Coronavirus Air Travel: What Needs to Happen Before We Fly Again?

The coronavirus pandemic has brought air travel to a screeching halt around the globe. Government restrictions and stay-at-home orders have stopped passengers from crossing borders or even leaving their homes, sapping demand for flight bookings. In the wake of these unprecedented changes, experts are beginning to look ahead to how the airline industry will restart once the outbreak is mostly behind us.

When can we travel again, and what will it take to get air travel going again after so many different aspects of aviation have been put on months-long lockdown? There are countless moving pieces that need to be put in motion by organizations, airlines, and governments around the world to get air travel up and running in a post-coronavirus world. Our experts looked at the four biggest barriers we’ll need to cross before we get back in the skies.

Travel restrictions have to be rolled back, especially internationally

One of the major hits to air passenger demand has been the widespread travel restrictions in every corner of the world. Before international air travel can start to rebound, those will need to be rescinded.

“Regulatory restrictions will take longer to lift internationally,” says Jay Shabat, senior analyst at travel industry publication Skift. In China, for instance, “they’re not even taking international passengers at Beijing Airport right now. That kind of stuff may take longer to unravel and to get back to normal.”

Airlines that are still operating a scant few international flights—usually to transport protective gear like masks back to their home nations—are finding themselves stuck in a web of constantly changing international regulations. “They’re already seeing the challenge of regulations changing every two minutes” says Lauren Uppink, head of aviation, travel, and tourism at the World Economic Forum. “You might be flying somewhere and 10 minutes before landing you learn there’s a new rule on whether crew can actually enter the country or not. That’s already happening and will continue until everything is back to normal.”

Organizations like the World Economic Forum, Uppink says, are trying to broker larger agreements with governments, airlines, and airports to implement a smoother transition to opening up travel than the piecemeal way that nations closed their borders and airlines cut routes. That effort will take time, and meanwhile, airlines with a more robust domestic market could start to bounce back first.

“You’re going to see China and the U.S. are able to better balance domestic markets whereas [with] European carriers it’s much more difficult,” Uppink says. “They don’t have a big enough domestic market to carry their operations.” Small nation-states like Singapore and Hong Kong with extensive long-haul route networks will be in the same boat. “They’ve got many more restrictions to try and navigate—also much tinier domestic markets, so you are going to see that kind of disparity in terms of ability to rebound or length of recovery time,” she says.

Fleets need to come out of storage—and airplanes re-certified

About half the world’s fleet is grounded due to the coronavirus, estimates Helane Becker, an airline analyst at Cowen investment bank. Some of those are in long-term storage, with the engines preserved and all fuel and oil removed. When it’s time for all those planes to start flying again, it will take time to get them back into flying mode.

“Every aircraft has to be certified and tested for ongoing operations,” Uppink explains. “If you’ve got a number of aircraft parked off in the desert or in a storage yard somewhere, you might be keeping a portion of those, like 10 percent, checked up on weekly so they can be redeployed pretty quickly. But others, if they’re being parked and not run or the engines aren’t being turned on, it’s going to be a process to reinstate them.”

The fastest time frames for planes to be deployed is between 48 hours and five days, depending on how they’re stored, Uppink says. Each plane will have to meet certification standards set by the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization.

Many of the grounded planes won’t ever fly again: U.S. airlines will collectively retire between 800 and 1000 aircraft this year, according to Becker.

Conversely, a handful of carriers have continued flying most of their planes just to keep them ready to go when demand starts coming back, even if it means losing money. “Southwest is a good example,” Shabat says. “They’re losing money on every single flight that they operate.” Why doesn’t the airline ground all of its planes until the worst is over? “They said ‘we can’t just do that because we want to be ready to get going again when the time comes,’” he says.

As far as which routes airlines will begin ramping back up as the number of coronavirus cases improve, experts again expect for carriers to focus on domestic routes first. “People will be more reluctant to fly abroad at first,” Shabat says. “Their first time back on an airplane after all this might be, ‘I’m going to visit mom and dad in New York,’ rather than ‘I’m going to take a vacation in Paris.’”

As the outbreak begins to pass in China, and the nation’s air travel starts to recuperate, trends show that domestic markets are starting to recover. “China is now returning to work and relaxing domestic travel restrictions,” Brian Pearce, chief economist for the International Air Transport Association, said in a statement. “We’ve seen a slow resumption of domestic air services. Load factors of 60 percent show that passenger confidence is returning too, albeit slowly.”

Airline crew and airport workers have to be brought back in large numbers

It’s not just planes that are currently grounded: Thousands of flight attendants and pilots around the world have either been furloughed or have taken voluntary leave as fewer and fewer routes are operational. Bringing those critical staffers back into the fold post-outbreak must happen before airlines can restart their flights.

“It does take time, if you’re a pilot and you haven’t been flying for two months or three months, you have to get a certain number of [flying] hours,” Shabat says. These rules are called recency requirements. Any pilot whose recency has lapsed due to the outbreak will need to make up time in a flight simulator before hopping back into an actual cockpit.

“For crew on carriers, we have to make sure pilots are having their accreditation rechecked depending on how long they’ve been off,” Uppink says. But there’s also the challenge of staff who have been redeployed somewhere else, she says. In places like Sweden and the U.K., flight attendants have been asked to become medical assistants in field hospitals on the front lines of the pandemic. Other crew members have been recruited into temporary military service, according to Uppink. Airlines will focus on “building up [their] staff again in a smart and efficient way,” and then work on their employees’ certifications, she says.

Airport workers—who have been hard hit by furloughs as well—will also have to be brought back. “In airports you’re going to have the consideration of all your ground handling and security,” Uppink says. “And even just security clearance for airport staff that will have to be reactivated. All considerations that of course take time and are dependent on other things.”

Unfortunately, it’s not likely that all airline employees will be coming back on the job. Becker estimates that carriers will be about 30 percent smaller after this, and that there will be between 100,000 to 200,000 fewer workers employed at airlines worldwide by the end of the year than there were at the start of 2020.

Airports will need to adapt to new health measures

To help regain travelers’ trust after the pandemic abates, the air travel industry will need to implement new health regulations, especially in airports. “The first thing that’s probably going to look different in airports in particular is health screening,” Uppink says. “Trying to understand what the rules are for the health screening—that’s going to be top of mind for a lot of people to build that trust again.”

In order for operations to restart smoothly, airports around the world will need to agree upon uniform health measures. “If new screening measures are going to be put in place in a number of different airports, that’s going to take different ways of operating” for airlines, Uppink says. An European airline, for example, might have three neighboring countries with different rules on wearing masks in airports, she explains—far more difficult for a carrier to follow than one uniform rule around the world.

Airports that are now reopening might offer some clues as to what fliers can expect. “Some people are looking to China as a possible template for what might happen,” Shabat says. “They’re taking temperatures three or four times for every passenger as they pass through the airport and board the planes.”

Large international airports, like New York JFK or Newark, will probably need to redesign some of their operations for a post-social-distancing world, too. “These are very, very busy, very populous airports, and after this you’re going to find that you’re not going to be able to use the same kind of square footage for the same processing of passengers,” Uppink says. “So you’re going to have to consider airport redesign that adheres to whatever the governments are saying.”

Another change that could be coming down the pike? More technology, specifically biometrics. Facial recognition, fingerprint or eye-scan technology might become more common at security checkpoints and for check-ins, according to Uppink. “That was a really increasing technology we were seeing in airports anyhow, so there’s a lot of opportunity to involve any biometric or digital identity programs in a way that would enable touchless or faster processing of passengers through airports,” she says.

But mostly, air travel’s recovery will depend on striking the right balance between relaunching flights so passengers can book fares and reassuring fliers that it’s safe to be on a plane or in an airport again. Tackling that fear of going out in the world will be one of the key elements of restarting air travel, says Uppink: “You’ve got to convince governments, institutions, and travelers to overcome the fear.”


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