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6 Things You Won’t Be Able to Do on Airplanes Anymore

In the long run, air travel might not change as drastically as you might think. But some of the short-term changes are still in full effect.

Young woman at the airport with luggage, wearing N95 face masksizusek/Getty Images

How much have airplanes changed?

There’s certainly been a lot of speculation about what will change in the air travel industry as it gets somewhat back on its feet in the wake of COVID-19. Willis Orlando, Product Operations Specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights, says that many of the changes travelers have seen since March of 2020 will not last, especially now as vaccination rates in the United States are going up and reducing the COVID-19 risk. “The industry made a lot of changes at the peak of this thing, but now they’re holding onto the things that are convenient, are cost-savers for them, while rolling back some of the things they did to be extra cautious,” he told Reader’s Digest.

For instance, the disappearing middle seat has already come back, and carry-on bag policies are pretty much back to what they were before. With the CDC’s updated guidance saying that surfaces were not a significant transmitter of COVID-19, airlines realized they didn’t need to spend the money to aggressively sterilize people’s bags or wear gloves when handling them.

Many airlines are financially strapped right now, and large changes just aren’t economically viable. Airlines are taking this time to address immediate concerns and even get rid of things that may not have been the most cost-effective to begin with. “They took these measures to be cautious, and then when they realized they were saving money, they continued to implement them,” says Orlando. “They’ve had a really rough year and they’re working to save money in any way they can.” Here are some things Orlando, as well as Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes, do think you won’t be able to do on airplanes anymore.

Passengers boarding an airplane through a boarding bridge© Santiago Urquijo/Getty Images

Board without a mask

Face masks are starting to disappear in everyday life, with the CDC saying that vaccinated people no longer need them. But airlines are one spot where you’ll continue to see them, at least in the near future. Most U.S. airlines—enclosed spaces where people have to be close together—began requiring them fairly early in the pandemic. And in January of 2021, President Biden issued an executive order making mask requirements on airplanes federal law. According to Orlando, the airlines welcomed this. “The airlines lobbied hard for that [mandate], because they didn’t want to be responsible” for insisting customers wear a mask, he told Reader’s Digest. It took some pressure off the airlines themselves when it was the federal government dictating it. As of this writing, the federal mandate is scheduled to last until September 18, 2021—and Orlando doesn’t expect it to be extended beyond that. Neglecting a face mask is also one of the things flight attendants won’t be allowed to do anymore.

Friends traveling by plane wearing facemasks and taking a selfieHispanolistic/Getty Images

Fly that airline again if you flouted that mask policy

It’s not necessarily a mandate that a passenger will be banned from flying if they make a stink about wearing a mask, but there is a precedent for it and it’s certainly a viable option. In fact, Delta Airlines claimed that it had banned a full 880 passengers in 2020 alone for breaking the no-mask rule. “Airlines are still enforcing the mask mandates very strictly,” Orlando says. “They reserve the right to refuse you future tickets in the future.” However, the “ban” may not be permanent and may only last until masks are no longer required in the air.

Airline meals served on seat tablesJuan Silva/Getty Images

Get fancy meals

When the pandemic began, “almost all airlines significantly curbed their onboard service, given the fact that it’s a ‘touch point’…that is not wholly necessary between cabin crew and customers,” Keyes says. But now, it’s returning, slowly but surely. “For long-haul flights, some airlines have introduced some form of full-plate meal again,” Orlando says. But he adds that business class is one of the areas where the pandemic-era changes are lingering. Passengers will still get a meal, but it might be served in plastic or pre-sealed rather than on a nice, non-disposable plate. This is both for convenience and sanitary purposes. Another place changes are conspicuous? Airport lounges. “The typical lounge buffet is currently no longer a thing, but there’s an indication that it will come back in the near future,” Orlando says. These are the 5 things you won’t see in hotels anymore (and 2 you will).

Plastic cup of red wine in the airplaneAlexander Spatari/Getty Images

Order alcohol on some airlines

In addition to traditional food service, many airlines also cut back on their alcohol service or stopped providing it altogether. But for the most part, it’s back. “All U.S. airlines except for two have reintroduced alcohol on their flights,” Orlando says. American Airlines is one, announcing that alcohol would not return to their flights until the mask mandate is lifted in September. Southwest has not announced when booze will be back. Both Keyes and Orlando believe that, while airlines have certainly cited COVID-19 as their reasoning for ceasing alcohol service, it might be more complicated than that. “It prevents the likelihood of somebody getting intoxicated…and yelling [or] not taking precautions,” Keyes says, which is the reason American Airlines has given. But he finds it likely that instead, “this is a convenient excuse for airlines to cut back on” serving alcohol. And not even because they’re worried about intoxicated passengers—because of how costly it is to serve alcohol on planes. He adds that it’s likely that “they’re doing it more for economic reasons than for public health reasons—even if public health is the messaging that carries the day.” The airlines that haven’t resumed alcohol service are taking advantage of the opportunity to save a little money for a little longer. These are the things you won’t see in Walmart anymore.

Young asian businessman wearing protective face mask with suit sitting on airplane seat while reading magazine due to Coronavirus or COVID-19 outbreak situation in all of landmass in the worldMongkol Chuewong/Getty Images

Read magazines

Whether you love or hate the Sky Mall magazines and other reading material in your seat-back pocket, you might not see them anymore. But this, again, might not be entirely coronavirus-motivated. Instead, the magazines are another thing that airlines have reconsidered the value of while they’ve had to make big changes anyway, asking, “‘Is it economically valuable for airlines to have those on board?'” Keyes says. “[Airlines] are looking at the magazines and saying, ‘It might not be benefitting us that much.'” Delta Airlines, in fact, laid off its magazine staff fairly early in the pandemic. So the magazines are one thing that Orlando thinks will not return—with one exception. “United has kept their in-flight magazines—they [got rid of them] briefly but have brought them back,” he says. United cited the magazines as a “valuable part of their brand” that boosts ad revenue. Other airlines, though, took the pandemic as an opportunity to do away with something that wasn’t very cost-effective for them anyway. Alaska Airlines has introduced a digital equivalent, and Orlando thinks other airlines could follow suit. Find out the things airplanes aren’t cleaning enough.

Cropped hands of businessman scanning ticket on smart phone at airport check-in counterMaskot/Getty Images

Hand over your ticket

Another point of contact that airlines are eliminating? Handing your boarding pass to a gate agent. Passengers will likely start scanning their boarding passes themselves as they board, rather than passing it back and forth—and, in fact, they already have. “Things had been moving that way for a while pre-pandemic, what with so many passengers having their boarding passes on their phones,” says Orlando. “But now most airlines will have passengers self-scan even if they have a paper ticket. I highly doubt airlines will go back to the old ways on this one.” As some things continue to go back to normal, learn about things you won’t see in airports anymore.

Sources:

  • Willis Orlando, Product Operations Specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights
  • Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.