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Future of Travel: Airlines

 Future of Travel [Part 3]: Airlines

In our third article we tackle the big kahuna – airline travel in the future.  Until consumers feel safe and confident about getting on an airplane, it doesn’t matter when the rest of the world opens up again for travel. If we see airports as the “gate keepers,” the key to getting this show back on the road, airlines are the vehicle driving business to the rest of the travel/tourism industry - the hotels, cruise lines, tour companies, etc.  It will be airlines’ challenge to make their customers feel safe again.  There’s no question the desire to travel again is high; but surveys show that most consumers remain wary of the airplane travel.

In the short-term, we all have a good idea what to expect when we get on a plane this summer or fall.  Expect hand sanitizers, the “metered boarding” procedures, restrictions on food and beverage service, passengers and flight attendants wearing masks – all the stuff you have read about in the media.  No, it won’t be fun.  Yes, it will mean a much slower process navigating through the airport, boarding, and disembarking.

Over the next year or so, there will be significant changes in airlines.  Big airlines will become smaller.  And many small airlines, particularly the low-cost carriers, may disappear – as the short-term restrictions on high-density flights will make them uncompetitive.  Airline route systems may change: the “hub and spoke” system – invented in the USA after deregulation – may all but disappear as travellers seek to minimize the time spent on planes and airports and switch to more costly, but quicker direct flights.  We’ve already seen this pattern developing pre-COVID, and it will only accelerate now that there is good reason to avoid unnecessary time in the air and hanging out in airports.

But what will airline travel look like once we put the COVID crisis to rest?  Most articles you read right now are fixated on the idea that we will remain germaphobes and xenophobes forever.  We won’t.  Eventually many things will revert to the way they were in the past.  We’ll see a return to full flights (but maybe with less seat density than before), proper meal service in premium classes, flight attendants who don’t look like they are working in hospital surgery.  While much will stay the say, let’s explore what will change in airline travel forever.

I made the case in the previous article [Airports] that after an initial phase of chaos and endless line-ups, airport procedures will be streamlined, and eventually checking in at an airport may become a breeze.  We will wonder why we ever put up with the way things used to be at airports.

I think the same will be true for the onboard airline experience.  Once new technologies, processes, and procedures evolve, we may find flying to be surprisingly pleasant!  [No one believes me; but remember you heard it here first.] 

First let’s tackle a sensitive subject – prices.  One popular misconception is the airlines are going to have to float incredibly low prices to lure consumers back.  While there may be a bit of that at the start, don’t hold your breath.  As long as airlines cannot fill their planes due to new social distancing policies – something that could drag on until there is an effective treatment for COVID-19 or vaccine – prices will be higher.  In fact, we may come to see the crazy low prices of the past decade to be the anomaly.  We all think of low airfares as “normal.”  In fact, consistently low airfares – what we have experienced in the last decade – are the exception, not the norm.  If you look back at previous eras – eg. the 1970’s – travel was a luxury, not for everyone.  Airfares, in today’s dollars, were out of reach for many people.  As one airline executive put it, “travel may become a more select experience in the future.”

Consistently, when I asked airline executives how they think airlines will handle adding capacity, I was told that “supply will follow demand.”  In other words, airlines are not going to aggressively add back routes and frequency until demand makes it realistic to do so.  As economists tell us, when demand outpaces supply you get higher prices.  So, the combination of limited seating and high demand will generate higher airfares.  Travel may become less a commodity and more a luxury like it was when I was growing up.  It was a really big deal when my mother and father took a flight to L.A.  No one in our circle had ever done anything so glamorous!  Future travel may not be that far out of reach of “regular people,” but I think you will see changes in this direction.

This won’t be the end of “mass tourism.” The deals will be limited to “charter” markets like Mexico and high frequency domestic flights.  Overseas routes, however, may never again see low prices.   There will in effect be two classes of travellers – the mundane, commoditized travel to certain vacation spots and business centres, and the “exotic” international routes, accessible only to the wealthier part of the population or those who save their pennies for a special “once in a lifetime” trip.

Onboard, I think you’ll eventually see full planes again, but – mercifully – with more space, both legroom and seat width.  Even after the “physical distancing” regime is over, I think that this crisis will make a permanent imprint on some people.  A certain sector of fliers will have become germaphobes and nervous being too close to strangers.  Airlines will have to cater to this demand; and this probably will mean more spacious seating than in the bad old days.  Expect to see more Premium Economy rows.

Airlines are already making a big deal about enhanced sanitation and hygiene procedures.  While most people will likely return to their careless ways, a significant enough number of people to never recover from our hand-washing, germophobic ways to force airlines to develop better technology and procedures to eliminate germs on the plane.  Expect cleaning crews to use special lighting to highlight germs, and apply long-lasting disinfectants.  We’ve all heard about studies showing the food tray is the filthiest surface on the plane.  Emphasis on hygiene on planes will be one permanent change for the better!

Airlines will introduce touchless or low-touch solutions.  We’ll all have to accept the electronic boarding pass on your mobile device, for example.  People will resist touching paper others have touched.  There’s no reason more things can’t be accomplished during online check-in, and a simple “tap” of your mobile device at a kiosk could print out the baggage tag – or better still, we could all start to use smart tags, which are scannable for each trip.  No paper, no touching!  Onboard the plane, be prepared for a return to TV Dinners from the 60’s as airlines try to minimize handling of food.  Ordering of food and payment could simply be handled by an app.  Creative airlines could leverage this to eventually offer a broader range of food and amenities.  An app could tell you, for example, that there are still 2 strawberry sundaes left in the galley, which you can order from your seat!

We all have heard that many airlines have put a stop to all service on short-range flights.  I think we’ll see a return to food and beverage service in the future, but with lots of differences.  Flight attendants will likely be wearing gloves.  (Hopefully, stylish ones, not clinical gloves, which is just creepy!)  Undoubtedly, food will be pre-packaged to give the passenger some assurance that handling has been minimized.  One would hope that airlines will find ways of delivering creative, even delightful food choices, rather than a return to the old “TV Dinners” we once saw in Economy Class. 

Maybe food and beverage delivery will be eliminated altogether, and vending machines will be installed for the economy cabin (like on many trains).  This would not be a bad thing.  How many of us don’t disapprove of flight attendants being treated as waiters?  They were and are there for our safety.  I’m told that United Airlines was the first airline to introduce flight attendants, and they all had to be trained nurses!

As for premium classes - Premium Economy, Business, and First - what will food and beverage service look like?  Well, I have to quote my favourite line from my interviews with airline executives.  “No more warm nuts!”  Airlines will be very reluctant to return to “plated meals,” meals prepared onboard by flight attendants.  Will this mean “TV Dinners” in first class?  Well, maybe at first; but eventually expect some creativity to produce interesting and delicious meals which hold up well to being prepared hygienically off-site.  Again, like our hopes for a more pleasant efficient airport experience, when it comes to food onboard planes, we can hope that the day will come when we will look back at the past and wonder why we put up with such mediocrity. 

Here's a summary of my predictions about the onboard experience on airlines in the future, after we recover from the trauma of the COVID-19 crisis: 

  • No more carry-on luggage
  • Better spacing between seats
  • Safer, fresher food
  • Seamless check-in, baggage-drop, security, and boarding procedures
  • (as much as possible handled in advance electronically)
  • New respect for flight attendants (recognition that they are safety specialists, not waiters)
  • Fewer connections, more direct flights
  • Safer, cleaner onboard environment
  • No coughing, sneezing seatmates (they will be screened out before boarding)
  • Touchless technology
  • …and “no more warm nuts!”

 David Elmy, President
The Travel Group



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