15 may 2020, air travel reboots, but not quite as we know it

Air travel will bounce back from its current 95% global drop, but it will never be the same. The last decades saw relentless growth, from 310 thousand air travellers in 1970 to over 4 billion in 2019. More planes, travelling further and faster, holding more people with less space but cheaper, partly as the industry made its mass market money turning journeys into experiences with ever more touchpoints to be savoured by trading up. At a stroke, air travel has again become about essentials, getting from a to b, with as few touchpoints as possible, less people on planes, each needing more space, with less moments to make money and fearful travellers not in the mood for it. All as new health and safety costs get loaded on. The shape of those are becoming clear: masks and gloves throughout the journey, lots of temperature and other health tests and checks, using airport space instead of friends and family, semi-permanent ad hoc quarantine or tracking (app or bracelet) arrangements on entry, health/travel not nationality-based, so 21st century-equivalent of when you needed an address before getting an entry visa. Airport arrivals may become more burdensome than departures. Current wait time in hong kong is 8 hours. This will no doubt reduce as test tech improves, but like security after 9/11, expect this to be permanent not temporary, like longer queues, the acceleration of contactless airport processes (self-check in, bag drop, face recognition etc) and lots more cleaning and disinfectant, probably by booths and robots. Whilst empty middle seats look unlikely to embed, seats with visors might, as may eating only wrapped food, one of many first-class frills to disappear as an era of minimising contact makes inflated prices harder to sustain. As business and economy cabins converge, after a possible short-term drop as demand outstrips supply, prices will be much higher, making air travel head back towards being a product for the few of the seventies not the many of the noughties. Don't write off the low-cost carriers though, who with much lower operating costs than legacies which can't get subsidies forever are likely to emerge with an even higher market share. Expect savage fleet downsizing, insolvencies and consolidation. We learned to love flying these last years, the journey becoming part of the adventure. Not any longer.