The SARS-CV-2 virus has created the nightmare scenario for airline traffic around the world, with international restrictions and a population that is too fearful to fly. Traffic levels in affected areas are down 95% year to year, and the rates of infection and growth are different by region, both within single countries and among countries on a continental scale. The key questions that everyone is asking are what needs to be done to bring passengers back, and how long will that take? As Yogi Berra once said, “the future ain’t what it used to be.”
Our assessment isn’t a very optimistic one, as the virus is still raging here in the United States, and while some cities have reached their peak and are on the downside of the curve, others have not, with “hotspots” popping up that need to be addressed. The optimistic answer is that in another couple of months, the new infection rate will drop to near zero in key areas, as that businesses and travel can re-open. The risk is that the re-opening is too fast, and that a second wave of infections occurs, largely from infected people who show no symptoms to the disease.
Clearly, the news media aren’t telling us the whole story. There have been five different strains of the virus identified in the United States. With many infected persons showing no symptoms, and others showing severe symptoms, one might logically conclude that some strains are more potent than others and have more dangerous impacts. But without analysis of those strains and testing to determine if, for example, hard-hit New York has a different strain than Seattle, we won’t know which strains to look for or look out for.
Today, our knowledge of the disease and the ability to test for the disease, antibodies, and to determine whether antibodies for one protect against another leave us without the medical knowledge we need to make intelligent decisions on re-opening.
In the absence of facts, we need to rely on models to project what might happen, and what the impacts could be. Traditionally, model-makers have been more draconian than reality. From MIT’s Jay Forrester in the 1970s to Al Gore’s ridiculous conclusions in An Inconvenient Truth, most models have been off and doom and gloom projections unrealized. The same may be happening now given the wide variance in model projections during our current crisis. We can only be certain of one thing – the models will be wrong, and hope that it is not an order or orders of magnitude error.
Let’s now apply what we know to aviation. First, this virus appears to be exceptionally contagious to those exposed. Second, many of those exposed to or who carry the virus show few or no symptoms at all. Third, the vast majority of deaths from this virus are among older people with pre-existing conditions. Fourth, it appears that the medical community is over-counting fatalities from Covid-19 by misdiagnosing other conditions, such as pneumonia. Fifth, the death toll appears equal to that attributed to an exceptionally bad influenza outbreak, and in those situations, the country neither wore masks nor shut down.
Given that, and the fact that HEPA systems aboard aircraft are 99.7% efficient at eliminating similarly sized viruses, it appears that getting to and from the aircraft is the key area for risk, including getting to and through the airport.
The recommendation to socially distance simply does not work aboard an aircraft. To achieve a six-foot social distancing, all middle seats, and every other row would need to be blocked, which would make flying uneconomic unless we want to return to the days of the “jet set” in the 1960s when only wealthy people could afford to fly. Clearly, social distancing cannot work on a commercial airline, and given the efficiency of air handling systems on aircraft, the key is keeping sick people off the aircraft.
That may mean temperature checks on the ground and questioning passengers to ensure that they are not ill. I, for example, suffer from seasonal allergies, and this time of the year will likely sneeze occasionally. Would that be too frightening in a crowded airplane, even though it is readily explainable and not Covid-19 related?
Do we dare go as far as testing every passenger that comes through the airport? Do we have the room as we go through the TSA checkpoints to ensure that every passenger is tested and if results are positive to prevent the traveler from boarding? Can we be certain that the tests produce few false positives and even fewer false negatives? Until we have “instant tests” that can provide results quickly, medical checks will need to be cursory.
What about vaccines, which pharmaceutical firms are rushing to develop? Most vaccines take years to develop and properly test. I don’t plan to be a guinea pig for a new vaccine that hasn’t been properly tested. Since vaccine makers cannot be sued under US law were something to go wrong, I certainly don’t want to be an early test case. If a certificate of vaccination is required to fly, I guess I’ll be grounded until it is proven to be safe and without side-effects.
Finally, do we know that vaccination will really work? The recent measles outbreaks in the US have shown that students with vaccinations were coming down with the disease – meaning the vaccination did not provide immunity or wore off. Despite Dr. Salk and his vaccine, I contracted polio as a child after being immunized. From experience, I’m skeptical about vaccines.
So, what can we expect for air travel? Social distancing at the airport is nearly impossible. Try findings an empty seat near a gate at peak times, which at many airports is simply impossible. Then, when flight boarding is announced, the crush is on, and the aisles of the aircraft quickly fill with passengers. Unfortunately, during this phase, the air handling systems of the aircraft are normally not running, and the air coming through the open door to the terminal is not filtered. Solving that risk is problem number one.
Getting off the airplane at the end of the flight also has everyone standing and waiting to exit the airplane, only to stand and wait close together at baggage claim, hoping that you see your bag before someone else walks off with it. Again, a crowd scene, often with luggage from more than one flight intermixed at a carousel. So much for tracking of passengers and close contacts.
Then comes ground transportation and the great dispersal of passengers to their destination. How safe are cabs or Ubers and their drivers? How clean are the automobiles? In thinking about things, the plane itself, once you have boarded and unloaded, may be the safest portion of your trip.
What’s likely to happen is going to depend on how quickly air routes re-open, the status of testing, and the ability to control crowds of passengers lined up 2 meters apart for appropriate social distancing. Here’s how I think the trip to the airport will go.
Being dropped off at departures, hopefully with a boarding pass in hand, luggage will be “self-checked” using a kiosk that will print a baggage tag based on your reservation and have a place to weigh and send the bag onto the belt. All the while, these new kiosks will maintain “social distancing” with floor marking on where to queue and appropriate distances between them. Of course, finding where to put them may be the next problem, as airport queues can become quite long and most facilities are older and smaller than they need to be.
The baggage will likely be sent through an exterior wipe down with disinfectant on its way to the airplane, likely fumigated with a spray. That will ensure that the virus is not spread to baggage handlers that will load baggage onto the airplane.
Then to the screening line, again, appropriately distanced. We’ll need to modify a few airport roadways to accommodate the new and longer lines that will likely stretch around the terminal or in S-like arrangements with many twists and turns. That Clear or TSA Precheck line will look more and more inviting as an investment.
As we get in the new “socially distanced” TSA lines with floor markings to stand on and move up to, one step at a time, our temperatures will be taken and facial recognition software utilized to match our faces to an ID. That can help eliminate the need for the TSA agent to review documents, as photos on file will come up on computer screens to match with passengers. With many choosing to wear masks, this might not be so easy, but the computer will help in the verification process.
If you have a temperature, you will be asked to join a separate line that leads to a medical checkpoint, and a potential 15-minute test for Covid-19 (and whatever comes after it). Positive tests will likely not be allowed to fly and sent packing, of course requiring that any checked baggage be removed from the aircraft and returned to the passenger at the specified exit from the terminal. That “infected passenger exit” will likely be an unmarked doorway somewhere near baggage claim.
From there, it will be into the terminal. If you are a member of an airline club, you can enter their lounge, if space is available. With new social distancing requirements, clubs will need to grow to accommodate the number of people they formerly did. Inside the club, the buffet line for food may disappear, as passengers now fear contamination of food by other passengers. The hot food in chafing dishes will be replaced by packaged snacks. Enjoy your cheese and crackers, and head for the gate.
At the gate, new boarding procedures will be in place, with boarding by rows. Passengers will likely line up in groups that include passengers from the last row, two or three rows before that, and two or three rows before that to spread out the distance passengers are heading towards and ensure that the process is done quickly and efficiently. New algorithms will be worked out on a plane by plane basis to determine which rows to line up in which order to ensure that boarding is efficient and effective. Pre-boarding for frequent flyers, who covet the limited overhead space, may become a thing of the past.
Today, first-class boards first, and typically watches every passenger on the plane pass by. As that is something most passengers will not want to experience, first-class may board last, rather than first, with flight attendants blocking the first-class overhead bins until first-class boards. In an aisle seat in first class, the last thing I want is exposure to every passenger on the plane two inches away.
Once everybody is on, and the plane takes off, the flight attendants will offer beverages and, perhaps meals. Many passengers will be loath to trust airline meals, instead carrying on their own sandwiches made at home or purchased in the terminal. The fear of not knowing who prepared their meal may cause passengers to not choose airline food, and the airlines may quickly adjust by not offering it on short and medium-haul flights. Drinks will likely continue to be served, and alcohol sales, which have risen with folks stuck at home, may be higher than normal as air travel resumes.
There really isn’t a way to easily socially distance onboard an aircraft. Blocking off middle seats on an airplane simply doesn’t work economically, as there is tremendous price elasticity in this industry, as the low and ultra-low-cost carriers have proven.
The Bottom Line:
As we’ve always known, the airplane portion is the safest portion of the trip. Today, with the virus, it will still likely be the safest part of the journey, with the airport being the most dangerous element of a trip from a health standpoint, both physical and mental.
There are no easy solutions for the industry as it looks to adapt to the new environment. But travel may never return to the normal we once knew. As someone old enough to remember no security checks at all at airports and family being able to meet passengers at gates, life changed after several incidents. This one will be no different, and our experience will once again become more restrictive and complicated. Such is the curse of a modern surveillance society as 1984 has indeed arrived.