Flying during Covid-19: what travel could look like this summer

Biometrics and iris scans may replace passports and boarding passes, while tickets will become more expensive

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Few industries have been hit as hard by the coronavirus pandemic as aviation, with passenger numbers worldwide falling 60 per cent last year to 1.8 billion.

With borders closed and many reluctant to travel, airlines lost more than $100bn in 2020, according to the International Air Transport Association.

As vaccine distribution gathers pace around the globe, the sector hopes that 2021, while not likely to offer a return to normality, will see more people jetting off for holidays or business.

Their face becomes their identification and they are 'known' from the moment they enter the airport

IATA forecasts that passenger numbers will increase to 2.8bn, assuming more countries start to open their borders by the middle of this year.

There is, of course, much uncertainty about which nations will open up and what requirements for quarantine will be on arriving home, and spikes in infections risk upending plans.

According to Alan Peaford, editor of Arabian Aerospace and African Aerospace, there is "pent-up demand" for travel.

He expects holidaymakers to seek out less obvious locations to avoid crowds.

“The mass tourism destinations will be less attractive than perhaps the boutique specialist ones,” he said.

“You may be looking at smaller destinations.

"The opportunities for places like Bahrain or Oman are far greater than they were for the last 15 or 20 years, as tourists look for different places to go to."

Some markets are likely to remain sluggish, with IATA suggesting that Latin America and, in particular, Africa will remain depressed because of slower introduction of vaccines.

Vaccine passports

Many countries currently require travellers to present evidence of a negative coronavirus test, but “vaccine passports” are set to become more widely used.

The EU, for example, aims to introduce a digital certificate to allow vaccinated people to travel without quarantine within the 27-member bloc.

Nations outside the EU are likely to sign up.

Airlines including Emirates and Etihad are trialling the IATA Travel Pass, which lets passengers register Covid tests and vaccinations.

Some airlines, such as British Airways, are setting up systems where passengers can record vaccinations in a smartphone app.

Passengers going through an airport will still need to wear a mask and adhere to social distancing, while temperature checks and enhanced cleaning will remain.

Passenger technology

To cut costs, more touchless passenger technology was being introduced before the coronavirus, and the pandemic is likely to spur further uptake.

Check-in and bag drop could become more streamlined, with QR codes enabling passengers to connect to what Collins Aerospace, an airport technology company, describes as a “common-use kiosk”.

With these, passengers have to touch only their mobile phone to check in and print boarding passes and baggage tags.

The new contactless system has been deployed at 122 smart gates in the arrivals and departures halls within Dubai International Airport. Courtesy GDFRA

Ultimately, however, even this technology is likely to be superseded, with biometrics involving facial recognition, iris scans or other methods to be used instead of passports and boarding passes.

“When this system is in place, passengers – once enrolled – no longer need to present documents anywhere along the travel route,” Collins Aerospace said in a recent briefing document.

“Their face becomes their identification and they are ‘known’ from the moment they enter the airport and, at some point in the future, through the duration of their flight to their exit from the destination airport.”

Gates using facial biometrics have been installed at, for example, John F Kennedy International Airport in New York, eliminating boarding passes and human interactions while allowing identity to be confirmed.

Also reducing person-to-person contact will be “wayfinding” mobile phone apps that help passengers avoid busier airport areas as they navigate to the gate.

“We’re using much more technology, touchless, contactless technology,” Mr Peaford said.

“[Airports] need airlines and governments to support that.”

Also likely to become more common are mobile phone apps allowing passengers to order food and drink on board without speaking to staff.

Because of the small risk of the virus spreading from contaminated surfaces and objects, passengers will still be expected to stow their own baggage, while in-flight magazines and menus are more likely to be absent.

The aircraft that passengers fly on may change. As traffic will be at lower levels, airlines may field more narrow-body or single-aisle aircraft, Mr Peaford said.

Latest narrow-body models have the range needed for longer-haul routes.

“I think we’re not going to see as much of the [superjumbo] A380, which is a great shame because it’s a fabulous aircraft,” he said.

Individual flights will be a little busier, with IATA predicting 72.7 per cent of seats will be filled this year.

This is less than 2019’s figure of 82.5 per cent but up on 2020, when flights operated at about 65.5 per cent capacity.

Bargain-basement fares, even from low-cost carriers, may be harder to come by, as airlines try to avoid a "race to bottom".

“The concept of the £10 [$14] weekend break won’t happen,” Mr Peaford said.

“You might be thinking of £250 [$350] to somewhere in the Atlantic like Cape Verde.”

So, flying will be different this year to the pre-pandemic situation and as more touchless technology is rolled out, is unlikely to ever return to what we once saw as normal.

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