“It really felt like Armageddon – the end of days.”
“I wore a mask for 12 hours – it was suffocating.”
“Just don’t travel unless you absolutely have to.”
This is how four people who flew recently described what it is like to travel by air during the coronavirus pandemic.
With good reason. The hodgepodge of measures airlines and airports have put in place to prevent passengers and crew from spreading the virus has made the experience of flying more stressful than it was before the pandemic.
For instance, in Thailand, travellers are subjected to temperature checks before they can enter airports.
In many United States departure terminals, chairs are blocked to enforce physical distancing and signs on the floor tell passengers to stand six feet apart. Announcements over the public address system remind travellers to keep masks on and frequently sanitise their hands.
On Qatar’s flag carrier, Qatar Airways, cabin crew are dressed in full protective gear, including goggles, masks and hazmat suits.
In the Maldives, most arrivals are whisked off to luxury hotels for 14 days of mandatory quarantine. And in South Korea, all incoming passengers are required to undergo COVID-19 tests and download a mobile app that tracks their movements and asks for a daily temperature record.
With the pandemic still ravaging large parts of the world and most borders remaining closed, only a handful of international flights are in operation. The civil aviation sector is lobbying governments to allow grounded planes to fly again as many airlines face crippling losses, government bailouts and, in a growing list of cases, bankruptcy.
The industry finds itself in a quandary, however. Physical distancing remains the best defence against the deadly new virus, but such measures may not make flying feasible or profitable for airlines.
In the early days of the pandemic, some airlines announced plans to keep some seats on planes empty to enforce physical distancing. That proved popular with air travellers.
“It was a tiny propeller plane, with two seats in each row. There were more than 30 people, all sitting right next to each other.” While Nayak was lucky enough to have an empty seat next to her, she said she was “annoyed” and “stressed out” by how packed the plane was.
Similarly, Stine Fleming, who travelled from the US to Denmark in early May, said she was shocked to find that the last flight on her journey home – a KLM plane travelling from Amsterdam to Copenhagen – was completely full.
“It was the first time in more than three months that I had to sit next to a stranger,” the 50-year-old translator said in a phone interview. “I was nervous and uncomfortable.”
But aviation industry officials are opposing calls for physical distancing measures on board planes.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates such measures mean airlines would only be able to fill planes up to 62 percent of their capacity. But for a flight to make money, aircraft need it to be at least 77 percent full, IATA reckons.
“Social distancing on an aircraft isn’t practical,” Qantas Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce told reporters on May 19. Such a move could mean there would only be 22 people on a 128-seat aircraft, he said, adding: “That means airfares are going to be eight to nine times more than they are today.”