8 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 there are still some things that airlines will most likely do away with or significantly scale down in the short term.
How much will airplanes change?
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. Many would-be travelers are anticipating massive change and a drastically different atmosphere (so to speak) when they next fly. But, perhaps surprisingly, Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, says that the changes might not be as huge as you might think.
“If the airlines were operating under the assumption that coronavirus would be a permanent fixture in our lives or something that we would be dealing with five years from now, then I think you would see a lot more infrastructure change,” he sums up. But as it is, with the pandemic (hopefully!) lasting far less time than that, such huge, sweeping changes aren’t viable. Instead, COVID is a “shock to the system” that they have to deal with at the moment, and the changes they make will be less drastic, fairly inexpensive tweaks, just to “muddle through until…people feel comfortable and safe flying again,” he explains.
For instance, the disappearing middle seat will absolutely not last, Keyes says. Nor will carry-on bags be prohibited. He says, if anything, maybe bag handlers will need to wear gloves, or there’ll be more assurance that customers’ bags “were kept in a sterile area” or sprayed down with disinfectant.
In addition, 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. Here are some things Keyes does think you won’t be able to do on airplanes anymore.
Board without a mask
Face masks, for the time being, are part of everyday life (or, at least, they should be!). And most U.S. airlines—enclosed spaces where people have to be close together—are requiring them. Allegiant is the only U.S. airline that is not requiring masks, but it does require them for the crew and provides them to passengers as part of “health and safety kits.” “There are a lot of people who are only willing to fly if they feel like everybody on board is going to have masks,” Keyes says. Neglecting a face mask is also one of the things flight attendants won’t be allowed to do anymore.
Fly that airline again if you flouted that mask policy
The necessity of masks presents airlines with a bit of a dilemma. It’s all well and good to make sure everyone boarding a plane wears a mask, but what if someone takes it off at 30,000 feet? “It puts everybody in a difficult position where they’re trying to decide: ‘Do we need to divert this plane because of this one person?'” Keyes explains. Needless to say, that would probably be a public relations nightmare.
He thinks that instead, that passenger would be forbidden to fly that airline again. In fact, some airlines have already discussed it. “American, United, [and] Delta all said…that if passengers refuse to wear masks while they’re on board, they might get barred from flying the airline in the future,” Keyes says. “Might” is certainly a little wishy-washy; Keyes admits that “it remains to be seen how stringently it will be enforced.” But keep in mind that removing your mask might become one of the things that can get you banned from a plane.
Get the frequent snack and drink service we’re used to
“Almost all airlines have 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. And in addition to being a point of contact, onboard snack and drink service also involves quite a bit of movement throughout the plane—most notably, flight attendants coming well within six feet of passengers.
So this is one of the things Keyes doesn’t think will disappear entirely, but might be significantly scaled down. He thinks it will be less frequent, and portions of food and drink will be pre-determined. For instance, if you order soda, “you might get the entire can rather than be given some of the can.” He also says that your business class meal “might just be in a pre-sealed tray, to confirm that it hasn’t been touched or handled more than necessary.”
Keyes says that the bans on serving alcohol that some airlines have implemented confuse him a little bit. In fact, he believes that, while airlines have certainly cited COVID-19 as their reasoning, it might be more complicated than that. “I have yet to see a very good explanation of exactly why cutting back on alcohol, specifically…will cut down [the] risk of transmission on board,” he says. His best guess for the airlines’ reasoning is that “it prevents the likelihood of somebody getting intoxicated…and yelling [or] not taking precautions, which may be the case.” But he says that airlines are already pretty diligent about monitoring people’s alcohol intake.
“A lot of people think that [instead], this is a convenient excuse for airlines to cut back on” serving alcohol, he says. And not even because they’re worried about intoxicated passengers—because of how costly it is to serve alcohol on planes. “It’s more expensive to serve [a customer] a beer than it is to serve them a soft drink,” he says. 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.”
Whether you love or hate the “Sky Mall” magazines and other reading material in your seat-back pocket, you might not see them anymore. “There’s a very strong chance that these magazines will go away, or get significantly pared down,” Keyes says. But this, again, might not be entirely coronavirus-motivated. Instead, the magazines are another thing that airlines have reconsidered the value of while they’re making big changes anyway, asking, “‘Is it economically valuable for airlines to have those on board?'” he says. “[Airlines] are looking at the magazines and saying, ‘It might not be benefitting us that much.'”
However, he doesn’t think they’ll go away completely and thinks they will be back in some capacity once the pandemic is behind us. After all, they’re “free advertising” for the airlines and are still profitable in that way. But the challenge and cost of producing them as they are may mean that the traditional magazines are not worth it anymore. “I think they’re going to become even more advertorial than they are today,” Keyes says, adding that they’ll likely become very self-promotional and airline-specific.
Navigate a touch screen
“For domestic flights, touch screens have largely gone away,” Keyes says. But this change isn’t going to last—and has already started to be reversed as some airlines bring them back. And certainly, for international flights, they’ll remain. Keyes says that complete touch-screen removal would be one of the changes that might be made if health experts anticipated a five-year-plus pandemic—but not a change that’s worth making for a shorter crisis. But, for the short term, keep in mind that you likely won’t have a touch screen on a domestic flight.
Keyes does think that touch screen cleanliness will become much more of a priority. “You might start to see more onboard medical kits being passed out, with things like hand sanitizer [and] Lysol wipes,” he says. “[Flight attendants] might say things like, ‘Wipe down your screen before you use it, and wipe it down right before you de-board the plane.'” These kits, he says, will be free amenities. He adds that cleaning crews certainly would be thoroughly cleaning the touch screens themselves in addition to this, but that the airlines know that people like to have the peace of mind of having cleaned something themselves. Find out the things airplanes aren’t cleaning enough.
Hand over your ticket
Another point of contact that airlines will likely seek to eliminate? Handing your boarding pass to a gate agent. Keyes thinks that passengers will need to start scanning their boarding passes themselves as they board, rather than passing it back and forth.
Board whenever you want
Yes, airplanes already have staggered boarding, with different boarding groups. But Keyes think that COVID-19 could lead to an even more drastic version of this, with “check-in times.” As things are, airport terminals are something of a “funnel” where everyone amasses through security checkpoints, a practice that “[doesn’t] match up…to trying to protect public health in a pandemic,” he says. So Keyes foresees airports assigning travelers times when they can start to move through security and arrive at their gate, to prevent (or at least reduce) crowding. He says that airports could even develop their “pre-security” areas as areas where people will need to spend a lot more time while waiting to check in or head to security. While it’ll be fascinating to see how many of these changes go into effect and when, there’s, first and foremost, the question of when it will be safe to travel again at all.
For more on this developing situation, including how life might be different post-lockdown, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.