Traveling has always been one of my passions. I love the excitement of seeing new places and the thrill of experiencing different cultures.
Oh, how quickly things can change. One minute you’re planning that coveted vacation to a favorite destination and the next, you’re frantically trying to cancel your trip and get a refund on hotels, airfares, etc. For those who love to travel, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a cruel awakening to the new world that we live in.
Will the future of travel ever return to what it was? It’s possible, but I fear it’s many, many years off; in the meantime, we will have to get accustomed to a new normal in the world of travel. Personally, we travel often, almost monthly, yet we have cancelled a number of flights scheduled for later in the year and currently have no plans to travel on an airplane until there is a vaccine or things improve dramatically.
COVID-19 Impact on Travel
To give you some idea of the catastrophic impact the coronavirus has had on travel, I offer up a few statistics. On April 12th of 2019, a total of 2.4 million travelers were screened through TSA checkpoints in the United States. On April 12th of 2020, a mere 90,000 passengers were screened. That’s about a 97 percent reduction in passenger volume.
Fast forward a few months to the summer of 2020, and while the numbers did improve, TSA checkpoints were still recording volumes only about 25 to 30 percent of what they were a year earlier. As 2020 drew to a close passenger traffic was still only approaching 50 percent of normal loads. With the availability of a vaccine in 2021, we are now seeing passenger traffic approaching about 75 to 80 percent of what it was pre-pandemic. While this represents a significant improvement from where we were at the onset of the pandemic the road to recovery is long and uncertain.
Looking ahead, it is clear that the travel experience will be much different and there will be obvious changes in every aspect of travel—from the moment you arrive at the airport until you return home.
The Airport Experience
Arriving at the airport and getting onto an airplane has already changed in order to protect passengers. While there is yet to be a universal set of rules and changes, you will begin to see a shift to touchless technology at the airport in the near future. Already, some airports are using thermal cameras to check your temperature as soon as you enter the airport. Expect digital technology to eventually make your entire trip through the airport one where you will not have to interact with other people.
If you are traveling during the pandemic, you should be prepared to wear a mask at all times while at the airport, keep an acceptable social distance from others, carry hand sanitizer, bring your own snacks for the flight, and pack as light as possible. All of these fairly simple things will help to reduce your risk.
If you do have to come in contact with airport personnel, immediately wash your hands and sanitize them. Also, even though there may be fewer people in the airport, you can expect all of the added safety measures to add time to the process, so plan accordingly.
Industry in Turmoil
The airline industry has been turned upside down with this pandemic, and the impact has left a path of destruction in its wake. Airline manufacturers are dealing with cancelled orders and deferred deliveries, which has already caused tens of thousands of layoffs. The airlines themselves have cut back on schedules, parked airplanes, and are trying to survive the financial nightmare that saw business drop by 95 percent at the height of the pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic the planes that were flying were in some cases virtually empty, and although passenger traffic is slowly coming back as 2021 comes to an end, it could be another year or so before it returns to pre-pandemic levels.
Staying Safe on the Plane
During the height of the pandemic many airlines were trying to keep passengers apart by keeping the middle seat empty and blocking off certain seats. This policy has for the most part been eliminated with the advent of the vaccine. You should still wear a mask on the airplane to reduce your risk (mandatory until May, 2022) and as many airlines are cutting back on food and beverage service, you should come prepared with your own snacks. You may also want to consider wearing eye goggles, as virus droplets entering the eyes can also cause infection. Thoroughly wiping down your armrest, tray table, and seat buckle with disinfectant wipes is also a good idea.
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No matter how you slice it, the on-plane experience has changed and will continue to evolve to protect passengers as much as possible. But, to remain financially viable, airlines cannot fly with empty rows of seats forever. You will have to accept the fact that at some point you will be sitting next to strangers.
Baggage Claim Area
This is definitely an area of the airport I would try to avoid. All those passengers huddled together touching bags they think are theirs just creeps me out. We don’t usually check bags when we fly, as we always travel light, so you may want to consider going with just carry-on luggage for the foreseeable future. It will be very difficult for airports to get people to keep a socially safe distance when they are clustered around the conveyor belts waiting for their luggage.
Here are a few of the solutions currently being developed and implemented to make airports and airplanes safer. Some of these we’ll see soon, while others will take years to develop and apply.
- HEPA filter retrofit kits that will filter 99.97% of airborne particles.
- Hands-free airplane lavatories.
- Self-sanitizing lavatories.
- New airplane seating designs that will create more personal space.
- Use of Ultraviolet lights in the cabin that will destroy viruses.
- Boarding the plane using both the front and rear doors.
- Touchless overhead bins that can be opened with hand gestures or eye movements.
- Voice-activated kiosks in the airport terminal.
- A high-tech screening arch that passengers will walk under that will scan a passenger’s health as well as for prohibited items.
- Touchless on-board entertainment systems.
- Robots that travel the aircraft aisles for food and beverage service.
- Airport terminal robots with ultraviolet light sterilizers.
No aspect of the travel world has been untouched by this pandemic, and hotels are racing to reduce the risk associated with staying in a hotel. We recently had to drive from Massachusetts to Florida and did so without stopping at a hotel or restaurants. The risk was just too great at the time, which was fall of 2020.
I can definitely see the hotel experience also going the touchless route as far as the check-in process. Other amenities that we have all become used to may soon be a thing of the past. Conveniences like the breakfast buffet, the gym, pool, even the cleaning of rooms while you are there will most certainly change. Other items like the television remote, mini-fridge, phone, pens, menus, etc. all introduce risk if they haven’t been cleaned properly or simply removed from the room. Even with things like the sheets and bedding, you have to ask yourself if have they have indeed been properly cleaned prior to your use? There are lots of unknowns here that the hotel industry will have to address to make visitors comfortable again.
Anyone Interested in a Cruise?
You may recall that the cruise industry was very much in the news in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and not in a good way. With thousands of passengers stranded on ships with no means of getting off, it was the perfect environment for the virus to spread quickly.
The cruise industry has been all but shut down during the pandemic and will be forced to make drastic changes before you will be able to hit the high seas again. Those open buffets may well be history, and changes will have to be made in how to safely feed thousands of passengers in a closed environment. Between the pools, casinos, gyms, and nightly entertainment where people gather in crowds, the cruise industry has its work cut out for it to come up with a process to keep passengers safe while not diminishing the cruise experience.
It’s clear that technology is going to lead the way to help make travel a more seamless, efficient, and safe endeavor. The term "digital traveler" has become the industry’s new buzz phrase, and many organizations are moving quickly to adapt and create new technologies to improve the entire travel process.
While the industry is moving rapidly to ensure a new level of safety and comfort, there is nothing like being prepared and taking the necessary personal safeguards to keep yourself and your family safe.
Happy and safe travels!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Bill De Giulio