Coronavirus: How future travel is going to be so different

The spread of Covid-19 will not quash our desire to explore – but new industry standards are already in the making

Airline industry takes massive hit

Airline industry takes massive hit
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The British comedian Griff Rhys Jones, it seems, has turned his wanderlust into a mid-career pivot to travel documentaries. Interviewed last week on the effect of the coronavirus lockdown, he gave an informed perspective on the future of travel.

In his seclusion, living on his own in rural England, he had turned to a book about the wonders of Dunhuang. Caves found in this north-western outpost of China are the repository of some of the finest art surviving from the heyday of the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that connected the East and West from the 2nd century BCE to the 18th century CE.

Mr Rhys Jones is not unappreciative of his home-bound status. He spoke movingly of tracking the changes in nature throughout the spring. But what is amply evident is that the human instinct to see new things, experience other cultures and detach oneself from the familiar remains too strong to be quashed by the coronavirus.

epa07060832 A general view of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China, 26 September 2018, (issued 01 October 2018). Dunhuang is a city in northwestern Gansu Province, Western China. City was major stop on the ancient Silk Road, established in an oasis which contains Crescent Lake and had strategic position on a crossroads of the Southern Route of Silk Road and main road from India trough Tibet and Mongolia to Southern Siberia. Donhuang is tourist destination best known for Crescent Lake, Mogao Caves, Yardang Geopark and desert with countless sand dunes which are merging to stone composed desert and mountains. At winter temperature riches -25 C and sand dunes become frozen with tops covered in snow. Mogao Caves are located 25 km form Dunhuang. Buddhist caves are famous for their Buddhist art such as murals inside, Buddhist statues and Dunhuang manuscripts found hidden in a sealed-up cave. There is 735 of them. Crescent Lake is a crescent-shaped lake in an oasis, 6 km south of the city. Lake is top tourist attraction and landmark in Donhuang where dune sledding, camel or SUV ride, helicopter flight or dune hiking are offered to visitors. Reports say Dunhuang city of about 200 000 population, accommodate 10 million visitors during a year. Yardang Geopark also known as Devil’s Town and part of it as Ghost Town, is located 180 kilometers northwest of Dunhuang. The park contains rock formations of unique shape developed over a period of 700,000 years. When there are no wind visitors experience soundless environment while walking between rock formations of witch some are naturally shaped to remind viewer on peacock, buddha, camel etc. Yardang covers area of abut 400 square kilometers and its part of UNESCO protected areas.  EPA/ALEKSANDER PLAVEVSKI
Caves found in Dunhuang, China are the repository of some of the finest art surviving from the heyday of the Silk Road. EPA

Travel though is certainly set to change for everybody in the months and years ahead. The new normal will give way to a different structure of movement. The outlines of what that might be, initially at least, are beginning to form.

To start with what must be preserved, there are obvious realities.

Many of us have lives, or indeed livelihoods, concentrated in two, if not three, different regions. Certainly, family interests are scattered beyond single border lines for a number of people. And air travel is the symptom, not the cause, of this widespread reality.

At the moment, the lack of traffic in the sky tells its own tale of a world where barriers are the highest they have been in living memory. The story last week that there was one Airbus 380 flying on the model's 15th anniversary summed up how the ideal of air travel has been lost in the first quarter of 2020.

Political leaders have warned in various ways that the bulk of the population should not expect this to change at least until the second half of the year – if not much further in the future.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 03, 2020 Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary gestures during an AFP interview at A4E aviation summit in Brussels.  Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair said on May 1, 2020 that it plans to axe up to 3,000 pilot and cabin crew jobs, with air transport paralysed by the coronavirus pandemic. / AFP / Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD
Michael O'Leary has said Ryanair's it will be lucky to fly one-third planned passenger loads this year. AFP
The human instinct to see new things, experience other cultures and detach oneself from the familiar remains too strong to be quashed by the coronavirus

Michael O'Leary, who runs Ryanair, has said that the budget European airline will be lucky to fly one-third planned passenger loads this year. Further, he has predicted a five-year hangover for the industry as players look to establish their foothold.

The obvious comparison is with the 9/11 attacks on US soil nearly two decades ago, a period after which taking off shoes at airports security lines was arduous for all but eventually became normalised. This time around, it seems inevitable that swabs and disinfectant sprays are going to be required for every flight. Blood tests could be standardised.

Compulsory quarantine periods, perhaps in the currently under-occupied hotels that surround major airports, is already a reality. The likelihood is that this will endure for some time and be commonplace everywhere.

A short business trip accompanied by two weeks of quarantine away from friends and families would make little sense for most.

Jim Hackett, the chief executive of Ford, spoke last week about how standardisation could pave the way towards providing confidence in safety for employers and providers in the pandemic era. As there are ISO standards for manufacturing, there will be certification of procedures and practices. This is a logical means to rebuilding faith in travel for passengers by airlines.

In a document released last week, the UK-based forum World Travel and Tourism Council had a first stab at how the “new normal” could be constructed for travellers.

New cleaning procedures in airports, airplanes and hotels would become industry-wide standards, it said. Digital check-in and contactless payments would prevail. To minimise contact with cabin crew, flyers would buy sealed grab-and-go food packages before boarding. Social-distanced queueing and in-flight masks would be mandated in new protocols.

Flyers would be expected to turn up three hours in advance for short-haul flights and four hours for long-haul ones so that swab tests could be conducted. Passengers not facing quarantine would be expected to sign up for contact tracing through a telephone app in the destination country. The bridge would become a disinfectant tunnel.

Cabin crew could be expected to come around with sanitisers regularly during the flight. Planes are likely to fly at around 60 per cent of current capacity to ensure distancing in the aisles.

Procedure is a killjoy. There is no denying that hurdles presented above amount to a barrier to travel. The economics of flight will change drastically, too.

Individual journeys will be more expensive. Lower loads, more administration, extra preparation and the possibility of enforced isolation at either end of the journey are all factors that will raise costs.

To anyone tiring of Zoom and other video-conferencing tools, the likelihood is that sales, conferences and interviews are no longer going to be something that most people fly for but, instead, just click a switch online.

That said, even with all the rigours mentioned above, the hunger to see the treasures of Dunhuang, and places like it, will keep planes in the air. As will the need to hop on a two-hour journey to see friends and family.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National