As the Omicron subvariants continue to spread, world governments and airlines are advancing towards a post-Covid aviation industry. Despite continued infections and concerns about Long Covid health implications, Covid restrictions for flights are all but over. The Covid-19 pandemic nearly destroyed the entire aviation industry. Likely, Covid is not the last dangerous pathogen to befall modern society. How can we adapt such that air travel is safe and adaptable if another pathogen comes to pass? Here we discuss the future of aviation in a post-Covid world.
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s recent report “Flying in the COVID-19 Era” once again provides a detailed assessment of airlines’ current state and future in the pandemic context. The authors analyze likely upcoming challenges and how we may face them.
Most models project air traffic volume to match pre-pandemic levels by early 2024 or even late 2023, roughly two years after the Omicron peak. Prices will steadily rise as demand outpaces supply, particularly for international travel.
The removal of adverse test requirements on US-based airlines will lead to an acceleration of demand. A significant concern for some travelers is the fear of going on an international trip and being infected with Covid-19 while abroad. Restrictions easing will open this customer base to travel sooner, perhaps as early as the Summer 2022 season.
As hundreds of millions return to the skies with lower mask usage, there are two factors that airlines must control to keep up with demand while Covid is still prevalent. First is the health and safety of airline crew members. A plane cannot fly without two pilots and the entire attendant staff. There is already a significant labor shortage for pilots as the rigorous job is often underpaid. Losing pilots or staff to Covid for a week or two could cause rippling effects in terms of delays and cancellations. While most airlines have adopted the optional approach to masks and vaccinations, we highly recommend that all staff continue to use N95 masks, plastic gloves, and complete vaccinations if they have not already.
Another factor to consider is the efficiency of airline parts manufacturers. The confluence of a Covid-19 and a declining economy, among other factors, yielded significant supply chain shortages worldwide. The average age of domestic airline fleets is roughly two to three decades. Airplanes will need repair and maintenance like any vehicle. Any sort of system-wide mechanical failure could be particularly devastating at this time.
We also emphasize the continued importance of airplane CO2 ventilation. Advances in ventilation should be one of the highest priorities for the aviation industry. Lingering CO2 contains droplets and aerosols that propagate the spread of Covid-19 and other pathogens. Decreasing mask usage will likely increase baseline CO2 levels, allowing more droplets and aerosols to spread about the cabin. We recently collected CO2 data on a domestic flight from New York to Tampa on an Airbus A319. While CO2 levels were not as high as the enclosed space of a cab to or from the airport, levels ranged from 2.5 to four times that of the New York outdoors prior to departure. The average A319 is almost 20 years old. Perhaps upgrades to ventilation systems on older aircraft should be a policy priority in the coming months and years.
Optimal indoor air quality is below 1,000 ppm of CO2, according to a 2015 Harvard air quality study. At 1,000 ppm, brain cognitive function decreases by 15% on average over the course of a day. At 1,400 ppm, cognitive function decreases by 50%. Extended exposure to CO2 on aircraft or elsewhere can damage brain function in the long term, in addition to the dangers posed by Covid-19.
CO2 levels in the air are a proxy for breathing the air of others. The higher the CO2 ppm, the more air you inhale that was previously inhaled by others without ventilation. Many airlines may use modernized high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, even in older aircraft, to remove exhaled airborne particles onboard flights. These filters remove air debris as small as 0.3 microns, however, SARS-CoV-2 particles are as small as 0.1 microns, meaning some virus particles may escape.
Another option may be ultraviolet germicidal irradiation. Extended exposure to UV light inactivated viruses on surfaces. UV light is not visible to the human eye. Installing UV lights within airplanes may serve to reduce viral infection via surface contamination.
The National Academy report indicates several other trends that you may notice become more regular in the coming years. These build passenger confidence, speed up processing times, reduce touch points, and improve the airport experience.
The first is at check-in. Airlines are trying to move away from long check-in lines at the front end of the airport. This manifests in emphasis on early online check-in via website or app and self-bag check machines that produce a tag you put on your bag yourself. The aim is to reduce the number of people at the check-in desk to below 50% of travelers, mainly those who had issues checking in or had exceptional circumstances.
Another trend is the advances in TSA security screening. TSA Precheck and Clear are two paid services that streamline the security process, but general screening technologies are advancing rapidly, particularly with baggage screening.
Perhaps most notably in the Covid era are airport and airplane cleanliness progressions. Since the pandemic’s start, a major avenue to regain customer confidence was assurances of disinfection and hygiene. A passenger does not want to sit in a seat occupied by someone with Covid. Sanitizer is more regularly available throughout airports, and general cleaning practices are more stringent. Expect these practices to stick around well into the future.
Until Covid-19 infections are at a much more manageable rate, as we have emphasized in all our airline articles, personal protection is now on the individual. Continue to wear N95 masks on aircraft, receive as many vaccinations as you qualify, try to book a seat with an empty seat next to it, and reduce unnecessary risks like touching your eyes or mouth mid-flight. We all want to return to safe travel as soon as possible, and these suggestions are the safest way to do so.