Editor’s Note: The following is a series of interviews carried out by the author in May 2020. The first part of the series, which covers the state of the industry and fleet, was published in the Special May/June 2020 issue of Airways, available here. Also, check our subscription plans if you wish to access this and other prime-quality content. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the planet at a furious pace, forcing the global aviation industry to a radical standstill. 

In the age of Covid19, the Passenger Experience is very different from before the pandemic, but not a particularly pleasant or luxurious one. 

Pandemic Passenger Experience is austere, with limited onboard catering and curtailed interactivity with staff. Health and hygiene are paramount in the new normal. The Mayo Clinic, Purell, and Clorox have now replaced airline partners such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Ferragamo, and Givenchy.

All Emirates (EK) Cabin Crew and Ground Staff in direct contact with passengers now wear personal protective equipment. (Photo: Emirates Airline)

With this ‘New Normal’ emphasis on cleanliness over comfort, are we witnessing the end of the golden age of Passenger Experience? In this report, a heavy-hitting panel of airline CEOs, frontline staff, journalists, analysts, and bloggers weigh in on the short-term and long-term.

Hygiene may define the new high end of premium travel. According to Henry Harteveldt, Principal of Atmosphere Research, “Some airlines are going to emerge as more premium, and it is not because they are serving you filet mignon and vintage champagne.”

“Instead, they are giving you more space on the plane, more legroom, maybe a longer commitment to blocking middle seats, perhaps even removing, seats from their planes to further increase light and physical spacing between the rows.”

Delta Air Lines has blocked middle seats and capped the seating capacity of its fleet at 50% in First Class and 60% in other cabins, to give customers more space. (Photo: Delta Air Lines)

“Delta was the first airline to recognize and market cleanliness as a new consumer benefit. I think travelers are going to judge airlines by their hygiene and what that means for the traveler’s health and well-being much as they do on time, performance, schedule, and price,” says Harteveldt. 

Gordon Bethune, a former CEO of Continental Airlines, doesn’t view health and hygiene so much as a premium-based marketing advantage but an entry baseline.

“I think it’s a necessity. Without that, you won’t have any business. So, you’re going to have to meet the standard of hygiene whichever acceptable standard is. And so, that’s your kind of price of entry into the market. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to be able to play, because nobody will choose you,” Bethune says.

Some airlines offer passengers a kit that includes disinfecting wipes, gloves, and a spare face mask. (Credits: Evelop!)

Face coverings, once a mainstay of many Asian travelers, have now become mandatory in much of the world.

Most airlines (though not regulatory agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration) require passengers and Crew to wear masks —thrusting guests and front line airline workers into conflict over this now politicized-face covering. 

To enforce the policy, some airlines are banning uncompliant passengers, while others are taking it a step further. For example, Alaska Airlines issues yellow card warnings, equivalent to a penalty card in a football game after a fault. 

Alaska Airlines Flight Attendants will issue yellow cards to those passengers who do not wear face masks on board. The card serves as final notice, and those passengers who still do not comply may be suspended from the airline. (Image: Alaska Airlines)

Will mask-wearing be mandatory in the long-term, especially once there’s a decline in infections and eventually a vaccine? 

“Face masks will be more common than they were pre-COVID-19, and any long-term attempts to require them will be weighed against the number of passengers who refuse.”

“As time goes on without a pandemic, patience required to put up with requirements will quickly fade,” says Courtney Miller Managing Director of Analysis at The Air Current.

Though passengers’ concerns may assuage, Miller believes Flight Crew concerns may have more of a long tail.

“More face masks and less frequent inflight service could become more of a norm as labor groups’ memories remain long, and focus on safety remains high.”

Some airlines, particularly those who have chosen to not to block the middle seats, have highlighted the optimal quality of the air onboard. A video from United Airlines explains how the air system works, rising awareness on passenger safety. (Video: United Airlines)

On the other hand, there is an ongoing controversy on how realistic social distancing can be inside an airplane. 

Scott Hamilton, Managing Director of The Leeham Company thinks that “the idea of blocking the center seat is more cosmetic than real. Six feet is the recommended social distancing. Blocking a center seat is maybe 20 inches [50.8 cm]. Michael O’Leary [CEO of Ryanair] is right about this one.”

Some US airlines like Delta, Southwest, and JetBlue are blocking middle seats and reducing capacity to 50-60% at least until September, while others such as United, American, and Allegiant aren’t blocking any middle seats.

While it is not a sustainable strategy in terms of profitability, airlines blocking middle seats are garnering Public Relations points, enhanced brand perception, and even premium revenue in some cases.

JetBlue has published a video, documenting a trip from new York to Boston. The video not only highlights the features of ‘Safety from the Ground Up,’ but also shows the new flight etiquette during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Video: JetBlue)

In the early days of the pandemic, Frontier notoriously attempted to sell the middle seat, a measure that Ben Baldanza former CEO of Spirit and current co-host of Airlines Confidential podcast predicted unsurprisingly. “They [airlines] will get resistance, but I think it’s a good idea.”

Miller sees a less provocative solution to achieving the same thing “One change I could see sticking is the ability for people to choose to reserve the seat next to them.”

“The Airlines [Passenger Reservation] systems are not set up to allow this easily. However, to get people back in the short-term, it could be an interesting way to allow the process to continue.”

“The up-take would likely be limited, but the ability to guarantee an empty seat next to a passenger could prove an interesting up-sell that wasn’t there before.”

UK design consultancy firm Factorydesign identified an opportunity to transform a vacant seat into a screen that maximizes personal space while helping with social distancing. (Image: Factorydesign)

Author Charles Kennedy dismisses all of this: “The fact is, if you’re on a plane, you’re not social distancing in the gate or the jet bridge. You’re breathing recycled air.”

“So, half-assed measures like empty middle seats and compulsory masks are futile. I, for one, don’t want to take that path, and if masks are compulsory, I’d rather not fly.”

Densification has been a trend for much of the last decade, even among legacy carriers.

Will COVID-19 reverse it? “Long-term densification trends were already slowing down a bit, only because many airlines were up against the limits of what they could do, and I don’t expect COVID-19 to change these trends per se,” says Seth Kaplan Airline analyst and co-host of  Airlines Confidential podcast.

Experts claim that the COVID-19 pandemic will not change the cabin densification trends in Economy cabins. (Photo: Author)

On the flip side, Business and long-haul traffic tend to fill the pointy part of the plane as well as the airlines’ coiffeurs.

Network carriers have invested heavily in new premium products, but now with demand collapsed, what does this mean for the hard and soft product of suites, first, business, and new premium economy cabins? 

Many analysts in the industry speculate that these cabins, particularly first and business, will be paired back, and in some cases, eliminated.

“Who cares how nice your lie-flat, all-aisle-access product is when no one is willing or able to pay for it?” says Kaplan.

Premium cabins, such as Qatar Airways’ Qsuite, not only offer privacy and comfort for passengers. Airlines can now market their prime products offering the premium additional space as a health benefit. (Photo: Qatar Airways)

Harteveldt counterintuitively spots opportunity here as well. “Some travel managers I think are going to make the case to their management that business class is no longer a luxury or reward, and that now it is a health issue.”

“And by flying their employees in business class where you have a more physical separation between passengers, where seats are in pods that there are health benefits to flying in business class versus economy or premium economy.”

What are the prospects for the premium cabin arms race over the last decade? Madhu Unnikrishnan, Editor of Airline Weekly, doesn’t believe it has ended.

“It might slow down for a while, but it’s not over. Delta CEO Ed Bastian made the point several times that he believes passengers will pay more for a more premium experience.”

“I think you’ll see some airlines invest more in their premium products as a differentiator (with an unsubtle nod toward premium being more hygienic) while others will scale back their plans.” 

Some concepts, like this touchless, self-cleaning airplane bathroom from Boeing, may find its way in the future aircraft or as a retrofit to the existing ones in the ‘New Normal’ era. (Video: The Boeing Company)

Zach Honig, Editor-at-Large of The Points Guy, believes the business and first-class cabins arms race is on pause though he sees opportunity in the burgeoning premium economy cabins.

“Airlines are likely to be strapped for cash for years to come. While significant investments are unlikely for the time being, American, Delta and United have already largely rolled out their latest premium products, with business class seats that should enable comfortable travel for years to come.”

“As for international carriers, I wouldn’t expect to see any major ultra-premium innovations over the next decade,” Honig says.

“For business class cabins, the [conversion] programs in progress already will almost certainly finish. Suppliers see that in the pipeline as well.”

“New projects will likely suspend for 2-3 years while airlines figure out what budgets are, but I don’t expect significant changes in the size of the cabin. The demand will return in a few years, and the CapEx on those projects accounts for a longer-term view of the market.”

The interactivity between passengers and Flight Attendants, one of the key elements in the soft product Passenger Experience is now a thing of the past. (Credits: Austrian Airlines)

An essential element of the Passenger Experience, which has been an immediate casualty of COVID-19, is the interactivity between Cabin Crews and passengers.

According to Kevin Rivera, a purser for American Airlines who has continued flying through the pandemic “Customer interaction will be much more limited than what we are used to, which is sad because [part of] our job is that.”

“Gone are the days of shaking my elite customer’s hands, hanging their coats, and adding that personal touch that makes those customers feel like they were valued.”

“I would have to improvise as to what to do now. A smile goes a long way. But know we must wear masks which will hide our smiles.”

Harteveldt wonders out loud whether how reduced crew interactivity will be perceived in the ‘New Normal.’ “What’s going to be interesting is if we’re told that the Flight Attendants aren’t going to talk to you at all, or aren’t going to come by to you at all. Is that a negative, or is that now viewed as a positive because that’s just one less person you have to interact with?”

The presentation of the catering in flight is totally disposable, and it’s intended to minimize the interactivity between Flight Attendants and passengers. (Picture: British Airways)

Onboard catering has already taken a hit ranging from nearly nothing but a cup of water to a single course tray in the premium cabin of a long-haul flight.

“Airlines may even stop providing in-flight service from a cart, and instead require passengers to use their mobile devices to place drink or food orders to minimize contact,” says Airways Podcast co-host Rohan Anand.  

“If you’re flying in a premium cabin on an international flight, the meals are handed out on a one-tray set up wrapped in plastic wrap that the customer must remove. There’s no more glassware or stainless steel cutlery.”

“Everything is plastic now, and drinks now come in plastic cups. Flight Attendants cannot open cans or serve ice unless the customer requests so. It’s like a ‘wham-bam, thank you ma’am’ kind of service.”

Baldanza believes “food service will go away on shorter flights and moved to bento-box style on longer flights. All of this may be relaxed somewhat for premium classes, where the distances are greater.”

“We’ll be stuck with sealed catering trays for quite some time, with many travelers choosing to bring their meals or snacks onboard, whenever practical,” says Honig.

Some airport dining options may eventually follow the lead of Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food, and offer meals to take away for dining while flying medium or long haul. (Picture: Gordon Ramsay Plane Food Restaurant)

Bethune characteristically doesn’t mince words in his pessimism for the short term, “It’s going to take a gun to your head to make you get on a plane and you will. But it isn’t going to be like the old days where you’re happy to do it or voluntarily do it to take your family.”

However, the former CEO remains optimistic in the long term. 

“Certainly when they get comfortable with the infection rate or the mortality rate or whatever it is that makes us say ‘It’s just another disease and I’m not going to get it because I got a shot.’

“Well, it’ll come back. Everybody likes to go to Paris at least once. It’s just going to take time, maybe three years. I pulled that three years out of my tail. But you know that about is a memory of the normal guy about fear. You can manage fear, but it’s not a rational feeling. And it doesn’t last forever.”

Editor’s Note: In the next part of The Future of Air Travel in the Age of COVID-19, the author will explore the changes in Networks, Route Maps, Hubs, and Connectivity.