What To Expect When You Fly In The Future

Flying means going to the airport, dropping off your luggage at check in, maybe buying a coffee in the terminal, and finally taking a seat on a crowded plane. That journey now looks to some travelers like a potential minefield for catching the coronavirus. And that's one big reason so many people have stopped traveling.

[Bill Lentsch, Chief Customer Experience Officer, Delta] It's no secret that the travel industry has seen an incredible drop in demand.

[Dr. Lindsey Marr, Airborne Viral Transmission Expert, Virginia Tech] I think it's important for them to put measures into place that can help travelers feel a little more comfortable.

The crowded spaces, shared surfaces, and necessary human interaction in airports and on airplanes all have the potential to spread the virus between travelers and ultimately between countries.

[Rick Cotton, Executive Director, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey] The airport experience, like many of our experiences today are going to be transformed by these new technological capabilities.

So what is the industry doing to make us feel safe again? And how could that change the way we fly? Let's start at check in.

[Dr. Lindsey Marr] The use of face masks by everyone is going to be the most important measure we can take to minimize the risk of transmission while traveling.

In India, passengers have to show they have a contact tracing app installed on their phones in order to enter the terminal. And at Delhi International Airport, luggage has to go through a UV sanitizing tunnel as well.

Inside the airport, on top of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, some companies have started making prototypes for self-service kiosks that are touch free. This one from Millennium Automation, allows travelers to make selections by moving their head.

[Rick Cotton] The evolution in that direction actually started significantly before the pandemic. The pandemic has added urgency. To the greatest extent possible, if a touch is required, it's on your device, on your phone.

For those with luggage to check, kiosks that allow flyers to tag and handover bags themselves could become the norm. But for now, many still require you to pass luggage off to an agent, which means standing in line. But now with all the basic social distancing accessories.

[Bill Lentsch] There are social distancing markers in all of the queue areas. There will be plexiglass shields at every station where an agent is available to assist a customer.

Next, comes security. This is where some airports are trying to not only prevent Covid-19 transmission, but identify passengers that may be carrying the virus. London's Heathrow Airport is running trials of temperature scans to look for travelers with a fever. That said, a fever is only a symptom, not a confirmation someone has or doesn't have the virus.

And Lufthansa plans to offer coronavirus tests to flyers in Germany. The airline says travelers will get results in about four hours.

[Bill Lentsch] Nine eleven birthed the TSA. We anticipate there is going to be something to ensure the customers safe transit through air travel.

In the US, the TSA was already using facial recognition, rather than manual ID checks to screen some travelers. But with a desire for more touchless tech, you might be seeing more biometric entry in the future.

[Rick Cotton] To some extent, facial technology may come into it, for those who are comfortable with it.

The TSA says biometric checks are quicker, but packed security lines still pose a transmission risk. One possible solution, security appointments. Montreal's International airport has allowed travelers to book a time slot online for years. And a similar system could help other airports avoid crowding.

Once through security, travelers face the potential of crowded restaurants and shops. At the Port Authority's airports, flyers can use their phones to order food and retail items directly to their gate, rather than risk lines and further interaction. It's important for airport's revenues to get this right.

One industry group estimates that airports bring in about seven dollars per passenger from non-aviation revenue. Now that may not sound like much, but last year, 140 million passengers passed through the Port Authority's airports. And some brands, like Estee Lauder, have higher sales at major airports than they do in North American department stores. But just waiting at the gate may not be travelers best option either as crowds tend to form ahead of boarding.

[Dr. Lindsey Marr] If it were me, I would probably hang out somewhere else in the airport, at a different gate, and wait until they're boarding.

Delta is hoping to avoid the rush by boarding planes 10 flyers at a time. And they still have to be wearing those masks.

[Bill Lentsch] If customers do not have a mask, we will have masks and we will have sanitizer available for them throughout the journey.

The plane itself presents one of the biggest challenges in avoiding the spread of the virus. For airlines, mitigation efforts start before travelers board.

[Bill Lentsch] We do electrostatic spraying prior to every departure. The spray will kill viruses on contact.

When boarding, Delta, like some others, is starting with passengers in the back of the plane to limit traffic jams in the aisle. And Singaporean Airline Scoot is restricting the amount of hand luggage you can bring on board to avoid a scrum at the overhead bins.

Once seated, travelers will likely have some extra space. Delta has, for now, banned the middle seat and is limiting the amount of passengers on board.

[Bill Lentsch] No airline will be dispatched above a 60% seating capacity. So if there are 100 seats on board, no more then 60 customers on board the aircraft.

Still that seating cap isn't in place for all airlines. And some travelers have reported crowded flights. And when the middle seat does return, it may be surrounded by dividers or facing the other way. The confined space makes onboard ventilation even more important to people. Good airflow is key to diluting the amount of virus potentially floating around.

[Bill Lentsch] We use filters called Hepa filters, the same filters they use in hospital ICUs and emergency rooms. Every two to five minutes, depending upon the aircraft type, the air on board the airplane is exchanged with outside air.

Some airlines are also eliminating meal services, in flight magazines, and duty free cards. While others, including Delta, are opting for pre-wrapped snack packages, all to minimize contact.

For now, airports and airlines are able to implement some of those strategies because not that many people are flying. Which is also due to travel restrictions and reduced flights.

But the real question is whether airports and airlines will invest in these measures and whether they can afford to operate with them in the long run.

[Bill Lentsch] We are not gonna give up on our level of safety. And if means that we have got to completely re-engineer our processes, in order to allow more to come, and allow profitability to return, we are going to do it.

Until there's a world-wide standard, a lot of these crucial decisions will ultimately come down to the individual airlines and airports.

[Dr. Lindsey Marr] These measures have to be effective because if there is some outbreak on an airplane, then that's gonna, nobody's gonna want to travel anymore.

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