Commentary: Our flights of fancy have stopped but were they all that romantic anyway?
If there’s one industry that has been crushed under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s the aviation sector. Looks like no one is going anywhere, anytime soon.
SINGAPORE: Typically around June and December every year, social media is awash with spectacular posts of far-flung places – stunning seascapes, mountains that look like they were painted and of course, copious amounts of delicious food. #Bucketlist was not an uncommon hashtag that accompanied these visuals.
For many years now, travel was a bug that scores of Singaporeans caught. With cheaper airfares, unbeatable two-for-one promotions and the incredible ability to be just about anywhere in the world in 36 hours was just too good to pass up.
What’s not to love about travelling? It is an escape from the grind, for just a week or two, to forget we live dreary lives filled with work, children, bills and boredom.
The most dexterous among us could haul everyone from teenagers to toddlers and old folk and still have a blast. It was almost routine for families to go on at least two trips a year, if not more and these were highlights on the family calendar.
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I totally understand the lure of going away, it is a much needed mental break that everyone who can afford it, needs. But to be quite honest, I don’t really fancy travel as much as some of my friends do.
I understand there are sacrifices to be made before we can marvel at stunning sunsets or witness the jaw-dropping beauty of the Northern Lights.
Except, the sacrifices were not pleasant: Sitting in a cramped, dirty seat next to strangers who snore, being exhausted from not being able to sleep on a long haul flight (good luck if you had a screaming baby in your sector) and awful airline food.
I can never get over the general ridiculousness of the size of an airplane toilet and avoid going unless absolutely necessary. And that’s just surviving the flight.
There’s the mind-numbing wait at immigration and jumping the hoop on security clearances.
As if this post-9/11 travel wasn’t bad enough, we are now confronted with a new beast – a post-COVID-19 travel world. Are the glory days of our footloose and fancy free flight days well and truly over?
Read any story on aviation and there’s no good news to be had. The forecast is dismal – The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said loss of revenue for airlines will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars in 2020.
With borders closed and fleets grounded, airlines are struggling to keep afloat with some small players already going under.
We assembled three capable, articulate experts in a (digital) room and put these pressing questions about the future of air travel to them in an episode of The Heart of the Matter podcast.
LISTEN: COVID-19: Aviation and flying never ever the same again
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We dove in with the big question – when can we set foot on a plane again?
IATA Regional Vice President for Asia Pacific Conrad Clifford says the best case scenario is July this year if and when travel restrictions are lifted.
That's pretty optimistic because the pandemic is still raging and no one really knows if a second or third wave is right around the corner. A more likely timeline is 2021.
“Brave people might start next year, a few more will start after a vaccine is found but volumes will not come back, at least for two to three years,’’ says Nitin Pangarkar, Professor at the National University of Singapore’s Business School.
The men also highlighted fear as a huge factor underpinning the lack of demand, aside from forced closures. As long as people believe flying will put them at risk of being infected, many will stay away for the foreseeable future.
“There is a lot of fear right now that’s why people are saying middle seats should be empty but in that scenario, it is going to be very difficult (for airlines) to survive,’’ says Nitin echoing the sentiment of our other guest Endau Analytics founder, Shukor Yusof.
Conrad revealed that IATA had been working on the numbers and they are predicting that 90 per cent of carriers will run a loss if they have to keep to this “artificial seat cap.”
Besides killing commercial viability, he adds that the science hasn’t been conclusive – there is no substantial data to suggest passenger-to-passenger transmission of the virus because planes have sophisticated air-filtration systems.
Should social distancing be mandatory on a plane, the bottom line is an inevitable rise in ticket prices – by as much as 40 to 50 per cent, he adds.
Aside from these pressing business challenges, everyone agrees that the way we travel will change. It simply has to. Electronic check-ins will have to grow so we meet as little people as we can on the way to the aerobridge.
There will be increased health checks in addition to security ones and the wearing of masks on flights will be compulsory – seeing as how the virus can spread when a person is asymptomatic. All this means getting to our destination is going to be one heck of a tedious journey.
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LEAVING ON A JET PLANE
For many Singaporeans, 2020 will likely to be the first time in a long time they did not travel. Already, countless trips have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely.
A friend has been planning a big trip with her family and they’ve been saving for it. Now it’s on hold.
Others have had to ditch the idea of travelling with their elderly parents before they get too frail in the hope they can have one last window to see a world outside and make a memory that will last a lifetime.
I try to do a long trip once every two years and we had planned for such a trip in September this year, to coincide with our older boy starting university. I had visions of visiting museums, going to see some of my favourite musicals and walking around the markets in cool weather.
But now, that sepia-tinted idea of a lovely family trip seems less of a dream holiday and more of a downright hassle.
I was already dreading the fact that I had to wear a mask throughout the duration of my flight, not to mention the social distancing that would need to take place. What if my sinuses act up and I am booted off the plane for sneezing twice?
Carriers like Singapore Airlines and Scoot have announced quite drastic changes to the way they will operate – safe distancing for boarding, disembarking, for going to the toilet.
No meals on short-haul flights, no magazines and menu cards (which I suspect no one will miss anyway) and cabin crew who will look like nurses with their masks, gloves and face visors.
The time it will take to clear both health and security checks will add more hours to the whole process of getting in and out of countries too. And we can’t even take a holiday to recover from a holiday, not with ticket prices set to increase.
Like Professor Nitin says, only the brave will go on a journey in this transformed world.
If things do go according to plan - although it does seem foolish to make plans in 2020 - then I will have to pray very hard there will be no viruses lurking near me. And if I can't even get on a plane, well, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
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Crispina Robert is an editor at CNA Digital News where she oversees podcasts.