Day 6

Air travel is about to get even more miserable than it used to be, says writer

It's not like air travel was a walk in the park before the COVID-19 pandemic, but with new anti-contagion measures, it's about to get a whole lot worse, says James Fallows, a small plane pilot and national correspondent for the Atlantic.

Expect check-ins to get longer and in-flight amenities to fizzle out, says James Fallows

Airport personnel sprays a liquid in the interior of an Air France aircraft as part of a disinfection process for airplanes at Charles de Gaulle international airport in Roissy, north of Paris, on May 14. (Ian Langsdon/Associated Press)
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Air travel isn't glamorous for the majority of people who fly on a regular basis. But according to writer James Fallows, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to make it even worse — and it will be years before things approach getting back to normal.

"I asked everybody that question and one person said that he felt it would be five years from now. There's another person, who is an airline pilot, who said they thought it would be seven years," Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, told Day 6.

"And then one more person said: 'I think never.'"

In his column titled "Air Travel Is Going to Be Very Bad, for a Very Long Time," Fallows — who is also a small plane pilot — wrote that the number of passengers using America's main airlines plummeted "from about 2.3 million each day to about 95,000."

Several major American airlines have rolled out requirements for both passengers and staff to wear masks while on board.

In Canada, the federal government unveiled rules requiring all air travellers to wear non-medical face masks while in transit. The country's largest airlines Air Canada and WestJet have also shelved flight routes and laid off thousands of workers.

Fallows said that even after travel restrictions are lifted, the experience is likely going to get a lot less fun for anyone in the economy section. Here are some of those ways.

No cheap seats here

If you're looking for a cheap flight because of the sparse demand, don't bother, says Fallows.

The demand for flights has become so low that airlines realized they won't sell more tickets even if they drop prices to rock-bottom levels, he said.

"Right now, they realize they could drop the price to practically free and people still wouldn't fly. And that's why prices actually are not as inexpensive as you would think," he said.

Passengers wearing personal protective equipment sit on opposite ends of a row of seats at London Heathrow Airport in west London, on May 9. (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Check-ins will get even worse

Increased awareness of cleanliness means the check-in process at an airport will likely take even longer than before.

Everyone who touches your baggage because of inspection or loading and unloading will likely have to take extra time to sanitize their hands and every package they lug around, said Fallows.

"You can do that when [there are] only five per cent as many passengers as before. But if it gets to even a quarter as what the load was before, it's going to be yet another slowdown," he explained.

The boarding and unloading process will likely take even longer as well, as passengers will be compelled to be extra careful to avoid bumping elbows with others as they shuffle up and down the aisles.

Keep the middle seats empty

Thanks to physical distancing regulations, most people will get aisle or window seats.

Several U.S. airlines have gone further than that, and announced they won't be assigning passengers in the middle seats during the pandemic to help maintain physical distancing guidelines.

According to Fallows, many airlines will keep those seats empty, even if there might be people willing to pay for one.

"There will come a time when the airlines have to say: 'Gee, we can't afford to keep the middle seats vacant.' But that time is still a period off. And I expect we'll see the airlines all announcing pretty soon that the middle seats will be left vacant," he explained.

Italian design firm Avio Interiors has also drafted concepts for new airliner cabins that would invert the middle seat, or install Plexiglas partitions between seats to limit the spread of droplets.

One of the concepts by Avio would see the middle row inverted, to maximize distance between passengers. (Avio Designs)

Say goodbye to pillows, blankets, Wi-Fi

Expect airlines to start cutting costs by reining in amenities like in-flight entertainment and extra pillows, says Fallows.

The usually-generous catalogues of film and television available to watch, as well as the relatively new Wi-Fi capabilities, came with a high cost, he said.

"Wi-fi [in particular] was never a good business proposition for the Wi-Fi companies. We know that it was always technically shaky," he said.

Pillows and blankets, however, will likely be scaled back because they're extremely difficult to sanitize.

In a photo provided by Vince Warburton, passengers get off an American Airlines flight airplane after they landed at Los Angeles International Airport on April 27. The major U.S. airlines have now begun rolling out requirements for passengers to wear masks. (Vince Warburton/The Associated Press)

"There is a terrible history in the United States of blankets as a vector of infection. I think that all the analysts I spoke with said they're almost impossible to disinfect compared to other surfaces," said Fallows.

Passengers may be forced to take hygiene into their own hands by bringing moist towelettes, or attempting to sneak personal bottles of hand sanitizer on board — a habit that Fallows said he "silently made fun of" when he witnessed it at an airport terminal.

"I thought these people [were] too fearful. Now I think I'm going to do that the next time I take a flight. And I think most people will as well."


Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Yamri Taddese.

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