines briefly toyed with making passengers pay extra to keep the middle seat free, while Europe's Easyjet has also proposed leaving middle seats empty.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released an official statement on May 5, coming out against blocking off middle seats on planes, while recommending both passengers and crew members wear face masks on board instead.

Longer term, the financial shock airlines are facing combined with customers' sensitivity to price may bring us back to a world where airlines are taking things away and becoming leaner to reduce prices.

"If we look at the state of the industry in 2022, 2023 and 2024, the big question about what air travel looks like is going to have more to do with the economic fallout than it does to do with the virus," says Dichter.

Passport, boarding pass, mask

In the new era of flight, we can expect personal protective equipment (PPE) to be integral to the passenger experience as airlines are beginning to demand — rather than request — their use.

European airlines Lufthansa, Air France and KLM have made mask-wearing compulsory for passengers and crew. In the United States, Delta, United, American Airlines and JetBlue have introduced similar measures. Air Canada has mandated their use since April 20.

In Asia, Singapore Airlines, Air Asia and Cathay Pacific have also made masks mandatory.

Qatar Airways, in the Middle East, is one of several airlines to introduce PPE suits for its cabin crew in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

"At least for the whole of 2020, passengers are going to be wearing masks," says Federico Heitz, CEO of Kaelis, a manufacturer of airline on-board supplies that is providing more than 20 airlines with PPE for crew and passengers.

Heitz tells CNN Travel there's high demand for its Self-Protective Pocket Pouch (SP.3), a package that includes a mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and an info leaflet with tips on how to prevent the virus spreading. The pouch can be customized to align with the airline's branding.

"These are going to be like the new amenity kits for quite a long time I expect," says Heitz.

"What's going to happen five years from now depends on whether they find a vaccine and on how the virus evolves. For now, we definitely need protection." But who bears the cost?

"This is public health. My view is that it should be provided to all for free," says Heitz. "Wearing a mask is not only about protecting yourself; it's about how to protect the other passengers."

Terminal velocity

"Experimentation at a number of airports with UV lights, cleaning robots and other technologies is part of an attempt to minimize the distancing that's needed if you want to maintain throughput of passengers at airports," says Cristiano Ceccato, director of Zaha Hadid Architects, designers of the recently opened Daxing Beijing Airport.

"Otherwise," he tells CNN Travel, "you're going to need a bigger airport to space people further apart."

For the very long-term future, Ceccato ponders a possible scenario where passengers have some kind of chip injected in their arms that continuously monitors their health, "Star Trek" style. It would start beeping if it detects they've been infected with something.

"We're not there yet. And then, of course, there are ethical questions about people's privacy and the invasion of civil liberties. We used to joke that the airport today is basically an airport mixed with a shopping mall. Now the airport could be mixed with a hospital."

Nearer term, Ceccato anticipates that airports could have some form of high-tech arch that passengers walk through that scans for metals, liquids and gels, and also checks the passenger's health.

"That stuff is on the way, but we don't know exactly when it will happen. A lot of ideas for these kinds of technologies are tied to the profiling of people," he says.

Another motivation behind the adoption of security and health tech at airports is to accelerate the flow of passengers through the terminal checkpoints by reducing human-to-human contact, or contact between passengers and conveyor belts and trays at security.

"Eventually at airports, you won't have to grapple with getting your laptop and washbag out of your hand luggage, and you won't have to deal with the security guy fumbling through your stuff," says Ceccato.

While architects figure out how to adapt the airports to accommodate all the extra new health screening and sanitation technologies, Ceccato says that on the upside, "it might be reassuring for passengers to know, having passed all these preflight checks, that their health is in good shape."

The people have spoken

Ultimately, whether passengers will feel confident enough to take to the skies depends on consumer confidence and the sense amongst passengers of whether airlines are adequately addressing their concerns regarding COVID-19 and its bearing on air travel.

To gauge this, the Airline Passenger Experience Association and the International Flight Services Association commissioned data consultants Fethr, the aviation wing of Black Swan Data, to assess passenger sentiment.

Using data analysis and predictive analytics, Fethr analyzed more than 900 million naturally occurring conversations on Twitter, news, blogs and reviews related to COVID-19 and air travel.

"Over a third of the conversations at the moment related to safety and sanitation on board the aircraft are very negatively charged," Will Cooper, insights director at Fethr, tells CNN Travel.

"Passengers are expressing their concerns and frustration around not knowing whether it's safe to travel or how they protect themselves and are unclear about what airlines are doing."

Perhaps one of the longest journeys facing airlines today is restoring passenger confidence.