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  The Herman Trend Alert

September 9, 2020

Air Travel in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond

Not surprisingly, I personally miss getting on airplanes; I miss it a lot. Actually, I do not miss getting on airplanes as much as I miss meeting new people and being exposed to new cultures. But with the world living in fear and thousands of additional COVID-19 cases being added daily and deaths in the US approaching 200,000, I simply cannot justify it. Flying now would be like playing Russian Roulette with my own well-being. Plus, living with a husband with a pre-existing condition, I do not have a good reason to risk our health.

How Airlines Have Been Affected
The airlines have taken a huge hit because passenger traffic has dropped 70 percent below pre-pandemic levels; they have lost billions. Between April through June, the four largest US airlines lost a combined USD $10 billion; for the year, they will probably lose USD $84 billion; that loss would make 2020 the worst year in US aviation history. The problem is that like me, people are concerned about flying and with steep infection rates across much of the country and no vaccine, there appears to be no recovery in sight. However, at the same time, the carriers have taken steps to make air travel much safer.

How Safe is Air Travel?
Airlines are taking some precautions, but is it enough? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is safer than you might think, due to the fact that most commercial airlines have sophisticated air filtration and circulation systems. The CDC believes that most viruses do not spread easily on flights. Because aircraft generally refresh their entire air volume every few minutes, recirculated air is forced through high-efficiency filters that take out 99.97 percent of virus-size particles. Thus, the principal risk is that while sitting next to an infected passenger, you could inhale, virus-laden droplets from coughs or sneezes---before they were filtered out. Moreover, asymptomatic infected passengers are still traveling, and sitting adjacent to them could be dangerous. If or when I fly, I will be wearing not only a mask, but a face shield as well. I will also be traveling with hand sanitizer and baby wipes.

Additional Safety Precautions
Airlines are now making more efforts to keep their aircraft germ-free. Between flights, planes are now routinely being sprayed with electrostatic disinfectant and surfaces are otherwise being sanitized. Most airlines have reduced food and drink service to decrease interactions between passengers and crew. They are also boarding planes from back to front to reduce passenger contact. Notably Delta and JetBlue keep middle seats empty, and Southwest sells no more than two-thirds of its seats. American and United allow passengers to rebook high-volume flights without charge and attempt to warn passengers when flights are becoming crowded. And of course, most airlines now require passengers to wear masks.

The Near-Term Outlook
Worldwide, airlines have taken big hits. Without additional financial support from governments, the airlines will need to lay off tens of thousands of workers. And nobody expects a quick recovery. After 9/11, flying was depressed for four years, and airlines did not return to profitability again until 2007. Now, industry officials do not anticipate a full revival until 2024. In fact, some people believe passenger volume may never return to pre-pandemic levels. This recovery will be slow for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the use of videoconferencing has helped us become aware that many meetings can be just as effective online as in person. That said, many of us who are professional speakers will still be boarding aircraft to travel to other countries to emotionally touch audiences. The reduction of business travel is just one of the differences I see for our Normal 2.0.

The Long-Term Outlook
Years into the future, upon airport arrival, passengers may expect new health safety measures. Some airports are currently testing thermal screeners to detect people with fevers, measure heart rates, and soon gauge blood-oxygen levels. Facial recognition technology decreases the need for touching screens as well as the required number of airport personnel. Some planes may be outfitted with protective shields or changed seating arrangements; ultraviolet wands and antimicrobial surfaces may be utilized to keep surfaces virus-free. In the near-term, airlines will keep fares low to entice passengers back, but in the longer term, airlines will raise fares significantly to recoup losses; between 2021 and 2025, the Dollar Flight Club expects fares to double and fees to continue to rise. When food and drinks return, they will cost more, and some expect baggage fees to spike as well. In addition, David Fickling from Bloomberg believes we are in for a long-lasting decline in international travel on top of everything else. The post COVID-19 future of air travel is not a pretty picture.

Next Week: Normal 2.0
Our post-Covid-19 world will be different. I do not believe it will be a "New Normal," but rather Normal 2.0. I see the future as an evolution, rather than a return to the normality that we had before. To bootstrap off of a popular slogan, we will not be building back better, but rather, building forward better. Next week, I will start covering what I believe will be Normal 2.0; it may take more than one week to talk about all of the expected permanent changes. See you then!

Special thanks to The Week Magazine for its coverage of this important topic.

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