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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.