Torqued: Will the Future of Aviation Look Like Its Past?

 - July 1, 2020, 9:00 AM

The past few months have been devastating for aviation and all those who work in the industry and fear for its future. Looking at a recent economic-impact analysis by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), I find it hard to believe how precipitously aviation has cratered as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

According to that report—whose numbers are preliminary and will need to be adjusted as more data is received and analyzed—the number of international passengers on scheduled aircraft is dropping by between 503 million to 607 million during the first half of 2020, compared with “business as usual.” Airline gross operating revenues, meanwhile, are declining by approximately $112 billion to $135 billion and international passenger capacity is experiencing an estimated 89 percent reduction.

The International Air Transport Association stated in April that “global air passenger demand has plunged by 70 percent, and industry revenues from the passenger business are forecast to be reduced by at least $252 billion in 2020. Airlines are expected to burn through some $61 billion in cash reserves during the second quarter of 2020 alone.”

Airlines for America member carriers saw a 103 percent decrease in booked revenues year-over-year, with domestic flights averaging 10 passengers and international flights 24. It seems likely that the numbers improved a bit as restrictions across the country loosened and some summer travel resumed.

No one I’ve spoken with wants to return to airline travel as it has been over the last decade, however. Nor do I. Of course, the predominant concern for passengers—and air crews—is whether it is safe to fly. While many flights have only a few passengers, several people are reporting crowded flights on some routes, mobbing at the gate in otherwise empty airports, and a concern that many people are not wearing masks. The airlines are making strides in requiring masks before boarding but some of the reassurance from that directive was diluted when carriers announced that they would not be enforcing it on board. Some airlines have indicated that some or all middle seats would not be filled “when possible.” But with flight schedules drastically reduced and travel on some routes picking up, it's far from guaranteed that you'd have an empty seat next to you. And even if you do, would that be enough to make you feel comfortable?

The airlines—majors and regionals—have an opportunity to address some of the factors that have made air travel so unpleasant over the years and bring travelers back with a feeling that their health, safety, and comfort are priorities. One fix that would help in this regard concerns the boarding process. In days gone by, boarding was strictly by rows, starting in the back. Passengers sat in the terminal—or stood away from the gate—until their rows were called. The process was much more orderly than it is today and did not result in people sitting in the aircraft with clusters of other passengers in the cabin aisles next to them. The last thing anyone wants now is to be seated in the aircraft with people standing in the aisle breathing or coughing over them, with or without masks. Yes, a return to boarding by rows would mean there'd be one less perk the airlines could give their premium fliers or their cobranded credit card holders. But this would be an easy and inexpensive way to make people feel more comfortable flying, 

Of course, the biggest changes in the last decade or so that have aggrieved passengers relate to the width and spacing of their seats. To keep fares competitive and/or increase profits, airlines have resorted to adding rows of seats, which has resulted in more people on aircraft, cramped close together. Coupled with higher load factors, which ended up filling middle seats in a way that was unheard of in earlier years, this has made flying an unpleasant experience. On some routes, no doubt, it has resulted in incredibly cheap fares. But that isn’t true on all routes.

My point is that with travelers concerned about catching a virus, airlines will have to do a better job of giving people space if they want them to start flying again. It was bad enough flying coach, crammed into a too-small seat with no legroom, before the pandemic. But who wants to fly so close to other people now, before a vaccine or drug that prevents or cures Covid-19 is widely available? For many who can afford to, flying private will become a much more attractive option. Already, we are seeing signs of an uptick in charter trips.

I fully expect airlines to charge more for tickets if airplanes are emptier. But many frequent fliers I’ve spoken with would rather pay more for a trip than feel unsafe and uncomfortable. And perhaps there will be other benefits to emptier flights, even at higher fares. When we get to our travel destination, maybe it won’t be as mobbed as many of the most popular destinations have become in recent years.