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CHRISTOPHER MUTHER

The future of flight: Immunity passports, unexpected border closings, and no carry-ons

COVID-19 changes to air travel could be more sweeping than post-9/11 security measures.

London Heathrow Airport is testing temperature screening technology that uses camera detection systems capable of monitoring the temperatures of people moving through the airport.
London Heathrow Airport is testing temperature screening technology that uses camera detection systems capable of monitoring the temperatures of people moving through the airport.LHR Airports Limited/LHR AIRPORTS LIMITED

You get to the airport four hours before your flight is scheduled to depart.

When you arrive, an airport security guard checks to make sure you’re wearing a mask and that you have tickets for a flight before allowing you inside the terminal. Once inside, you’re taking the stairs or an escalator (unless you’re disabled) because it’s impossible to stay 6 feet from others in the confined space of an elevator car.

In the departures hall, thermal imaging cameras are scanning the crowd to determine whether there are any individuals with abnormally high temperatures walking about. Counter agents are all behind plexiglass, and facial recognition technology is used as much as possible to keep person-to-person contact at a minimum.

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A dramatic transformation in air travel — with changes potentially more sweeping than those put in place after 9/11 — is well underway. Simple tweaks, such as deep cleaning planes after every flight, to more invasive ones, like spritzing passengers from head to toe with disinfectant, have begun around the world. Nearly all options, no matter how dystopian they may sound (raising your hand to use the bathroom during a flight?), are being tested or considered to slow the spread of the virus.

“Every part of the process will involve some component of change," said Azim Barodawala, CEO of Volantio, a company that works with airlines to improve passenger experience. “It’s not just about being on the plane. Nearly everything will be different, from the way people get to the airport to the way they pick up their luggage at their final destination.”

If there is any doubt that at least some of these changes will persist past the pandemic, look no further than TSA security, where those without TSA PreCheck are still removing their shoes because, 19 years ago, a terrorist named Richard Reid attempted to blow up a plane with a bomb hidden in his shoe. When touchless temperature readings at security check points are still de rigueur in 2035, we’ll think back to the spring of 2020 when air travel once again changed forever.

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No matter how draconian or inconvenient the approach, the changes are necessary to keep passengers healthy, contain the spread of coronavirus between countries, and stop airlines from hemorrhaging cash. Since the pandemic began and countries started shuttering borders and instituting lockdowns in March, the once profitable airline industry has tanked.

“Apprehension to fly is not only understandable,” JetBlue president and chief operating officer Joanna Geraghty wrote in an e-mail to customers of the airline, “It is now the norm.”

The apprehension she speaks of is real. A survey released Friday by the personal finance website FinanceBuzz found that nearly half of the respondents said they don’t expect to get back on a plane in the next year. Of that number, 23 percent said that there’s nothing the airlines could do to make them feel comfortable about flying before there’s a vaccine.

The International Air Transportation Association projected that airlines around the globe will lose $314 billion in revenue because of the outbreak. Several US-based airlines reported devastating first-quarter losses. American Airlines lost $2.2 billion, Delta lost $534 million, and United lost $2.1 billion. The government has promised airlines $50 billion in loans and grants to keep them in business until we return to the air.

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Airlines are trying to appeal to travelers by drastically loosening flight change policies, temporarily leaving middle seats empty, and emphasizing cleanliness. Just last week, United Airlines announced a partnership with Clorox. The airline was blasted on social media after a doctor on one of its flights posted a video showing a full cabin. Now United is alerting passengers in advance if their flight is filling up, and allowing them to change to a less crowded flight without a fee. Other airlines are also playing with seating to enhance social distancing.

But these are all stop-gap measures. Some airlines have promised to leave the middle seat empty on all flights through the summer. But cash-strapped airlines can’t make money on half-full planes. Delta is currently restricting passenger capacity to 60 percent in the main cabin through June 30, but an airline needs 75 to 85 percent for a flight to be profitable. Airline trade groups warn that if flight capacity is lowered or middle seats are blocked, ticket prices will rise.

This is where the mélange of innovation and adaptation begins. With no vaccine on the immediate horizon and fears of a second wave of coronavirus casting a shadow over future plans, travel industry groups are looking to introduce new protocols that begin even before you leave for the airport. The most ambitious of these plans was released jointly last week by the IATA and Airports Council International. One part of the proposal suggests that passengers submit medical information online before leaving for the airport, much like passport information.

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The joint plan also suggests that passengers be able to print luggage tags at home, and then drop their own bags on the belt to reduce contact between luggage handlers and other travelers.

A passenger on a flight to Tunisia was tested for COVID-19 before departing from Dubai. Emirates is the first airline to conduct on-site rapid COVID-19 tests for passengers.
A passenger on a flight to Tunisia was tested for COVID-19 before departing from Dubai. Emirates is the first airline to conduct on-site rapid COVID-19 tests for passengers.Emirates/Handout

The report also recommends testing passengers at the airport for coronavirus when fast and reliable tests are widely available. Emirates began rapid testing of passengers for COVID-19 in April. The report also states that although it remains uncertain whether having antibodies for the virus provides immunity, the organizations said such information “could play an important role in further facilitating the restart of air travel.”

“If a passenger could be documented as having recovered from COVID-19 and thus considered as being possibly immune, they would not require as many of the usual protections."

An employee at Hong Kong International Airport stood inside an enclosed chamber that kills 99.99 percent of germs. Travelers using the CleanTech facility will have their temperature checked before entering for the 40-second disinfection and sanitizing procedure.
An employee at Hong Kong International Airport stood inside an enclosed chamber that kills 99.99 percent of germs. Travelers using the CleanTech facility will have their temperature checked before entering for the 40-second disinfection and sanitizing procedure.Airport Authority Hong Kong

Until universal practices are put into place, airports and airlines are trying a bit of everything, some of it practical, some scary. In Hong Kong, the airport is testing a decontamination chamber that blasts passengers with a full-body disinfectant for 40 seconds. There are also robots roaming the airport to kill germs with UV rays. At London Heathrow, thermal imaging cameras are detecting travelers with high temperatures.

But not everyone is buying into the need for such seismic changes in aviation.

“I think airports and airlines are going to religiously practice new cleanliness and disinfecting procedures,” said Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association. “And then the onboard experience will be very different. Some people have been predicting incredible changes. Things that are really not viable. If [COVID-19] becomes like flu, where it’s a seasonal phenomenon, then I think airports and airlines will start looking at some of those ideas a little more closely. But at the moment, I think what people should realize is that being at the airport and being on the plane is probably the safest part of their journey."

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Most US airlines have adopted enhanced cleaning measures with floor-to-ceiling electrostatic sprayers that disperse liquid disinfectant in a fine mist. Touch points are wiped down between flights. Cabin service on most domestic flights has either been suspended or modified. Most US airlines now require passengers to wear masks. United has begun handing out amenity kits to passengers as they board: They include snacks, hand sanitizer, and an 8.5-ounce bottle of water, eliminating the need for flight attendants to walk through the cabin as often.

The virus is more likely to be transmitted in areas where people congregate, so airlines are experimenting with ways to keep pedestrian traffic flowing. Emirates eliminated large carry-on luggage because bottlenecks often occur as people wait for fellow passengers to wrestle roller bags into overhead bins.

Another place where people tend to bottleneck on planes is in the aisle while they wait to use the lavatory, so RyanAir is now requiring passengers to ask for permission to use the bathroom. In Abu Dhabi, Etihad Airways is testing self-screening kiosks that help identify medical conditions, potentially including early stages of COVID-19. The kiosks use infrared and thermal imaging to record vital signs such as heart rate, body temperature, and respiratory rate.

There are many more reports and warnings about what travel in the future could look like. Geneva-based air transport communications specialist SITA predicts that countries could open and close their borders with no warning based on virus outbreaks. SimpliFlying, an aviation marketing firm, came out with a lengthy report that identified 70 very specific parts of air travel that could be affected by coronavirus.

The SimpliFlying analysis also recommends immunity passports. It envisions an airport where passengers either show their immunity passport, or go through a “disinfection tunnel” and pass through thermal scanners. Luggage is sanitized and passengers are individually notified when they can board via text message so there is no backup on the jet bridge. In order to complete these checks and others, it recommends getting to the airport of the future four hours in advance.

Many of these ideas sound outlandish and impossible to enact, and some probably are. Enacting the changes would also be costly, particularly when airports and airlines are losing millions a month. But before you dismiss them entirely, would you have believed a year ago that we would be hoarding toilet paper while being quarantined in our homes for two months? It’s the trauma of the pandemic that will keep many from getting on an airplane for the foreseeable future.

“Even after we pass the apex and the number of new cases is reduced to zero, people will still be conscious of a potential second wave," said Zongqing Zhou, a professor at the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management of Niagara University. “The impact of COVID-19 is going to be more lasting and game-changing for the country’s airlines than even 9/11."


Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.