How Coronavirus Will Change Flying: Blood Tests, Higher Prices — and Even Longer Lines

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The biggest question at present is: How much can we stand? What degree of suffering will travelers who just want to leave for a short vacation find acceptable?
Center: a crowded United flight during the coronavirus pandemic. Top left: A traveler's temperature is being checked at Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel. Top right: the empty lines at Ben-Gurion.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum, Ofer Vaknin, Yasser Al-Zayyat /AFP, Ethan Weiss/Reuters, Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters, Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Two months ago at the end of a lovely family tour in Norway, our last flight landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport. We had sailed on a ship between the fjords, we rode a train between the mountains. We did things that seemed simple at the time, like a nighttime tour with strangers in a minibus, which seem like hair-raising adventures today.

Borne aloft on the last fumes of travel euphoria, I did not think at the time how complicated the next trip would be. We drove home from the airport; two weeks in isolation were replaced by a prolonged general lockdown, and then I lost track of time.

A thermal camera monitor shows the body temperature of a passenger, at the Tocumen International Airport in Panama City.Credit: Arnulfo Franco/AP

A good friend suggested this week that we plan a trip to France. “It doesn’t matter when,” she said. “Let’s just plan it.” I started looking into what a future flight would mean. The bottom line: Apparently it will be possible to fly in about two months. The question is whether we will want to, because it’s liable to be a distressing experience. Flights that were so simple only two months ago have quickly become a complicated journey, full of unknowns and question marks.

The biggest question at present is: How much can we stand? What degree of suffering will travelers who just want to leave for a short vacation find acceptable? How many hours will they wait, how many checks will they consent to, how many hassles will they be willing to bear and how much risk will they want to take before saying: What do I need this terrible headache for? I’d rather stay home.

Some will say the real question is: How long is it possible? That is, how long is it possible to go without a short, sweet hop abroad? For many years this was our solace. This was our hope, as in the first words of our national anthem, “As long as in the heart within…”

Other key questions remain open: In the midst of the economic crisis, will we be able to, and will we want to, pay for the flight? Will the prices of flights go up because of distress in the airlines, or will they plummet for the same reason?

A man looks at a flight information board in the departures terminal at Ben Gurion International airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel March 10, 2020. Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

What companies will fly?

Lufthansa has announced it is delaying resumption of its activity in Israel at least until the end of May, but many other airlines are gradually resuming their flights. Wizz Air, EasyJet and others are warming their engines, and some airlines that have decreased their activities are slowly adding flights. Why are they doing this when it’s clear there aren’t many passengers yet who are prepared to pack a suitcase?

According to Ephraim Kramer, CEO of Eshet Tours, “The return to Israel doesn’t stem from an expectation of filling the planes. The main reason ... is that maintaining the planes on the ground is costing the airlines a fortune – both [because of] storage costs and also because the longer the planes and the crews are grounded, the more expensive it will be to bring them back into operation. Secondly, the companies are looking ahead, and they want to have an operative advantage the moment restrictions are lifted and there’s a return to routine.”

Delta planes are seen parked at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S. March 25, 2020. Credit: Elijah Nouvelage/REUTERS

Kramer explains that activity right now is aimed at passengers who have to fly. In his estimation, the occupancy rate on flights in the near term will be 50 percent at best, with the main key being the lifting of the obligation to enter quarantine on return. No one is going to board a plane to go on vacation or a brief working trip when he knows that afterward he’ll have to remain in isolation for two weeks, both at the destination and upon returning to Israel. The first date on which it will again be possible to fly as tourists, the latest according to the latest assessments may not be until October, that is, after the High Holidays.

What will happen at the airport?

The 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, nearly 20 years ago, was considered a significant milestone in the history of aviation and tourism. The process of boarding a plane changed completely worldwide, with the timetable becoming a lot longer. It suddenly emerged that to fly securely, we had to take our shoes off, among many other measures.

On a road to nowhere: The empty entrance to the arrivals area at the Ben-Gurion airport in Israel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The coronavirus pandemic will make all that look rosy. Aviation sources around the world are already saying it will be necessary to arrive at the airport four hours before flight time. To the security checks will be added various health checks of the passengers and disinfection procedures for the luggage.

What health checks? No one knows yet. Fever checks, obviously. The question is whether we will be required to show additional health certifications and what will they be worth if we obtained them a few days before the flight? Emirates proudly announced recently that its passengers will undergo an accelerated blood test before the flight, which will provide excellent documentation of the state of their health. Even if this is possible and scientifically reliable, which is not yet clear, how much time will this thorough process demand of passengers?

Disinfection of luggage is apparently a simpler process. The prevailing idea at the moment is to spray disinfectant on all the baggage that goes through security imaging. Maintaining distance between the passengers at the airport is an obvious requirement, as is the use of face masks and gloves. All these do not make the waiting time any shorter.

Egyptian citizens queue at Kuwait International Airport before boarding a repatriation flight to Cairo, May, 2020. Credit: AFP

What will happen in the plane?

After all the lines, delays, checks and disinfection, we have boarded the plane. What now? Is it possible to relax, or should we hold our breath for the next five hours? Use of masks throughout the flight is already perceived as a basic element. The airlines are currently publishing this requirement as part of the boarding process.

Quite a few studies of air quality in planes have been done in recent years; most deal with the SARS epidemic of 2002-2004, and there are still no updated studies about the coronavirus. But a comprehensive article published last week in The Washington Post deals with the quality of the air we breathe in passenger planes.

According to the report by Michael Laris, the problem involves biology, physics and the question of the distance between passengers. He writes that airlines are examining their air conditioning and air filtering systems, and most say they are using the most sophisticated available. Filters in passenger planes’ air conditioning systems are supposed to trap every possible enemy. The air we breathe on a flight consists most of the time of a mixture: half is filtered air and half is fresh air brought into the plane from outside.

Delta Air Lines, for example, declared recently that the air filters installed in its aircraft “extract more than 99.999 percent of even the tiniest viruses.”The problem, of course, is that regardless of the filters, passengers are liable to breathe air tainted with viruses their fellow passengers have exhaled.

All this could happen even before the sophisticated filtration systems have extracted the viruses. Laris cites a study conducted for Boeing, according to which passengers who sat for five hours in a Boeing 767 on which a person infected with SARS was flying had a very high chance, 1:3 of falling ill.

Passengers sit in a waiting area as they wait to board a flight to the United States, at the Tocumen International Airport in Panama City.Credit: Arnulfo Franco,AP

The same researchers found that if the air conditioning system in the plane is changed to have the filtered air brought in from below, instead of as in the current system in which air flows in from above, the chances of contracting an illness are halved. The problem is that, even if this is true, at present there is no such system in any passenger plane.

Another critical question is use of the toilets on the plane. In this area, too, there is research underway and possible developments are being considered that would relieve passengers’ anxieties. In The Washington Post article, Laris cites experiments by Boeing with a system that disinfects the entire toilet cubicle – the commode, sink and so on – in only three seconds.

In this area too, as on the issue of air quality in the planes and the filtration systems, the question of cost arises. Everyone understands that the airlines will emerge from the crisis weaker and without cash to waste. Will they be able to invest in advanced filtration and disinfection equipment to attract passengers? Will passengers be prepared to pay, in a time of economic crisis, a higher price for their plane tickets?

Miki Katz, a veteran pilot, senior employee of Catha y Pacific, and expert on dealing with fear of flying, explains in a conversation with Haaretz that future flights will look completely different. In addition to medical checks and the need for travelers to spend more time in airports, he believes the total number of flights will decline in coming years. Most airlines will fly only between large cities, while flights to small cities, to which we have become accustomed in recent years, are liable to disappear, because they are less profitable, he says.

Passengers wearing protective face masks board an Air France flight to Mexico City at Paris Charles de Gaulle.Credit: BENOIT TESSIER/ REUTERS

Katz predicts that prices will rises, though very low fuel prices could provide balance. The number of passengers on each flight will be decreased to maintain distance. The whole issue of food on flights will also change – meals will come packaged and sealed. Katz places special emphasis on the importance of air cargo. He says that these days, cargo flights are keeping the large airlines above water. Cargo planes, including those of Cathay Pacific, are flying more frequently these days and many of the passenger planes are now being used for cargo instead.

Another phenomenon Katz points to is the return of the national carriers, because of the difficult economic situation of many small airlines today.

On fear of flying, Katz says that after the September 11 attacks there was only a slight increase in passenger anxiety. People who suffer from anxiety, he explains, can see reasons for greater fear everywhere. But the case of the coronavirus is a bit different, and it is still too early to tell if the pandemic will arouse a more intense fear of flying.

We’ve flown and landed. What happens now?

The stage that comes after landing has until now involved passage through three stations – passport control, baggage collection and customs. The process was fairly rapid and usually took about an hour. We have now “won” a fourth station after landing – a health check and some kind of selection process, which in accordance with the laws of the destination country will separate those who are entitled to enter and those who are considered dangerous to the public.

This is the moment to remind ourselves that we came to have a good time. That is, we aren’t talking here about trips for work, or studies, or an essential visit to family members. This is supposed to be a fun trip, going out a bit in Paris, swimming at the beaches of Normandy, admiring the high and low tides, a meal at a good restaurant. If we read this list – it doesn’t exactly look like that and the restaurants are in any case still closed and at the moment there are no cafes open in Paris – if it’s at all possible to digest that last statement. No cafes in Paris? What? In his day, the French comedian Louis de Funes had a hysterical gesture in which he beat his head with both hands.

A health worker sprays disinfectant inside a Vietnam Airlines airplane to protect against the recent coronavirus outbreak, at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi, Vietnam, February, 2020. Credit: Nguyen Huy Kham/REUTERS

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