9 insights into the future of air travel in a post-coronavirus world


Since I do significant work on the future of travel, I was sought out for an interview earlier today about the future of air travel, something very much up in the air at the moment, one could say!

Below are some of the points I shared with the journalist.

1. It will be a slow, bumpy, multi-phase recovery

At some point national borders will open to air travel. However it is not as if the whole world will suddenly open up simultaneously. Some nations will initially open their borders to arrivals from only a limited number of countries where they believe the virus is contained. From there it will be a gradual process of re-opening, allowing travel from more nations and with fewer restrictions.

Moreover, the recovery from the pandemic will be far from linear. There will be further, hopefully limited, further outbreaks after initial containment as lockdowns relax. Also, lesson hopefully learned, authorities will be exceptionally cautious about any other viruses that may emerge in coming years and prone to resuming travel restrictions.

2. The airline industry will consolidate

As Warren Buffett has pointed out, airlines’ demand for capital is insatiable, and the capital many airlines will require to remain afloat in coming months and years will simply not be available.

Competition within nations will be reduced, and some national carriers will fall by the wayside. We can hope that the consolidation is relatively rational and structured, allowing the survivors to use the worthwhile assets of those that become defunct, but that is far from inevitable. Not just airlines but other travel industry players will need to reinvent themselves in various ways.

3. The cost of travel will rise

This is inevitable, with travellers being spoilt for many years now by the degree of competition on major routes. As flights resume, passenger load factors will inevitably be low until supply and demand can rebalance, and the cost of capital and staff will need to be spread across fewer flights and passengers.

Initially airlines may seek to attract early passengers with attractive pricing, but to survive they will not be able to sustain this for too long. A handful of government-subsidized airlines may have the necessary staying power, but if others are not able to compete on price there will be no reason for others to keep prices low.

4. Travel protocols will change

As travel resumes airlines may take active measures to avoid contagion or reassure passengers, such as enforcing the wearing of masks and providing small hand sanitisers bottles to every traveller. As happened in the last stages before the lockdown, passengers may be separated by empty seats. A cough will not be helpful when boarding your flight.

5. There may be strong demand for “Isolation Class”

The first class cabins of some airlines, famously Singapore Airlines and Emirates, provide essentially closed rooms to passengers. Whatever the trajectory of this and possible further pandemics, some people will be far more prepared than before to pay premium prices to keep away from other travellers.

It is likely some airlines will reconfigure business and first class sections to provide additional degrees of separation from others. The plebs in economy class will of course be crammed together as always.

6. Spot testing of all passengers could enable early resumption of travel

Nations will only allow travel from locations where they believe that COVID-19 is contained. However what could allow earlier resumption of travel is spot testing all passengers for the virus.

For this to work it would require the tests to give a result within minutes and detect the virus almost immediately after exposure, and for authorities to have full confidence in the tests. Naturally the testing would have to be done as passengers boarded the plane, as otherwise they could be infected while at the airport. Certificates of health from medical authorities could easily become redundant between testing at medical facilities and the trip to the airport.

7. Virtual communication will become a bigger competitor to travel

I have long predicted that the rise of video conferencing and immersive communication would boost global travel rather than reduce it, making people want to engage directly with people and places. Until very recently I was correct.

Part of the story is that those who have long used technology extensively for communication understand where there is sufficient additional value to merit the time and cost of travelling. A large proportion of managers and organizations have never properly experienced remote work before now, and over the last month or so they may be beginning to realize that virtual collaboration can often be an effective substitute for being in the same location. Some families and friends may begin to communicate more online now they can’t travel to see each other.

8. Humans have an inborn need to travel

Humans have long populated the entire planet because we kept on travelling, moving on to new pastures. More people than ever before live far away from than their place of birth, making a large proportion of families today extend across countries or continents.

Exploration is an essential part of our nature. Many people’s immediate response to the easing of the lockdowns or isolation they are currently experiencing will be to want to go to the open vistas of far-flung places rather than just the local park. Fear will not contain the need of many of us to see the world.

9. Enthusiasm for travel post-pandemic will diffuse gradually

As soon as scheduled international flights resume there will be ‘early adopters’ who will hop on the first available plane, to see their loved ones, get to somewhere very different from where they have been pent up, or to build important business relationships.

However many more will be cautious, afraid of boarding packed airplanes or going to foreign lands, far happier to stay at home until they feel the coast is totally clear. Hopefully additional scares will not arise to keep the majority in their shells for too long, and we will all again resume the global peripatetic lives we have become used to over recent decades.

These are my early thoughts on the medium-term future of air travel. What do you think?

Image: Kuster & Wildhaber Photography