Summer of discontent? Social distancing could make airline flights unaffordable

Airline social distancing could make holidaying in the COVID-19 era unaffordable if airlines are to fly tourists at reduced capacities

Guidelines issued by the European Commission this week on the post-lockdown resumption of travel recommend that airlines reduce the density of passengers on aircraft, essentially meaning planes would have to fly with significantly less than their full capacity of passengers.

Amongst its main recommendations for aviation, the Commission is advising that the concentration of passengers on board flights is avoided, that interaction is limited and cabin movement reduced. It also proposed measures for minimised contact at airports during check-in and security control.

The recommendations come as several EU countries are considering reopening their borders to travel as the COVID-19 situation in their country is brought under control. In the event that a generalised relaxation of coronavirus restrictions across the EU is not justified by the health situation, the Commission is proposing a gradual approach which starts by lifting measures “between areas or member states with sufficiently similar epidemiological situation” – essentially creating safe corridors.

But, when such safe corridors are opened, will the Commission’s proposals for a European summer mean that planes will have to hike ticket prices to make up for the number of seats which they will have to keep empty – perhaps making family holidays temporarily financially out of reach for many?

Speaking to MaltaToday on what the EU’s guidelines will mean for would-be holidaymakers, Air Malta CEO Clifford Chetcuti said the guidelines were lacking detail and that one couldn’t make any commitments based on them.

His airline especially risks suffering from reduced loads under such trying circumstances.

“The guidelines weren’t as clear as one would want them to be. It’s too early to come up with a business plan in this regard,” he said.

Even on whether an increase in flight ticket costs was a possibility, Chetcuti unequivocally said it was too premature to decide on anything of the sort. “It is too early to even speculate about an increase in air fares,” he emphasised.

He said Air Malta was discussing closely with the industry and government on the reopening of certain safe corridors. “We are very keen to start operating again within our remit and in accordance with respective restrictions,” Chetcuti said.

But Clive Aquilina Spagnol, an airline-airport group director in the Gulf, said Brussels was likely trying to avoid being interpreted as recommending leaving empty seats on aircraft, since this idea had triggered a backlash from airlines.

Speaking in his personal capacity, Aquilina Spagnol said that by recommending that concentration of passengers is avoided, the EC is hinting at this without saying it explicitly. “The Commission issued guidelines, not rules. In doing so, it can only recommend their observance rather than impose,” he said, highlighting that the guidelines would in the coming weeks be further supplemented by another set of technical operating guidelines issued by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

Such guidelines will have more weight vis-à-vis the industry and will inevitably be given priority in terms of what measures airlines will follow. Despite this, in the absence of mandatory regulations, airlines and airports will be more likely to follow what their industry bodies advise.

He underlined, however, that air travel could not be safe, in the absence of the availability of a vaccine, unless empty seats were left on board.

“This would mean a rise in ticket prices. Moreover, social distancing would not only translate into unoccupied seats, but would also entail less interaction with crew members and spacing seat allocation.

“Putting the guidelines into practise, unequivocally social distancing on board would require airlines to fly at a reduced capacity,” he said. “Given the overall lower prices of modern travel, inevitably this would mean a higher ticket price than what we were used to, and ironically less comprehensive on-board service.

“The latter would affect the level of airline hospitality, as cabin crew would interact with passengers to a minimum, and because of the equipment they would have to wear, which will make it less possible to chat, interact and be of service to the passenger.

“Since for full-service airlines, meals are an integral part of the airline product, these would have to be compromised too, particularly in business class cabins where the service normally is more interactive.”

But it will be economy class passengers, where seat density is high, who will be worst affected if the guidelines are adopted.

“With most passengers on any commercial flights (with some exceptions) flying economy class, this is where the headcount is to be reduced by 33% to even 50% of the cabin depending on the aircraft type and cabin configuration,” Aquilina Spagnol said.

And he warned that such low passengers loads would make the operation not economically viable at recent ticket prices, be it a low-cost, charter or a full-service operation.

“Therefore, prices would have to go up to the point where the operator can at least break even. One may argue that the lower costs of a reduced on-board service and the current fuel prices may help in this regard, but regrettably it is not enough. More so when a good number of airlines are locked in fuel hedging at higher prices for the rest of the year.”

Low-cost carriers will be the airlines impacted most, he added.

“Given low-cost carriers and charters do need to fly almost full to operate profitably, because of their low price offering, they are the ones worst hit, even if an empty middle seat does not become mandatory,” he said.

“Until a vaccine is developed, no one would like to be confined in a tube for a period of time, rubbing shoulders with a stranger.”

He also underscored that it would be essential that passengers feel sure their health is being safeguarded when flying on an airplane.

“Passenger confidence is key and until that is regained, it is not the economics alone which will resuscitate passenger demand. The loads on some routes to be operated by full-service carriers in the coming week - with super-sized aircraft and with plenty of premium cabin space the type of which we operate in the Gulf, as opposed to a crammed A320 of a low cost airline operating in Europe - will help us gauge this confidence,” he remarked.

Social distancing will make airport experience a bigger headache

As to the changes which can be experienced in airports, Aquilina Spagnol said automated process might help facilitate some social distancing measures.

“In the industry we are expecting airports – in conjunction with airlines – to accelerate their transition to automatic and paperless processing throughout all the stages of the airport experience. Check-in, immigration, and gate processing will all be automated without the need to handle documents (or at least minimal documentation) and interacting with airport staff,” he said.

“With the exception of the security check, this is almost feasible with technology already available to date. Large international airports have been working on these lines, and such efforts will only be accelerated to be put in place within the next one to two years. Before COVID, Dubai International Airport was working to increase the airport capacity by 30 million passengers annually through automation alone.”

It will however take some time until such technological advances are widely available, and, until then – or before a vaccine is found – the usual airport processes might become a bigger headache for most passengers.

“Until a vaccine is available, and all these hi-tech improvements are in place, no doubt airport processing will be lengthier and more cumbersome for most of us, with social distancing and mandatory sanitising at various points, together with severe restrictions of food and shopping options,” he said.