Change is the new constant of air travel post-coronavirus
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned out to be a catalyst for change in many industries. Take retail for example. The way Americans shop for goods was slowly pivoting from brick-and-mortar to digital. And in late March the pandemic accelerated the change in consumer behavior to buy online. Retailers with strong e-commerce platforms are thriving. While many others have filed for bankruptcy. Air travel is also starting to feel the effects of the catalyst. But the turbulence ahead is hard to see compared to other essential industries.
One thing is very clear. There’s a stigma in the air that traveling by plane will forever change once again. And that change has already begun. This change comes with caveats to consider. Are the changes temporary to ease current travel fear or are they the new normal? Will the experience be consistent across the country or globe? Is there a chance I’ll ever hear the words “chicken or lasagna” inside a plane again?
For planners like me, plan for change. Each airline, and each airport operator is taking measures that will vary from one another. Each measure of precaution will share a similar intention: to make travelers feel safe. What will be different is how the experience comes to life. In part because no airport is the same. Not all destinations attract the same volume of visitors. And community impact is different by state and by countries. The best you can do is to be aware of what to expect when the world is ready for non-essential travel again.
The parts of the world you choose to visit might not be the ones on your bucket list. As airlines reduce their network to adjust for the lack of demand and the world reopens in phases, you might find yourself in Utah instead of California to explore the desert for example.
- Schedule changes: This will likely impact people who purchased airline tickets 8+ weeks in advance. Airlines with many flights to a destination are doing this already. Instead of flying five times a day between New York’s JFK and Orlando, FL, airlines are consolidating passengers to one or two flights. Sometimes to one airport within the same metro area. So instead of searching for flights from LGA, search from NYC for more options. Airlines are very fluid about this process and communicate the changes to passengers via email.
- Less nonstop flights & itinerary changes: This impacts how you get from point A to B. The Points Guy reports that “The DOT is allowing carriers to suspend flights to 5% of the U.S. destinations on their maps.” This translates into fewer options of nonstop flights available. Be prepared to receive a schedule change that could also include a surprise layover if A to B route is no longer in service. If you’re planning a new trip, you'll see very few nonstop flights to choose from.
Day of travel experience
In case there was a schedule change you’re unaware of, check your itinerary to make sure you’re going to the correct airport, at the correct date and time. You’ll also want to check what other aspects of your journey will be different. It’ll make the experience less stressful and save you time.
- Be prepared to wear PPE: To follow CDC guidelines, most airports and airlines are requiring face coverings for passengers and employees. Make sure to look up if your airport or airline requires this. And have your PPE handy so you don’t have to dig it out from your suitcase at curbside.
- Beware of terminal moves: Due to the decline of travel, airports with multiple concourses like Las Vegas have been closing some down to save on resources. For travelers, this means that flights might leave from a different concourse than you’re used to. Your mind might be on autopilot, so check your airport's website before you head out.
- Security lines will still take time: Just because there are fewer people flying, it doesn't mean that passing through security will be a breeze. The TSA is taking note of the CDC’s social-distancing guidelines and adjusting checkpoints. This can translate to extra time in line. The TSA recommends for travelers “to wash their hands directly before and after completing the security screening process and that you place personal items such as wallets, keys or phone in your carry-on property that will be screened through the X-ray system.”
- The club is on hold: Some airport lounges have paused operations as a way to mitigate the transmission of coronavirus. Priority Pass recommends its members to check the hours of operation for the lounge they wish to visit to see if it’s open. The same applies for airline operated lounges, check directly with them for opening updates.
- Snack time: Airlines are adjusting their services in-flight to cut physical transactions. This means that you might not have food options onboard your flight. Some airlines are offering very limited food service. JetBlue for example has temporarily replaced snack baskets and beverage service with a pre-sealed snack and beverage bag. Because of a lack of foot traffic at the airport, not all concessions might be open. So if you’re a picky eater like myself consider bringing a snack from home. Want to know if your snack is TSA approved? This list has you covered.
- Social distancing is taking off: The epitome of improper social distancing was the process to board a plane before COVID-19. Passengers would corral the gate area racing to board first once their boarding zone was called. Now airlines have put in place new processes to promote a safe and comfortable experience. Processes will vary by airline so note that you may want to pay close attention to announcements made by the gate agents. My partner flew home to visit his family over the weekend on Southwest and he was taken back by how quickly people adjusted to the current norm. They were calling up 10 passengers at a time to board and encouraged social distancing from wheels up to landing by capping the number of seats sold.
- Hygiene high-fives: Attention to how surfaces are cleaned and how often these are cleaned are top priority for the travel industry. Even before coronavirus, the circulation of air was designed to promote cleanliness and complemented with HEPA filters to capture 99.9% of particles like bacteria, fungi, and larger viruses or virus clumps. Today most airlines, like Delta, are fogging the airplane’s cabins to disinfect surface areas that everyone touches in-flight.
Change is in the air and sometimes it might add some complexities to your travel. Know what to expect so you can better prepare for your next air travel experience.