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What to expect when flying right now

As the world emerges from COVID-19, hygiene and safety on board aircraft are being prioritised more than ever. But which new measures are here to stay? We look at what you can expect when travelling right now.


Airports are staying ahead of the curve

Travellers are returning to a different experience to the one they left behind in 2019. Airports have introduced a slew of new measures to make air travel safer for travellers and their staff. These precautions include enhanced cleaning measures, more self-service and greater social distancing. 

You might see that certain seats are taped off in the airport departure lounge, or there’s more noticeable presence of cleaning staff. Hand sanitiser pumps will likely be dotted around, and you might find more self-service cash registers than you remember from before the pandemic.

Expect increased social distancing and health checks

In order to ensure travel stays open, airports are doing what they can to reduce the need for human-to-human contact, and many experts expect these heightened measures – including temperature screening in some airports – to stay in place for the foreseeable future.

“Just as security has become a large ingredient in air travel this century, so health security will entrench another layer of process.”

Peter Harbison, Chairman Emeritus, CAPA – Centre for Aviation

Face masks are here to stay (for now)

Passengers are usually required to wear face coverings for the duration of the flight, apart from when they’re eating or drinking, which also significantly lowers the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19.

Coronavirus is primarily a respiratory-transmitted disease, so It’s important to wear a mask when flying because you’ll often be in close proximity to other travellers. Masks are an easy way to give yourself an extra layer of protection. 

A female tourist crosses a stone bridge on holiday wearing a face mask. Face masks are here to stay for the foreseeable future of travel

Airplane air filtration systems are really effective

Most airplanes use HEPA air filtration systems, which are the same as those used in operating theatres. They are extremely effective at removing airborne pathogens and make the air at 30,000ft generally cleaner than you’d find indoors on the ground! According to National Geographic, 40% of the cabin’s air is recycled through this system while 60% is taken from outside. On most planes, the air in the cabin is completely replaced every three minutes.

“Most aircraft are equipped with HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) air filters. These filters provide a complete air change once every two to four minutes. We are working toward electrostatic spraying inside our aircraft every seven days. Electrostatic spraying kills 99.9% of viruses and bacteria within 10 minutes and remains effective for up to 7 days.”

Tamer Uysal, Manager, American Airlines

Onboard: less moving but more elbow room

As air travel begins to return to normal, many airlines are gradually increasing their full food and beverage services during flights, though a return to full service may take a little longer.

You may be asked to remain seated for the duration of the flight except for using the bathrooms, (which are bing disinfected during flights), but there is a pretty good chance you’ll gain a bit of space. Some (but not all) airlines have taken the decision to maximise social distancing on the plane by leaving the other one or two seats in each row free.

An air steward hands out snacks in an airplane cabin.

“For a while, you’ll get less service and fewer amenities. This might last beyond the pandemic. I think most of it will come back, but not until high-value travellers return. If airlines are just getting by with cheap fares, they’re not going to be in a rush to return drink service. Certainly more self-service is here to stay.”

Brian Sumers, Senior Aviation Business Editor, Skift

Travel safety is still top of our minds

We ran a survey of over 850 travellers from the US, UK and Australia asking them what they considered most important when choosing a flight since the emergence of COVID-19. “Passenger and crew wellbeing”, “health screening processes”, “enhanced cabin cleaning processes” and “air quality on the aircraft” came out on top.

You’re not alone if you’re thinking about how to stay safe while travelling. The new normal will account for this new focus on health. The travel industry is not only listening, they are working hard to make sure we feel safe when we fly.

A woman wearing a face mask has her temperature checked. This could be the what the future of travel looks like as we emerge from COVID-19.

“We are witnessing a step change now as the industry responds to the concept of health security – how to ensure the end-to-end travel experience is virus-free. There are a number of challenges here, ranging from logistical to documentation or certification. But in much the same way that travellers adapted to pre-flight security screening, they will need to adapt to a new, health-focused normal.”

Hugh Aitken, VP Commercial, Skyscanner

What could the future of travel look like?

Some experts are speculating about what the future of air travel looks like, and how the industry can embrace some cutting-edge solutions. For example, disinfection tunnels that clean each traveller from head to toe have been tested in China. Baggage could undergo deep cleaning, using a disinfectant fog or UV light, which kills bacteria. Tokyo airport is has trialled personal mobility machines for disabled passengers. Completely autonomous, they don’t require someone to push them as they travel on a pre-programmed route.

A person sits on a roof by an airport and watches a plane fly over, perhaps contemplating the future of travel.

“Existing technology will become more popular faster than expected”

Andrew O’Connor, Vice President of portfolio management at Sita

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaped the future of air travel, but these extra precautions are getting us back in the skies.

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