The Plane Truth: Everything’s Changing

Travel in the post-COVID world­­—all of it­—will look nothing like we’ve known before.

Everything you know about airline travel, either for business or leisure? Well, you can forget it. By the time the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire world of travel and hospitality will have been transformed—in some cases, that’s already taking place. And with that transformation, travel executives say, will come fundamental shifts in the calculus of price, time and inherent value of being on the road or in the air. While all modes of transportation will be affected, air travel may be the most significant.

“It’s what we call the Hassle Factor. We’ve seen the reports on what the new airport experience will be like, and the change is pretty phenomenal.” —Brent Blake, president, Acendas

“We’ve broken it down a hundred different ways, but feel that this is at a tipping point as it relates to travel in general,” says Brent Blake, president of the region’s largest travel agency, Acendas. Across the spectrum of business and leisure travel, he said, “we’re anticipating that things will be back to 50 percent of what business used to be by the end of the year, but that assumes no further breakouts. There really will be a trust factor here, before customers come back, for either business or leisure. When they see visible safety protocols, they’ll feel safe about traveling again. As we learned from 9/11, business does come back, and will again eventually.”

But when it does, it will be a completely different experience. For air travelers, says the trade group SimplyFlying, there are 70 experience points that will be transformed, and many of those will build additional time into the flying experience. It foresees the advent of touchless check-in and “sanitagging” of carry-on and check-in luggage, new ways to order meals at the airport, new processes for getting through security, back-to-front cleaning of planes between flights rather than just overnight, the arrangement of seats on a plane—everything will change.

And that change, compounded with longer lines for social distancing and new processes, will build in more time on each flight.

“It’s what we call the Hassle Factor,” Blake said. “We’ve seen the reports on what the new airport experience will be like, and the change is pretty phenomenal.” That, travel executives say, is where the value proposition of air travel will be questioned, especially by businesses. A flight schedule that used to factor in four hours for check-in and air time could now become five or six, effectively killing an entire business day. If that’s the case, the time savings on a trip by road could trigger a quick recovery in the rental-car markets, which also would have a strong claim to being a safer means of travel by virtue of reduced exposure to larger populations.

Some consolidation is coming to the airline industry, with major carriers flirting with bankruptcy as their fleets sit idle. Once that happens, once planes are reconfigured for reduced contact between fliers, and once the costs of increased sanitation is factored in, travelers can expect to see ticket prices going north, Blake said.

“I believe the airlines will survive whether there’s help from the government or through consolidation,” he said. “The world economy is based on people being able to fly around. But similar to the past, with 2008 and 9/11, carrier can and will be gobbled up, I think the big three will survive, and Southwest in particular, as it has good cash reserves.”

The broader impact on business is likely to be a reduction in service, cutting daily numbers of flights to major cities, and especially cutting back on access to smaller markets. Instead of half a dozen flights to Chicago each day, there might be just a couple offered from KCI. The inherent contradiction facing airlines, though, is that fewer flights mean greater passenger concentration per flight. And that kind of density won’t do much to assuage fears about being exposed to other passengers.

The kinds of changes that will remake aviation are also happening in the hospitality sector, where hotels may be running ahead of airlines with technologies that will allow for touchless check-in and keyless room entry. The mobile phone is about to become a more powerful tool than ever for that experience.

But the concept of a mass-gathering in the lobby or dining hall will change, and the standard amenities like soaps and shampoos—things that get a lot of touches—will vanish. And cleaning schedules for rooms will be expanded to allow more time before crews can enter a vacated room, putting further pressure on hotel revenues.

Cruise ship vacations, notorious for early COVID-19 outbreaks, will see dramatic revisions with fewer cabins filled to accommodate spacing needs, increased sanitation between passenger loads and dining.

“Buffet lines? Those are gone,” Blake said. On-ship dining will entail table service and more spacing between those tables, implying longer wait times to be seated. Some short-term upside? “There will be some great deals, similar to that period after 9/11,” Blake said. “After traffic comes back, we’ll see an increase in prices because inventories will have shrunk, whether that’s with airline capacity or hotel capacity.”

More broadly, auto sales are likely to fall as rental car companies extend the lifespans of their fleets to recover from pandemic-related losses. And airplane manufacturing will remain constricted. That’s especially difficult news in Kansas, where Wichita’s Spirit Aerosystems laid off 1,450 workers this month, citing a slowdown in airline purchases.

And that came atop a reduction of 2,800 employees announced in January because of design concerns with Boeing’s 737 Max. Worse yet, every plane-building job in Wichita has long been calculated as supporting one other job in a supplier industry, making the Spirit layoffs even more significant.