My calendar reads May 27th. We’ve now spent an entire season in quarantine. Instead of Spring Break, we spring cleaned. Instead of gathering for Easter brunch, millions of people celebrated with their own banana bread. Instead of going to prom, seniors danced on TikTok. Bleak? Unfortunately so. These are UNPRECEDENTED times. Spring 2020, I’m not sad to see ya go. We can only hope summer brings an uptick in travel and a flattened curve. I believe in a world where both can exist at the same time.
With that being said, it’s no secret the virus has completely decimated the travel industry. Airlines are on their knees with traffic on U.S. airlines down 95 percent compared to last year, hotels are at their lowest occupancy in history and the cruise industry has come to a complete halt. As you read this, it’s important to note the publishing date. Things change by the minute during this pandemic, so today’s policy may change by the end of the week.
What does immediate travel look like?
The actual process of travel has already changed in response to COVID-19 with more changes to come, but the travel industry will adapt as it always has. For example, it’s hard to remember that we used to have zero restrictions on liquids and no need for a Ziploc bags. It quickly became accepted as part of the travel experience. Future experiences could involve wider spaces with expanded terminals to allow for distancing and thermal-imaging cameras to screen arriving passengers, triggering an alarm when a temperature of 100.3 or higher is registered.
While it’s impossible to predict the future, one thing is certain in my eyes: domestic travel will come back before international travel. More remote locations and private lodging options will likely be considered a key element to sustaining personal safety and security. Road trips within the U.S. will be gaining popularity over summering in Europe. Nature-based travel surrounding national parks where social distancing can occur will likely rise as well. Who’s up for an RV rental? With some states easing restrictions and other states being far more conservative on opening dates, it can be hard to know what lodging options, restaurants and shops will actually be open. RVs and van life may just have their moment to shine here.
How to stay safe while traveling
The truth is, you don’t get sick on airlines any more than anywhere else. That’s what Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, states. Yes, planes can carry disease as sick people get on and off, but just like in other places, there are precautions you can take. Wearing a mask on planes should be mandated (and already is on many carriers), and wiping down tables and arm rests with a disinfectant provides an additional layer of defense. Other activities include washing hands before and after each step at the airport, keeping the personal overhead ventilation on and pointed down and maintaining physical distancing as much as possible. Planes use HEPA air filters recommended by the CDC that capture 99.97 percent of airborne particles. For those who have a compromised immune system and fall ill more easily than others, I imagine this sector, alongside older individuals, will travel less in the wake of the pandemic.
How airlines are handling the pandemic
I’ve spoken to many of my contacts in the travel industry, and airlines are doing a lot to minimize interaction and risk. Last week, United launched CleanPlus, a new standard of cleanliness and safety with Clorox and Cleveland Clinic. From using the same equipment used to clean hospitals to disinfect their aircrafts to testing UV sanitation deployed by drones to artificial intelligence that could assist with temperature screening, they’re raising the bar to provide a safe and clean travel experience.
Delta, like many other airlines, implemented social distancing markers at gates, electrostatic sprayers, cleaning crews between flights and blocked middle seats (alongside Alaska, JetBlue and Southwest) plus reduced the total number of passengers per flight to between 50% and 60% of capacity depending on aircraft type.
American Airlines is rolling out flexible rebooking options, similar to United, and allowing customers to move to more open flights when available, all without any extra charge. The airline is also waiving change fees for travel scheduled through Sept. 30.
Cathay Pacific‘s Philippe Lacamp, Senior Vice-President of the Americas, recently mentioned that the airline is celebrating 75 years of flying next year, and during the past seven decades, they’ve weathered many storms and adapted to the ‘new normal’ on many occasions from the end of World War II, through SARS, MERS and post 9/11. The airline has been ranked in the Top 10 of Skytrax’s ‘World’s Best Airline Cabin Cleanliness’ list for five consecutive years.
Qatar cabin crew will wear PPE suits over their uniforms in addition to safety goggles, gloves and a mask. Passengers will be required to wear face coverings. In June, the airline will fly to 80 destinations including Chicago (ORD), Dallas (DFW), Sao Paulo (GRU), Montreal (YUL) in the Americas, 23 in Europe, 20 in Middle East/Africa and 33 in Asia-Pacific. For anyone with travel plans, note a new policy with Qatar where you can change your travel date or destination free of charge, as often as you need, for travel until December 31st, 2020. Change your origin to another city within the same country or any other destination within a 5,000 mile radius of your original destination (!).
Emirates is the first airline to conduct on-site rapid COVID-19 tests for a limited number of passengers. The quick blood tests are administered by the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) and results are available within 10 minutes. Testing would go a long way in reassuring the public, of course, and hopefully it’s scalable.
Other news out of the airline industry includes LATAM filing for bankruptcy yesterday. LATAM is THE airline of South America and now the largest airline to have filed since the start of the pandemic. Like Virgin Australia and Avianca, the airline is being forced to restructure due to COVID-19. It’ll come back a smaller airline after having to return 19 leased aircrafts to their owners. LATAM CEO Roberto Alvo states, “During the process, LATAM’s operations will follow their usual course and this decision and will not affect our efforts to return to regular operations.” The reorganization does not include airline operations in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
Where should you go first?
A road trip up the California coast is hard to beat in terms of domestic travel, and if you’re looking towards the tropics then look no further than the U.S.V.I. St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas will welcome back leisure travelers on June 1st, and guests won’t have to abide by the 14-day quarantine orders if they pass temperature checks upon arrival.
Have passport, will travel? All eyes are on the Caribbean right now with Antigua, St. Lucia and Aruba on the brink of reopening. The number of confirmed cases has been extremely low, and death tolls remain at 3 or less for each island. Antigua will allow flights from the U.S. starting June 4th. Travelers will need to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival at the airport. As for St. Lucia, Phase 1 begins June 4th with the government requiring all visitors to present certified proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of boarding their flights and undergo temperature checks upon arrival. Travelers will be required to wear face masks and follow social-distancing measures during their stay on the island. Aruba plans to reopen sometime between June 15th and July 1st. Upon arrival, travelers can expect to undergo new screening measures including temperature checks. The tourism board doesn’t have information yet on whether travelers will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival or need to bring proof of immunity with them.
Iceland has been a golden star throughout Europe for its proactive pandemic plan and sticking to it. The country began testing widely for Covid-19 in February, even before its first declared case. Its estimated mortality rate of 0.6% is lower than that of France, Italy and Sweden. It even tested people who showed no symptoms. The country is opening its borders on June 15th and offering visitors the choice between two-week quarantine or a Covid-19 test.
As for hotels, we can expect new physical-distancing protocols across the board like plexiglass barriers at desks, digital keys, and contactless check-in, plus elevated cleaning practices for luggage handling, food and beverage service, and more. “Covid-free” is the new five-star rating.
All in all, I believe it’s imperative to follow the many guidelines stated above in order to stop the spread of this virus. Travel is a privilege, and we should always look to being the best travelers we can be for the health of humankind. I also believe you can’t live your life in fear. The world will open up – it’s already starting. How each individual chooses to move forward is up to them – no travel shame included. My first trip in the wake of this virus is to Arkansas in June.