Flying During the Pandemic

Flying and the future of the airline industry have become major topics of discussion. The decision of Air Canada and WestJet to sell all their seats has provoked considerable controversy. The airline industry and some experts say that blocking the middle seats is unnecessary and that other new practices make an airplane flight safe enough. Taking temperatures at the airport, passengers wearing masks, staff clothed in PPE, enhanced cleaning of the aircraft interior, and more sophisticated ventilation systems, together, are considered sufficient to ensure that aircraft do not become hotspots for the virus if flights are full.

Both my husband and I flew back to Toronto from Vancouver in June, me on the l9th and my husband on the 30th. In both cases, the airport was virtually empty and preflight formalities were accomplished very quickly. There was little point in pre-registering as each passenger was required to complete a questionnaire about symptoms of COVID19 and prior flights taken, before checking their bags. There were few shops open at the airport, and no opportunity to buy even a newspaper. Sitting at the gate, most passengers wore masks and observed proper physical distancing. Loading into the aircraft was by zone; each lined up individually to keep passengers as separated as possible.

As for the flights themselves, both were cheaper than they have ever been and there was no extra tariff for fuel. Temperatures are taken before security, and everyone was required to wear a mask. Most importantly, all the centre seats were empty. That does not mean that there was a six-foot space between all passengers, but the large aircraft was at least one-third empty and the flight was quite pleasant. People did not physically distance as they were actually loading and unloading, but because there were many fewer passengers, there were fewer lineups, and the normally tedious process went much more quickly than formerly was the case. As the amount of hand baggage to be stowed up top was less, that cause for aisle congestion was also lessened. Waiting for luggage on arrival was quicker than normal, too.

Wearing a mask for the whole day, from arrival at the airport in Vancouver until leaving the airport in Toronto, was the one truly onerous requirement. Getting used to wearing a mask takes some doing. Staff would remind passengers to ensure their mask covered their noses if necessary. And to drink the water or eat any snacks, one had to improvise an alternative, if only momentarily. No food was provided on the flight, but most people had brought something to eat for the long flight across the country. Once seated in the aircraft, the staff provided personal kits containing several bottles of water, hand sanitizer, and gloves. The water was absolutely necessary; the rest was reassuring.

Canada is such a large country and cross-country connections are so extensive that flying is essential to the well-being of the economy and the populace. The future of the aircraft industry is a priority which takes some thought. Among my friends and associates, however, I have detected a strong disinclination to fly anytime in the near future. People would prefer to drive, even if it means driving long distances. The questions for the travel and tourism industries are: How will they entice people back to travel? What can they do to seduce Canadians back onto aircraft?

In my view, personal safety from the virus is the top priority of everyone at the moment. It strikes me that, for flying to become a viable option again, the airlines would be wise to make it as pleasant as possible at all fare levels. This may well mean continuing to block the middle seats for the foreseeable future so that the flying experience can be somewhat less congested than has been the usual case in recent years. I suspect that people would be willing to pay more money for the more space that this seating plan would provide. Certainly, my husband and I would have been willing to pay more in June for the service we received then.

The airlines need to gather data on why people are flying, what they think about current conditions, and what effects the various accommodations that the airlines are making will have. The more empirical data that is collected, the more future passengers may be inclined to fly.

3 comments

  1. Justus H.

    It is perhaps informative to note that, while there have been several cases of passengers flying in Canada who later proved to have Covid, there have been no cases of transmission.

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