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Here’s how Covid-19 could change the way we fly

Original article found on CNN

(CNN) — As the world slowly eases its way out of the Covid-19 lockdown, we’re on the verge of a new era in air travel.
We could soon encounter armies of robotic cleaners patrolling airport concourses, disinfecting check-in counters and ticket kiosks. We might see passengers wafting through security and baggage checkpoints without touching anything.
And we might be boarding aircraft where hand gestures and eye movements open overhead stowage bins and navigate our inflight entertainment screens.
Everything could become touch-free. Out go the tailored uniforms, in come astronaut-style anti-Covid-19 flight attendant suits.
Most of these concepts are trials but could soon morph into realities that become as ubiquitous as the biometric gates and body scanners to which we’ve already become accustomed at airport terminals.

From the cloud to the clouds

As we shift from the virtual world of Zoom meetings and Houseparty chats back into the skies, what will the touchpoints along that journey look like — and when might things get going?
“I’m making an assumption, and I think many of our clients are making an assumption, that at some point in 2021, this will be largely behind us,” Alex Dichter, senior partner at McKinsey & Company, tells CNN Travel.
Dichter points to stringent measures implemented in China requiring validation that travelers are Covid 19-free, using a system whereby passengers travel with a QR code that is either green, yellow or red. Green means they’ve been tested and are free of the virus, and authorities know exactly where passengers have been.
“You need to scan in and scan out of every location, your temperature is checked multiple times, you’re signing forms. It’s hard to imagine those kinds of processes implemented in the West.”
But data and tracking are key to our return to the skies.
Dichter suspects some countries are going to focus on these. Therefore protocols need to be established so that if a passenger tests Covid 19-positive after being on a flight, the airline can contact every other passenger that was on the plane.
“Airlines will take this opportunity to accelerate self-service. That’s a trend that’s been in place for some time, but airlines were probably slower at scaling these technologies out than many customers would like,” he says.
Until these new technologies fully materialize, passengers returning to the air may have to make do with what’s already out there.
Therefore, Dichter says, “there may be a bit more focus on premium products, providing people with the ability to be alone” — already a long-time aspiration of the weary business traveler.
Dichter expects positive reaction from passengers to the middle seat experiments that some airlines are launching. Colorado’s Frontier Airlines briefly toyed with making passengers pay extra to keep the middle seat free, while Europe’s Easyjet has also proposed leaving middle seats empty.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released an official statement on May 5, coming out against blocking off middle seats on planes, while recommending both passengers and crew members wear face masks on board instead.
Longer term, the financial shock airlines are facing combined with customers’ sensitivity to price may bring us back to a world where airlines are taking things away and becoming leaner to reduce prices.
“If we look at the state of the industry in 2022, 2023 and 2024, the big question about what air travel looks like is going to have more to do with the economic fallout than it does to do with the virus,” says Dichter.
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