Higher ticket prices, temperature checks before boarding, and no inflight alcohol: Airline travel in the post-coronavirus era will look very different from the low-cost “getaway” trips of the past — and you should probably pack your lunch.
Airlines are keen to see passenger volume return, and have been making significant changes to prevent the spread of the disease. In an industry that has seen a decline in traffic by 95 percent, and two airlines already forced into bankruptcy, the pressure to get it right is enormous.
To start with, ticket prices are likely to be 50 percent higher if planes attempt to enforce social distancing, according to Alexandre de Juniac, the head of the International Air Transport Association, the global air transportation authority.
Some airlines, including Delta and EasyJet, have said they would at least temporarily eliminate the middle seat in order to allow a safe distance between passengers and those who are not part of their travel party. Aircraft designers are also looking at installing plastic screens between seats.
Michael O’Leary, head of Dublin-based budget carrier Ryanair, said blocking off seats would be “idiotic” and prohibitive for his airline. In an interview with the Financial Times, he warned that if Ireland planned to impose such a rule, then “either the government pays for the middle seat or we won’t fly.”
Passengers on Frontier Airlines must pay an extra fee if they want the middle seat blocked, the company announced Monday.
Paper menus and inflight magazines will also be a thing of the past, and even the inflight meals will look very different. Gone are the chicken or pasta choices: American Airlines said it will not provide alcohol or meals except on international routes. United will offer prepackaged and sealed drinks, and Delta encourages customers to bring their own food in order to “reduce physical touch points between customers and employees.” First class passengers will receive a packaged meal containing items such as a sandwich and fruit plate.
One more reason to pack a snack: A four-hour wait at the airport could become the norm, as some airports opt for “sanitagging,” an extra process that involves passing plastic and metal suitcases through UV light to disinfect them.
Those suitcases will also cost more. American Airlines has already raised the cost of a checked bag to $75 from $60 for a flight between the United States and Europe or Africa.
Anyone traveling out of Dubai should prepare to have their blood drawn. Emirates is conducting blood tests for some passengers. Etihad airline is installing contactless check-in booths to screen for symptoms. In some parts of India, disinfection tunnels will clean passengers before they gather. Thailand said it will deny boarding to anyone exhibiting symptoms such as sneezing or coughing.
In the U.S., Frontier is mandating that passengers fill in a health acknowledgement form certifying neither they nor family members have suffered from COVID-19 symptoms in the prior 14 days to the flight. The airline will not allow anyone who has a fever to travel.
Despite the precautions, some travelers are skeptical that carriers will have the resources required to enforce new safety protocols. Many airport workers including security are not wearing masks.
“I’ll believe in government officials and the safety of financially busted airlines when I see it,” San Francisco-based tech executive Jean-Claude Goldenstein, who travels frequently to Europe, told NBC News.
Nancy Friedman is a retired travel marketing executive who took seven international trips and at least five domestic trips last year.
“While I’m anxious to continue traveling, before booking anything by air, I’d be sure the virus numbers were flat,” she said, adding that she would need assurances that airplanes are doing meticulous cleaning and that there are temperature checks and that crew would wear gloves and masks.
American Airlines also said it would require flight attendants to wear masks and would distribute protective equipment to passengers. Lufthansa also said it would require masks for passengers and flight attendants.
JetBlue was the first airline to require passengers to wear masks. Starting this week, passengers are required to wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth during the duration of each flight and also during check-in, boarding and deplaning, according to a JetBlue statement.
“Wearing a face covering isn’t about protecting yourself; it’s about protecting those around you,” said Joanna Geraghty, the airline’s president and chief operating officer.
In an interview on NBC’s “TODAY” show on Wednesday, Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, said mask directives should be coming from the government. “I encourage all airlines to follow JetBlue’s lead on this.”
Last month, the association wrote a letter to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, calling for the government to “use its authority to mandate masks in aviation for crew, employees and passengers; require personal protective equipment; and suspend all leisure travel until the virus is contained.”
As for passing through security — a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration said, “It’s truly challenging to predict what will change for TSA after the pandemic,” though she said some changes have already been mandated by new government rules. Larger bottles of hand sanitizer are now permitted.
The spokeswoman recommends that passengers remove items from their pockets and place them on luggage rather than on the plastic trays. Frontline employees will change their gloves upon passenger request. Still, there’s no nationwide requirement to wear masks.
A spokeswoman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was leading health screening procedures and that following orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, new signs had been set up alerting passengers that they need to wear masks.
Still, most airlines are not expecting passenger volume to return to its usual level for two to three years.
“We have to reimagine and reshape our airline and create a new future for our people, our customers and the destinations we serve,” British Airways CEO Alex Cruz said in a memo to staff on Tuesday.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency within the United Nations, said Thursday global airlines could see 1.5 billion fewer travelers this year. Seat capacity could drop by almost three-quarters, resulting in a $273 billion loss, compared to previous forecasts, the agency warned.
Airline executives and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin have described the coronavirus crisis as worse than what the industry experienced after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.