Flying is miserable now. How will it be in the future?

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LAX International Airport in Los Angeles is mostly empty as non-essential travel has been shut down. May 2, 2020. Photo by Amy Ta.

Many people have postponed travel plans for the foreseeable future. Airline operators say they’re averaging only a couple dozen people on each domestic flight. Those passengers are getting a glimpse of what airline travel could be like for quite a long time. And it’s not pretty.

“Everyone I think was pretty shocked by how full it was. I think we all expected it to be pretty light. So everybody’s already kind of agitated and nervous, and everyone's trying to grumble at each other and keep their distance,” says McKay Coppins. He’s a staff writer for The Atlantic who just flew for a reporting trip. 

Coppins says most passengers and the flight crew were wearing masks, and the main cabin snack and beverage service was suspended. After a brief confrontation with a passenger that was resolved by a flight attendant, Coppins’ calm demeanor paid off. He was upgraded to first class. But he says that going forward, he has no plans to fly if he can help it.

“[Routine flying is] all predicated on this mutual understanding that … we’re all strangers in this experience together. It’s not always pleasant, we’re trying to do our best,” Coppins says. “But when you add on top of that this threat of deadly disease ... that social contract is strained. And my experience was that people were very suspicious of each other, very wary of each other. Everybody was kind of agitated, and their nerves were fraying. And that experience, I think for at least the short term, is going to be pretty common.”

He says that you should avoid flying this summer if possible.

Meanwhile, once the current wave of this global pandemic passes, airlines and passengers could see an even more far-reaching impact than the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“Just like how passengers wanted to board a flight without weapons after 9/11, they want to board a flight without viruses. And airlines, airports need to do whatever they can to assure passengers it’s safe to fly again,” says Shashank Nigam, CEO of the airline consultant SimpliFlying.

The group just put out a report titled “The Rise of Sanitized Travel” that predicts we could see new health safety measures like disinfection tunnels, touchless check-in, ultraviolet sanitation processes for baggage, and more requirements for masks, gloves, and face shields.

Nigam says while he doesn’t expect all of these ideas to become permanent, the ones that could will likely be the measures that don’t increase the time it takes to get to your gate.

“Hopefully airlines and airports can scale this in a manner that most of the measures that stay on will not result in people coming to the airport much earlier, or costing a lot more for the trip, like buying masks and gloves and things like that.”