Is it time to normalize air travel? Yes — at least for 26% of companies in the United States that plan to resume air travel in the next one to three months, a Statistica survey said in February. An additional 46% have considered resuming travel in the near future, with no definite plans.
The reality is: air travel is retaining interest, even at a time of highly effective virtual platforms. Zoom fatigue is creeping by the day and young professionals and business executives are increasingly looking for ways to reconnect with clients across geographies as they did in the pre-pandemic era.
It is not a simple call though. A Eurosurveillance study published in October last year suggested that the national outbreak of Covid-19 in Ireland could be linked to air travel.
Since then, however, the state of air travel has radically changed. Is it enough to warrant booking your next flight for business or pleasure? If you are looking for a definitive answer, there isn’t one here — or at any other place, in fact.
The good news: if you are on the search for strategic details to help assess whether flying is right for you at this time, read on.
Boarding And Disembarking:
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Airports globally have stressed on the importance of social distancing throughout their spaces. In practice though, it is challenging to implement guidelines with consistency. At the check-in counters of the Washington Dulles International Airport, one can easily spot visual reminders of physical distancing and checkpoint floors to limit passenger crowding. However, in overflow areas like security check-points, social distancing rules may not be controlled to a tee.
Careful travelers can exercise self-regulation when passing through these high traffic areas. For young people traveling solo, it may be easier to manage increased caution by strictly enforcing the six-feet rule between themselves and the passengers around.
For Travelers With Special Needs:
For travelers with special needs, it may get tricky to consistently fulfill physical distancing — especially amid the chaos that boarding lanes precipitate into. To avoid, travelers may wish to arrive at the departure airport x1.5 times earlier than the prescribed time. For example, in case of international flights, airlines typically recommend arriving at the departure airport at least three hours in advance. Passengers with special needs or high risk conditions may wish to come an hour in advance of suggested time, to surpass crowds. Note, however, that increased time spent in public spaces may heighten risk of virus exposure.
Another alternative is to go for premium travel options. First and Business class tickets make for faster check-in and boarding. At the Qatar Airways counter at Dulles Airport, premium travelers may fast-track at a snippet of the pace for their coach counterparts. First and Business class passengers are typically boarded first, with shorter and quicker queues, which are easier, from a logistical perspective, to exercise necessary social distancing guidelines. Likewise, when disembarking the airplane, premium passengers are allowed to leave first — before it gets too busy. Their luggage may also be tagged as ‘priority’ and would arrive among the first for collection, before the area overflows.
All travelers may check-in online to reduce human interaction at point of departure. They may also choose to travel without check-in luggage to avoid potential waiting for collection at crowded hotspots at the arrival destination.
In-Flight Risks — and Rewards:
Modern aircraft ventilation systems are not spreading viruses, a Department of Defense study suggests. “If everyone’s wearing a mask and the ventilation is blowing, it is indeed difficult to get Covid-19 when you fly,” Wired said. The publication cautioned, however, that the risk of contracting the virus when flying with safety precautions is “definitely not zero.” Know that there is always a possibility; hence, the need for extreme precaution cannot be overstated.
Onboard, major airlines will ensure all staff and crew wears protective equipment throughout the journey. At Qatar Airways, for example, cabin crew wear PPE suits, masks, protective glasses and gloves. “I have been tested negative four times already,” Oscar, a 25 year old flight attendant from Bogota said, “We change masks and gloves every two to three hours and dispose off the PPE suit at the end of each flight.” In addition, airline crew is on track to be vaccinated, which is reassuring for the health of both, staff and passengers. “We’re excitedly waiting for the vaccine so we return back to normal times,” said another young flight attendant, Siddhant from Shillong.
All passengers are provided a travel safety kit consisting of hand sanitizer, mask and gloves. Note that the masks provided (and those worn by crew) are typical surgical masks and not N-95 or KN-95 respirators. Passengers should plan ahead to wear appropriate protection. Masks are mandated to be worn throughout the flight, except when eating or drinking.
Aircrafts are disinfected after every flight using products recommended by the World Health Organization or the International Air Transport Association. For deep surfaces, Honeywell‘s Ultraviolet (UV) Cabin System cleaning technology is used to treat aircraft seats, surfaces, and cabins. Note that UV light has shown to be capable of inactivating various viruses and bacteria and is being used by numerous carriers including Skytrax’s 5-star Covid-19 rated Qatar Airways, United Airlines, JetBlue among others.
Choosing Between Coach And First Class:
In economy class cabins, it is generally recommended — not mandated — that middle row seats are left vacant to exercise social distance. This is not always possible, however, on flights with high passenger volumes, where travelers are seated adjacent to each other and will most likely remove face masks when eating or drinking.
The experience is glaringly different in premium cabins. As a case study, a business class suite on a Qatar Airways Airbus A350-1000 fleet will come with a sliding-door suite that enforces physical distance at the nudge of a hand. This may be a promising option for individuals that are part of the at-risk demographic and present an essential travel need.
At the same time, however, this facility comes at a substantial price differential: a one-way business class ticket from Washington Dulles to Doha International Airport may cost upwards of $10,000 compared to around $900 for the same route in coach. The price tag is arguably justified though, as it comes with a selection of exclusively curated cuisine, luxury amenities, high speed internet, and the unique ability to transform suites into an enclosed space for family or business partners — an experience that quite closely mimics flying on a private plane, but at a fraction of the cost for chartering a jet.
Pandemic As The Great In-Equalizer:
But more than ever before, premium seats can be perceived as a departure from luxury to necessity during this pandemic. Sure, à la carte menus and reclining beds with quilted blankets still fall under the umbrella of ‘desirable, not critical’. However, the ability, afforded for example by QSuites, to place a barrier between yourself and your neighboring passenger has become more than just indulgence and comfort; instead, it is perhaps a requisite for safe and secure travel — at least till mass-vaccination ensues.
Many have sought claim that this pandemic is the great equalizer as it has the potential to infect all peoples irrespective of class. Fallacy. In effect, the pandemic has revealed that economic privilege may just be one of the check-boxes to afford adequate buffer against the coronavirus. The commodification of privilege rests in plain sight.
The Inequity Of Privilege:
Perhaps it is the responsibility of regulators and airline executives to fill in the gaps for individuals that cannot afford premium travel. An acceptable starting point would be a mandated “empty middle seat” rule applicable to all national and international carriers. It is a double-edged sword though: the airline industry has already suffered $84 billion in losses during the pandemic. Layoffs, route cancellations and business outages have put stress on the industry like no other.
Rising up to the occasion to address some of the bigger questions of inequity and economic exclusion, therefore, would require courageous leadership and strategic empathy.
Transit through airports between flights can also be a cause for concern during the pandemic. Security lanes and transfer desks can quickly become a hotspot for travelers waiting to get through to their boarding gates. Passengers are recommended to research their respective transit airports in advance to ensure standard operating procedures for Covid-19 are in place.
Fortunately by now, most transit areas across major airports are compliant with health guidelines. While the vast majority of travelers can wait in common seating areas, premium travelers may access exclusive transit lounges which offer robust safeguards against the spread of coronavirus, largely owing to the combination of spacious acreage and low head count. The Al Mourjan Lounge, for instance, provides passengers private suites in between flights; aged-leather couches and a personal television silhouetted against intricately carved wooden interior that complete the ambience. These come with private bathrooms where travelers can take a shower and freshen up — all contributing factors to a safer journey from a health perspective.
Here is the irony: in-suite bathrooms can be stocked with luxurious Diptyque hand and body products, that run up to $60 a piece. But there is no hand sanitizer or anti-bacterial product in sight within ornate bathrooms. It is an innocent — perhaps even borderline comical — reassurance that even the realm of opulence and extravagance is struggling in coming to terms with the realities of the pandemic; the culture shock of replacing premium luxury with mundane necessity is a learning curve reserved for the ivory tower.
An audacious fix: carry your own sanitizer.
Views expressed are based on author’s personal travels on Qatar Airways Business Class cabins on Airbus A350-1000 and Boeing 777-300ER during the coronavirus pandemic.