The coronavirus pandemic has plunged U.S. air travel passenger numbers to a 65-year low and IATA estimates that airlines could lose $61 billion of their cash reserves during the second quarter of 2020. Anne De Hauw, founder of Monaco-based consultancy IN Air Travel Experience, talks about the future of air travel.
Air passenger traffic after the COVID-19 outbreak will never be the same. Yet, despite a social, sanitary and economic disruption of unprecedented scale, industry experts agree that a revolutionized air travel will progressively emerge in the private, corporate and leisure sectors.
The private aviation sector had benefited from a remarkable spike in bookings at the early stage of the pandemic, mainly due to increased demand for repatriation, but most operators are suffering and face an uncertain future with no foreseeable easing of international air travel.
Demand for chartered jets will most likely be fueled by sanitation fears. With a significantly lower number of touch points, some private jet companies claim they pose less of a health risk than commercial airlines, which could tempt jetsetters and business travelers to fly privately.
A report out of the U.K this weekend highlights just that. While 130 countries have shut their borders, the U.K. has exceptionally kept an open border policy. Since lockdown began there on March 23, unbelievably, 545 chartered planes entered the country from coronavirus hotspots, including 25 aircraft from Spain, 27 from France, 32 from Germany, and, according to flight data supplied by WingX, an aviation consultancy, 15 from the U.S.
In commercial aviation, business demand, both short- and long-haul, is expected to rebound relatively quickly as companies will have to kickstart their cashflow. The speed of recovery will depend on the economy and whether remote-working policies will remain quasi-mandatory for the long-term.
For leisure travel, short-haul should bounce back more rapidly than longer flights as housebound passengers frenziedly seek to get away on spontaneous trips that take little planning.
Regardless of whether you travel private, commercial or leisure, one thing is for sure: the entire airline industry is going to have to restore passenger confidence by redefining the way we fly, incorporating social distancing, contactless experience and increased sanitization.
Many aircraft nowadays are equipped with HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arrestors) air recirculation filters that capture and remove viruses with high efficiency, and complying with updated hygiene regulations and rules of social distancing during travel will become top priority for airlines.
Will we see change in aircraft interiors, specifically with seat pitches and the one-meter principle? Not likely, as redesigning aircraft interiors takes years and would be financially suicidal for many airlines, who currently are on the brink of bankruptcy.
Substantially reduced seating on an existing aircraft would bring some savings on fuel consumption due to lower aircraft weight, but fare increases would have to compensate for the reduction in the number of passengers carried.
EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren has already suggested that middle seats “could be kept empty to keep passengers safe.”
In terms of inflight service, the model will be scrutinized and the end-to-end experience will have to be reinvented. Technology will take centre stage to overcome the hurdles of this new reality.
Onboard connectivity will transform the inflight experience from a closed and proprietary environment to an open and connected world, creating endless opportunities to generate ancillary revenues. Initiatives to digitize food service, onboard hospitality and shopping will gain ground and data-driven solutions will ensure passengers are only presented relevant and hyper-personalized offers.
While it is difficult to predict future passenger trends mid-crisis, touching surfaces and interacting with agents will have to be minimized, which is why, again, automation, robotics and biometrics will drive digital contactless transformation.
Airlines will have to react quickly to reinvent the travel experience and accelerating innovation will be key to reinstall short-term confidence and long-term business strategies. Those who get it right will stand out from the competition and define our new reality.
The truth is, though, that while many travelers in the past have had short-term memory (security measures post-9/11 or health risk from SARS in 2003), the impact of COVID-19 (security, health, economy) will not soon be forgotten.