Has the democratisation of air travel been grounded?

I have been fortunate enough to be part of a generation that has had international travel, especially short haul, as accessible and as costly as a family takeaway. It has not been unheard of to bag £10 plane tickets to European cities. Having the ability to enjoy international holidays has been taken for granted by many people across the country. In 2018, 126.2 million flights were taken by British travellers.

The air travel industry has spent the past decade or two innovating and democratising air travel, making new experiences and destinations affordable for those who could never access them before. This may soon come to an end. 

COVID-19 has caused airports across the world to pull down their shutters, grounded entire fleets of aircraft, and caused the worst year on record for airlines. 50% of airlines across the world are expected to go into administration as a result of lockdowns. The sector has already racked up losses in the region of £66bn.

Easyjet has announced it will close hubs at Stansted, Southend and Newcastle, resulting in 1,900 job losses. The number of flights impacted is not yet known. British Airways is also planning a major restructure which could trigger up to 12,000 redundancies and result in changes to the terms and conditions of remaining staff. All these factors are likely to push up prices with fewer aircraft being flown – and this is just the beginning if passenger numbers do not pick up. 

The only way to halt the decline of the industry is to instil confidence in travellers that it is safe enough to travel and that they can actually enter a country. Last week’s announcement of quarantine exemptions go part of the way toward solving the latter problem – but imagine the impact and chaos that would ensue when a second wave hits mid-way through a holiday. 

To convince travellers that it is safe enough to fly, significant and costly changes will need to be made to the way we use air travel. Two potential partial solutions are touchless travel and testing. 

Enabling passengers to experience touchless travel from the time they arrive at an airport to getting into their hotel bed will go some way to install confidence. This would involve creating a seamless touchless digitalisation of interactions involved in this process – including check in, security, border control, boarding and airport assistance.

In addition, mass testing of passengers will need to take place. Although Emirates and a few other airlines are conducting on-site testing for all passengers, mass testing upon arrival at the airport for all passengers will prove difficult, but not insurmountable. Thermal cameras are becoming more widespread across European airports to detect passengers with high temperatures, and symptom-tracking and contact-tracing apps now exist in many countries. 

But even with these changes taking place – will it be enough to give the much needed confidence to the industry to continue the democratisation of travel? We’ll have to wait and see.

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