COVID -19 is like the monster that engulfed the entire world in its pandemic circle too fast. Most countries did not have time to even prepare for the basics, leave aside eventualities.
Besides targeting people’s health this pandemic has also devastated businesses around the globe leading to unprecedented job losses, closures of establishments and doom as far as economy goes – worst since the Great Depression of 1930s.
Every component of the Travel and Tourism industry, including air, rail, ground transport and hotels & restaurants are the most severely hit sectors globally, as the outbreak continues to take its toll.
What is now important is to try to plan ahead of the curve , to re-imagine and re-shape the new reality of travel.
Social distancing – the new norm?
After this contagion has been contained, international travel may not be a top priority for the majority of the global population, partly out of fear (until a vaccine is found), and partly due to the collapse of the economy.
Airlines and airports will have to work together in tandem to bring back customer confidence, and to support a new way of travelling defined by social distancing and increased sanitization.
Although compulsory, this could be particularly challenging for smaller airports which tend to have large crowds of people due to relatively small spaces.
Managing large queues in typically congested areas such as check-in halls and security/immigration checkpoints poses an additional challenge.
Queue management will have to be enforced strictly which could ‘up your time taken door to door’ with longer pre check in times and longer wait at security and immigration.
Of course technology will have to take a leap forward and enable airports and airlines overcome the hurdles of this new reality; besides a lot of self discipline amongst travellers.
Automation will become paramount
All elements of the industry will have to make swift progress to re-imagine, re-shape and re-invent travel.
A range of contactless, self-service technologies to screen the vital signs of passengers, and baggage drops will have to be implemented by majority of airports. And for this the demand for automation, robotics and biometrics, will only become stronger.
The implementation of biometric E-gates may somewhat cut queuing times in the future but getting a number of airports e-enabled could be a mammoth task as of now.
With a lot of people unlikely to be wanting to touch surfaces and interact with agents as little as possible, automating as many passenger processes as possible will be crucial.
Maybe scanners on the lines of CCTV and surveillance platforms could be adapted to spot passengers who are indicating potential illness symptoms.
And of course carrying a certificate of immunity along with other travel documents will become mandatory.
To take things really out of hand, so to speak, passengers may turn to using their own devices at every touch point – right from checking in and navigating through the terminal, to controlling In flight entertainment creating a real opportunity for airlines to promote relevant ancillary services though their mobile apps.
Reconsider flight schedules
Most airlines especially those who have quick turnarounds between flights will have to look at rescheduling their time table to ensure thorough sanitizing of the aircraft while on the ground/in transit.
Cabin decontamination will have to be given centre stage to reassure passengers and crew that the cabins are sanitized and healthy.
However, reduced turnaround time has always been a weapon for airlines to cut costs, and also to keep airports profitable, so this would certainly pose a big challenge to the industry.
Also in the immediate future airlines will also have to consider using “social distancing” within the aircraft. The “seat separating” approach in which every second seat in the aircraft would have to be left unoccupied.
This would present another financial blow to airlines. But looking at a different point of view here, giving passengers a vacant space could also provide a sort of “a new premium travel experience” since passengers are guaranteed of having an empty seat next to them.
Although this could have a positive passenger experience so to speak, will the airlines charge more in such case? …. and more importantly will the passengers be willing to pay more.
If industry veterans are to be believed it will take a year to 18 months to reach anywhere near pre-crisis traffic levels, and the industry may not record pre-COVID-19 traffic volumes again before the end of 2021.
But at the same time, it is important to remember that while this crisis has put immediate growth ambitions on hold; all stakeholders should use the real opportunity for meaningful innovation and transformation to be accelerated.
Ultimately, airports and airlines must take action now to help secure consumer confidence and ensure they are well placed when the demand for air travel inevitably returns; and also be future-ready!