12 Things To Expect When People Start Flying Again

Air travel isn’t going to open back up all at once, or evenly everywhere. It won’t be uniform even domestically, and it’ll happen in waves across the world. People will be afraid to fly. Some businesses will have gotten used to online meetings and won’t fly as much. The world of air travel is going to be very different as we (eventually) transition back into the air.

Here are 12 things I expect to see:

  1. Some changes to social norms will be sticky. We might keep washing our hands more, we’ll value personal space more (airlines that make middle seat blocking an elite benefit will attract customers, and we’ll all be much more comfortable with videoconferencing. That could mean some trips at the margin won’t happen just because we won’t feel it’s necessary to meet in person.

  2. Important people will be used to subordinates videoconferencing in. Many business trips are for show, signaling how important someone is – a team comes to visit a key sales prospect, or pitch a senior executive. We’re used to presence conveying importance. However we’ll get used to capturing signaling value in some other ways if the current situation goes on for long enough, again fewer trips will seem necessary.

  3. Domestic travel may not all re-start at the same time. Different parts of the U.S. have so far been affected by the COVID-19 spread differently. That’s likely to continue – there will be places with greater clusters of infections than others, and places that recover more quickly. Expect to see travel bans or quarantines for people leaving these clusters, and restrictions entering places that have already recovered. Whomever gets through this faster may get freedom to travel more quickly.

  4. Bill Gates thinks people will get electronic records of vaccination. Since there’s a big risk that COVID-19 returns even if we get it under control, and there won’t be the levels of immunity humanity has to the flu probably for some years, we may not be safe until there’s a vaccine. If Gates is right then new social monitoring will spread, requiring not just temperature checks at buildings (which could persist) but verification of vaccination. Anti-vaxxers, ascendant in recent years, are less likely to be accommodated by society.

  5. Not everyone may re-start traveling at the same time. People who have had COVID-19 and recovered will feel greater confidence to travel than those who haven’t had it. There will be a real paranoia around traveling. 62% of American Airlines passengers fly just once a year and this group is less likely to start traveling again as quickly. They represent 55% of the airline’s revenue.

  6. Not all businesses will re-start travel at the same time. Major events and trade shows won’t return so quickly. They can be ‘high risk’ (if people don’t show they’re huge money losers) and there’s a long lead time to plan. These events are often planned a couple of years out, and uncertainty remains high.

    Will as many students go back to university in the fall, when they miss their friends some social distancing and their parents have seen portfolios drop by a third? So if we assume a lot more gap years, financial challenges for mid-tier private universities, expect less academic travel.

    On the other hand with money printer going brr and fiscal stimulus to match, lobbyist travel leads the way.

  7. Expect austerity service levels Since planes won’t be full initially, and airlines will likely lose a lot of money even after government subsidies, we probably see lower service levels than in the past (to save money and also with a nod to changing customer preferences to retain social distancing). A lot of hotel club lounges will stay closed. When we get back in the skies and on the road, it won’t be the same.

  8. International restrictions may remain sticky for longer than necessary. There will be massive lobbying to open up travel quickly. At the same time bureaucrats and politicians tend to be (personally, not ideologically) conservative. They don’t want to make the decision to lift bans early and be at fault for coronavirus-positive patients entering the country and spurring a second wave. There will be a tendency to keep borders closed. There will be waves of lifting restrictions rather than an ‘all at once’ worldwide approach.

  9. Expect more visa requirements the world we’ve been moving towards of visa-free travel for the ‘best’ passports (albeit with online ‘ESTA’ and the EU’s coming version of the same aside) seems likely to be behind us for awhile. Governments will likely do more to control their borders, not less, and people will be more sympathetic to those efforts. That benefits Republicans by the way, and Democrats will run from their past opposition to immmigration restrictions.

  10. Some places off-limits Even if we’re out of the woods in four months, not everywhere else is going to be. There are parts of the world that may be in earlier stages of spread that could still be facing crisis even when the U.S. and Europe are not.

  11. Passengers should expect health checks. Automated temperature checks arriving in Hong Kong were something I got used to after SARS. For a time there might even be required testing prior to entering a country and mandatory quarantines at least initially. It’s unclear how obtrusive this will be or for how long.

  12. Tensions will be high. It’s already been a bad idea to hug a flight attendant, many people have found themselves with planes turning back around to the gate and law enforcement waiting for them. Flying has been small ‘d’ democratic for some time, bringing together people from different backgrounds and beliefs. And there will be an even greater gap between the preferences and beliefs of passengers going forward since people will hold onto this experience in different ways. Some people will insist on a lot more social distancing than before, in a metal tube that has densified in recent years. More seats, and as planes do fill up, expect more conflict in the skies.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Viruses mutate every year, (and maybe within the year) so getting a vaccination and providing proof does what? It doesn’t mean you’ll be vaccinated for the next mutation? That’s why flu shots aren’t as effective as people hope.

    Also my understanding is that viruses mutate to less virulent state not more so, as going more virulent is not an advantage to the virus.

    If there is a new virus next year, then we are in the same position, no vaccinations available etc. But it doesn’t by definition have to be as communicable or damaging as this one is.

    Hey I’m not the most informed person, but I don’t see how having a vaccination for this years virus next year gets you very far.

  2. @Gina, I know what you mean. I was reading more about the 1918 pandemic and that one had 3 waves where the second wave occurred in fall 1918 and was deadlier than the first wave (apparently the virus mutated and infected younger and healthier people aged 25-35.) Crazy times. I know it’s not 1918 and this is 2020 but who knows what will happen in the near future.

  3. As a conservative, I have learned to understand and appreciate the need for some government intervention when the urge for the purest sense of capitalism needs a correction course. We heard this recently from U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) who explained the need for government intervention to protect our national security by reigning in the hellbent posture of the pharmaceutical industry to move production to the lowest cost countries. Nobody questioned how this industry was hollowed out and handed over to Red China, until the realization that our medicines were held captive by a growing antagonist/enemy who now withholds the vital drugs researched and patented by U.S. firms.

    This background is to substantiate my point that government intervention is sometimes a blessing. Thanks to the Staggers Act of 1980, the freight railroads (Class 1’s) were released from the burden of over-regulation and price controls (previously created by government). The Class 1’s were allowed to compete on price and marketing; within a decade merged to eliminate duplicated infrastructure.

    Today, we should favorably look upon government intervention in the airline sector as a way to reign in some of its undesirable extremes in the name profit. For example, AA’s CEO Parker and his Board should be placed under a microscope for their anti labor and anti consumer experience policies that is anathema to the traveling public. Perhaps some government attention can change that mentality to embrace that of Southwest, which long ago stated its position: treating their employees was #1; doing so the employees would take care of the passengers; in turn, passengers would look favorably upon WN as a stock to buy.

    Federal financial intervention cannot overlook the problems created by AA in its drive to be the purest capitalist.

  4. There may also be a rebound to more in person meetings when reasonable as a rebound against the hell that online meetings can be.

  5. #13 — PDBs will need to be re-evaluated for all domestic carriers. Expect to see an uptick of frustrated elites who feel this is a crucial part of their in-flight experience.

  6. @ Gina, not to single you out, but just want people to get right information.

    Viruses are not the same, some mutate more than others. Influenza virus mutates a lot, thus new vaccines based on best guess of dominant strain that year. Others do not, hence one series of vaccines for Hepatitis B, Varicella (Shingles), and certain strains of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).

    Depending on more information on the novel coronovirus, once we have a vaccine, it may be that we need repeated vaccines or not. Either way, having vaccine will help, we just don’t know for how long yet.

  7. @Gary you make an interesting point about trade shows being planned years in advance. With hundreds if not thousand of trade shows and expos cancelled where does a company even find the confidence to try and plan for the next or how will they know when. Do you think people would just start planning for late 2021 since trade shows take so long to plan?

    Also I want to point out to everyone that Iceland has done the most comprehensive testing and they’ve found that covid-19 already has 40 separate strains but their believes to be less severe but have the potential to become a yearly virus.

  8. How about planes actually being cleaned? Or how about airports actually being cleaned as well? Those are the most important changes I am looking forward to.

  9. There may indeed be yearly mutations of coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean we’ll face a crisis of this magnitude every year. First, simply developing a coronavirus vaccine in the first place (which has never existed for any other of the 7 known coronaviruses) will make developing subsequent mutation vaccines much easier. Second, prior vaccination for a previous mutation of a virus usually means future infections are less severe. Third, we’ll obviously be producing billions of coronavirus tests (and hopefully influenza as well) every year from now on, so as the virus mutates and becomes endemic in our species (as, say, the cold-causing rhinovirus and minor coronaviruses are) the world will likely get much better at early detection of outbreaks that allow for far more precise control and response.

    We had a warning shot from the first novel coronavirus – SARS – in 2003, but it didn’t go global, so sadly we didn’t invest the time or resources in building testing capacity or developing a vaccine. We’d all be far better off as a world if we had done so.

  10. @Mark You are so correct in your comments on where we are now at with capitalism. Not only in the airline business but in almost every company or industry that operates in this country. I often wondered what it would take to build an impenetrable ceiling on capitalism. As up to this point, no CEO, no company, no industry could ever think that they would ever have a limit as to how much money they can make, mostly at the expense of the other 99%. of the struggling masses in this country. So now we have the invisible invader called Covid-19 that appears to be the ceiling, or at least the “let’s take a breath guys” reminder.
    The really sad part is the reality that some individuals have to lose their lives in the name of incompetence and greed for money. For those of you who know about the “frog in the boiling pot” story, the question must be asked – “Is it to late to jump out of the pot?”

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