We were lucky, we were in Thailand at the end of February and escaped the global lockdown. By April the Covid-19 pandemic had all but shut down global air travel, down around 95% from 2019, as countries closed their borders and banned foreign nationals, and in many cases everyone, from entering the country. South-East Asia countries have been particularly stringent in their response in regards to foreign travel, in many cases keeping infection and death rates low as a consequence.
Airlines, airports and supporting industries furloughed or laid-off staff. The airline industry has not seen such a devastating impact on its business before, 9/11 and the recession were mere blips compared to Covid-19.
We have recently seen Vietnam experience their first cases in almost 100 days including the first deaths. The Philippines have seen rapid increases in cases and an increased lockdown. A deputy governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has said that he does not expect foreign visitors to Thailand before 2021 as the government continues its cautious approach.
What will all this mean for people once long-haul air travel starts again and you take your first tentative, or excited, steps back to South-East Asia?
The worlds airlines have been especially hard hit by the pandemic with mass redundancies being seen even among airlines that were previously thought to be robust. We have seen some airlines going out of business and many others needing bailing out by governments or seeking fresh investment to survive.
Planes are being mothballed and even taken out of service, especially older, larger and more expensive planes to run. British Airways had the largest fleet of Boeing 747’s, the Jumbo Jet, in the world. They have now announced that all 31 of the planes, which seated up to 345 passengers and accounted for around 10% of the total fleet, will be withdrawn from service for good.
The future of the much newer Airbus A380 which could seat up to 800 people is also looking less certain as a number of airlines have suggested it may not return to service. These big four-engined planes are much more expensive to run than more fuel efficient, smaller planes such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350. The bigger planes were already struggling to prove their worth as fuel economy and emissions became increasing factors when people were choosing their flight options.
Cost of Air Travel
There is some debate over what will happen to the cost of air travel.
Will the perilous nature of many airlines finances, together with increased costs following Covid, lower numbers of passengers and possibly less competition, result in substantial price increases? Talk of airlines having to keep middle seats empty seems to have been premature but there is still the possibility of regulations being in place limiting capacity on flights. Will people pay inflated prices after years of being used to relatively cheap air travel?
There continues to be low fuel prices and airlines are likely to run reduced schedules which may keep individual flight numbers high and so help to maintain prices. Check out our Flight Monitor to keep a track on flight prices to South_east Asia from the UK.
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Many people have enjoyed the freedom, flexibility and sometimes cost-savings of arranging independent travel themselves rather than going through travel agents or booking a package holiday.
The COVID-19 pandemic however has seen many people struggling to get refunds for flights and hotels that have been cancelled as airlines and hotels struggle to meet the cost of those cancellations. We have also seen airlines and holiday companies going into liquidation as they fail to ride out the almost perfect storm for travel.
Airlines are required by UK law to pay a refund within 7 days for cancelled flights. The reality is that many people are still waiting for refunds months down the line with some airlines.
Booking a package, at least in Europe provides many more protections. The European Package Travel Directive protects European travellers rights when they book a package, more than one element of their journey, together. Travel firms should refund cancelled trips within 14 days but in reality this is taking longer at the present time.
UK law also provides protection if you book a holiday with a single travel firm (based in the UK) that includes flight and accommodation, flights and car hire or all three. ATOL is a UK financial protection scheme and it is important when booking that you ensure that your holiday is ATOL protected, you can check on the ATOL website. Some flight bookings are also covered but only under certain circumstances and never when booking direct with a scheduled airline.
ABTA also provides protection in the UK if the travel provider goes out of business.
Even with these protections many companies and airlines have struggled to pay refunds and have not done so in timescales required by law. Many have offered vouchers for future travel or accommodation instead of refunds.
Future travel may mean less people booking independently, at least until confidence returns to the sector. Check your travel arrangements have as much cover as possible before making the booking and also check how quickly they have refunded customers during the COVID pandemic.
Every day, before Covid, around 213,000 people landed or departed from Heathrow Airport, almost 180,000 at Changi Airport in Singapore, around 174,000 at Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok and more than 236,000 and Dubai International Airport. That doesn’t include people working at the airport and dropping off or meeting passengers who are likely to be banned from airports in the future. Managing those numbers of people, safely, Post Covid-19 is going to be a logistical nightmare.
Make sure you have your face mask on before arriving at the airport terminal as you may not be allowed in without one. Then be prepared for additional measures.
Heathrow are currently undertaking a trial on temperature screening in Terminals 2 and 5. Suvarnabhumi already have a system in place for temperature checks. Systems will need to be very efficient to prevent major delays especially at busier times of the day. They will also need a safe and relatively discreet way of preventing access to people who fail the temperature check. At the moment that probably means you will be turned away, if a rapid and affordable Covid-19 test is available they may be able to undertake a second check before deciding on access to the airport or country. Could we see developments with full body scanners that do a security and health check at the same time?
Recently there have been reports of chaos at Heathrow as people arrive for flights up to 8 hours before departure, causing overcrowding in the terminals, made worse by many not following social distancing and mask wearing rules. Similar reports of overcrowding have also come from other British airports including at Manchester. Many passengers have been critical of the airports saying that distancing measures, including floor markings, were not in place.
Check-ins will increasingly become self-service but we may also see more biometrics being used for the process allowing for touchless checking-in to reduce contact points.
As you can imagine maintaining social distancing within an airport is going to be a massive challenge if numbers are anything like Pre-Covid levels. Pinch points such as check-in, security and passport are especially difficult to manage within the confines of current building design. Could we see car parking areas being used to reduce the crowds at current check-in desks? Will we need appointment systems to manage crowds in security and passport control?
Once you are air-side there will be additional restrictions in place regarding access to shops, food and drink outlets and toilets. Not all outlets may be open in some cases.
Airports throughout the world undertake surveillance of people on their property. Much of this is focused on anti-terrorism and crime prevention. If all passengers are required to wear facemasks, the work of security becomes much harder, if not impossible, without being able to see the faces of the people in their buildings. Even facial recognition software will struggle to identify people.
It is likely to cause additional delays at passport control. How many times have you been held up by someone who doesn’t have their passport or identification ready? I guarantee that despite signage and other reminders, you will see passport control using sign language to get people to remove their masks for identification purposes, and often now photographs as they enter and leave the country.
If you are a fan of arriving at the airport at the last possible minute then you are likely to have to change you ways. Check-in times may be extended to allow for extended times to get through check-in and security and also for changes to boarding procedures. Singapore Airlines for example are requiring passengers to board and leave aircraft in groups dependent on if you have arrived at your destination or are transitting to another flight.
Can you prove you don’t have Covid-19? You may have to if you want to board your flight. You already need to provide an acceptable negative test if you want to fly out of Pakistan for example and the practice may spread as more flights are made and countries open up to foreign nationals.
Are you a fan of the in-flight magazine? Can’t wait to unpack the pillow and blanket? You may be disappointed in the future unless ways can be made to make them safe. Magazines may turn digital, readable on your personal screen or downloaded to your phone of tablet. Some destinations and airlines are currently not allowing hand baggage so everything will need to go into the hold.
Even in-flight food and duty-free may not be safe. Singapore suspended their trolley service throughout Asia and replaced it with pre-packed snack bags. This may just be a short-term measure of airlines may see it as necessary for safety or as a cost-cutting exercise.
Airlines may require passengers to wear face masks or even face shields – Qatar already require all passengers to wear both in Economy class apart from when eating or drinking.
Although air is recirculated within a plane most people don’t realise that modern planes renew the air every two to three minutes. The air flow throughout the plane is also designed to minimise the risk of the spread of infection with air being blown in from above your head and extracted from beneath your feet. The air that is recirculated is filtered through HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters that would capture, amongst other things, the Covid-19 virus. These factors will help to reduce the risk of cross-infection but will not eliminate the risk.
The holy grail of returning to a new normal, not just for travel but life in general, is mass vaccinations.
Work is progressing worldwide at an unprecedented rate on developing a safe and effective vaccine. There is no guarantee that they will be able to develop an effective vaccine and even then it may depend on how effective and efficient it is. The UK government are hedging their bets by reserving 90 million doses of potential vaccines from a number of providers, in the hope that at least one of them will be effective. Governments around the world are doing the same but that is likely to leave some countries, especially poorer nations, without access to vaccines for a prolonged period of time.
The other factor is the take up of vaccines around the world. There are many people who are anti-vaccination for various reasons, misinformation online has also be blamed for people not trusting vaccinations. A recent survey reported in The Times suggested that even if a high quality vaccine was available 14% of Britons would not want a vaccine and a further 13% were unsure. If the take up of vaccinations in countries was low, it may restrict travel for an extended period for fear of future outbreaks.
Proof of Immunity
If a vaccine does come or a prolonged immunity is found and reliable test available then we would expect there to be some requirement for documentation as evidence.
Current vaccinations, for example Yellow Fever, are proved by the issue of a certificate when the vaccine is given. Would we see a black market in certificates if mass travel was reliant on a Covid-19 vaccination, especially if availability was restricted?
Valid proof of vaccination or immunity may be become a pre-requisite to travel so is it too much of a stretch to imagine this being part of future passports and biometric data to increase security and confidence in the process?
Again self or contactless check-in will become more commonplace as hotels work hard to achieve distancing. Instead of looking for some local currency to tip when staff bring you your bags you are likely to be carrying themselves, so pack wisely.
Regular deep-cleaning will become commonplace with fogging and electro-static sprayers being utilised in many places. You may need to arrange set times for you to be out of your room to allow the hotel to safely clean you room during your stay.
The Land of Smiles will become the Land of Facemasks or Faceshields as staff wear additional PPE throughout the hotel. Your experience may start to feel more sterile and less personal.
Smaller, especially luxury and boutique hotels are likely to see the benefit as layout of the hotels and resorts will more easily allow for distancing and the price point will allow for the additional expense that cheaper options may struggle to be able to meet and still ensure demand is there for their properties.
If you love that all-you-can-eat or breakfast buffet then you may be disappointed. Health concerns are likely to see the end of the buffet, at least for the time being. Table service will become more common and many places may well insist on more basic breakfasts being served in your room.
Should we be thinking of long-haul travel and flying in he future? It is estimated that 2.4% of global CO2 emissions come from aviation and when you add that to other gases and vapour trails produced by aircraft it could account for 5% of global warming.
We took a calculated gamble and booked a trip to Vietnam next year via Singapore. When you check the CO2 emissions impact for our group of four people it is 16.4 tonnes just for the return flights.
There is much debate on the effectiveness of carbon offsetting with some saying that any long-term benefit are far outweighed by the short-terms effects. Some suggest that carbon offsetting has no benefit whatsoever.
For those with a glass half-full outlook it is likely that many of the most polluting and fuel inefficient aircraft will not return to service in the same numbers post Covid-19. It is also likely to be a number of years before the number of flights taken each year return to pre-pandemic levels. Both may help to reduce the overall impact of flying in the next few years.
The reality is, if you want to visit long-haul destinations, then flying is the only realistic method of travel. You may need to think carefully if you really want to travel long-haul or, if you do, then make other measures to help reduce your impact on the environment.
Many travel insurance firms have struggled under the weight of claims following the pandemic with many arguing that their policies did not cover customers with obscure clauses being cited.
In the UK new travel insurance policies were taken off the market while new policies were written.
Policies are now available again but many have restrictions or wide exclusions on cover that they will give for COVID or other pandemics which could mean that they are useless in a future pandemic.
There are a number of policies which provide some cover and it is important that when looking at travel insurance you pick one that is suitable for your needs and will cover you as much as possible for any COVID related issues.
Availability and price of air travel, together with environmental factors may see more people looking at alternative ways to travel. The availability and quality of local roads and rail infrastructure will have a massive influence on how well these forms of transport will take to increased use.
For long-haul travel we may well see people flying into the main hub and then using alternative methods around the country rather than taking additional flights.
The cruise industry may be especially susceptible to concerns of safety. A number of cruises were badly affected by Covid-19 in the early days of the outbreak and cruise liners were even turned away from ports due to health concerns. The very nature of these floating cities and the close proximity for thousands of passengers seems to be a risk many may no longer want to take.
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