What my first flight for four months told me about the future of travel

‘Flying today is totally different from before the pandemic — but in many ways it might be better’

Leslie Hook

© Ulla Puggaard

Recently I flew from London to the West Coast of the US — my first time on an aeroplane in four months. This trip is one I took regularly in the pre-Covid era, to go see my parents, but this time each leg of the journey had an element of surprise.

Moving through an empty Heathrow airport, in which the hand-sanitising stations seemed to outnumber the travellers, was quieter and more pleasant than usual. But speaking to airline staff, when all parties are heavily masked, turned out to be difficult because of the muffling effect. Preparing for take-off, I suddenly appreciated the way the air stewards checked everyone was wearing a face covering. Landing in the US, passengers had to fill out a short health form for Covid-19.

Stepping on an aeroplane today feels a bit like stepping back into the early days of air travel. Each trip is rare, special — and a little bit nerve-inducing. Just as early passengers might have worried their aeroplanes would fall out of the sky, travellers today must grapple with whether they will contract a deadly disease.

Flying these days is totally different from before the pandemic — but in many ways it may be better. Health standards are higher, airports are not overcrowded and, perhaps most importantly, the decision to get on a plane is no longer something that can be done on a whim. Gone are the days of cheap and easy air travel: coronavirus has forced everyone to be much more thoughtful about when and how they fly.

Right now, global air travel is just about half of what it was this time last year, according to airline consultancy OAG. Flight data show some countries are rushing to the airports. In China, passenger flights in August were nearly on par with the same month last year. Friends who have taken domestic flights there report they are completely full. (The fact that Chinese authorities report no cases of local Covid transmission since mid-August has helped.)

Meanwhile, Europe has been slower to return to flying. In Germany and the UK, the number of flights is just one-third of normal levels. As a result, six of the world’s 10 busiest airports were in China in August, up from two out of 10 during the same period last year, according to OAG data.

This decline in air travel has been great news for the environment. Before coronavirus, aeroplanes accounted for just over 2 per cent of global emissions. But as lockdowns tightened in March, emissions from air travel fell by a third, and they have continued to be far below normal levels.

As an aside, I was surprised to learn during my trip that being inside an aeroplane does not appear to be significantly more dangerous, in Covid terms, than many other social activities. The air in their cabins is typically filtered and recirculated every four minutes. Very few cases of Covid transmission on aeroplanes have been reported; those that have involve passengers within two rows of the carrier.

Many of the hygiene-related changes are likely to stick around. As airlines struggle to recover their business and reassure passengers, their Covid-related safeguards will go up, not down. Some are already handing out plastic face shields at boarding and making it mandatory to wear them along with a mask.

Routine Covid testing at airports could be the next step in this game. Some airports already offer Covid tests for travellers (Frankfurt is one example), and Heathrow has built a testing centre that is waiting for government approval to open. Just as security measures changed permanently after September 11, the health safeguards put in place now could be here to stay. Wearing a mask feels awkward at first but — just like packing toiletries into a clear plastic bag — is something we will quickly get used to.

It’s harder to say whether the behavioural changes will persist — and how long our reluctance to get on planes will last. The pandemic has made frequent travellers aware of how many of their pre-Covid flights were less than absolutely necessary (I am certainly guilty on that front).

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This is a welcome shift. Among people who are already flying again, anecdotal evidence suggests they are making fewer trips and staying for much longer when they do travel. This practice has long been advocated by the climate-conscious, but never really caught on. Now that we are counting not only the climate toll of flying, but also the health toll, it changes the calculus about what is worthwhile.

There is a risk, though, that the health-related changes prove to be longer-lasting than the behavioural ones. People may rush back to flying as Covid fears recede — the full domestic flights in China suggest that is already happening there.

But it’s also possible that we will never view flying in quite the same way — jumping on a plane to go to a conference or an interview may not be as commonplace as it once was. Just like in the early days of travel, flying could be a special adventure, one that is not undertaken lightly. That would be better for the planet, as well as our health.

Leslie Hook is the FT’s environment and clean energy correspondent; leslie.hook@ft.com; @lesliehook. Gillian Tett is away

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