“Higher fares, fewer routes, pre-flight health checks and less free food: The coronavirus pandemic is ushering in a new era of air travel” (Bloomberg, 2020).

Without stating the obvious, the sudden halt to people movement has had a devastating effect on air travel. The effects of the corona pandemic will be felt long after the initial strict lockdown phase. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s 26,000 passenger aircraft are grounded, and more than 25 million jobs are at risk. IATA has warned that half of airlines face bankruptcy in two to three months without government help. In South Africa, SAA is desperate for another bailout that will probably not come. Airlines are furloughing employees, grounding planes, cancelling plane orders; and applying for bail-outs or filing for bankruptcy.

The essential nature of air travel — it underpins trade, diplomacy, business and tourism — is forcing governments the world over to prop up carriers. Some industry players reckon a two to three year bleeding period. What air travel will look like then is a topic of conversation among airlines. EasyJet plans to keep middle seats empty while Korean Airlines’ cabin crew wear goggles, masks, gloves and protective gowns. Yet others ideas are that airlines might also increasingly charge economy passengers separately for things like baggage check-in, legroom and meals just to be able to survive. Even before the virus struck, carriers there typically made only US$3 of profit from each customer, according to IATA. In Europe and the U.S., where ancillary charges are already going up, the figures were US$5 and US$17, respectively.

Another complicating factor is that passengers might be put off by health-related entry rules that may differ from country to country, especially during an uneven opening-up process. Big low-cost airlines will probably survive along with flag carriers, but many will be partially owned by governments, or at least owe them money, and so will likely cut the most marginal routes and may raise prices. Less-established services would be among the first to go. There will definitely be fewer flight options available.

Then the need to fly has been diminished. The virus has led to a ballooning of remote video-conferencing, which could prompt a reassessment of the need to fly at all. We will probably see a shift from air to high-speed rail travel in Europe and China to accelerate. Short-haul flights, particularly in Europe, were already under attack from the flight-shaming movement that’s encouraged travelers to use lower carbon-emitting means of transport. It is difficult to predict any outcome while the crisis is unfolding but there will certainly be demand for travel. Initially airlines will cut prices to woo passengers back, and hygiene concerns will gradually fade away but passengers should brace for a new order in airlines and aircraft as well: With overall capacity down, carriers will favour smaller and more manageable jets and previously unheard-of alliances might crop up among national airlines as smaller rivals wither. 

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