Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, international air travel has completely come to a halt. This has severely affected medical travelers, who are unable to fly to another country at the moment to seek quality and affordable healthcare abroad.
However, once the international air travel resumes, it will no longer feel the same. The social norms at the airport, airlines, and among the passengers are expected to change once the aviation industry resumes its operations in the post-COVID-19 era.
In the past few weeks, several international passenger airlines have announced a tentative timeline around which they plan to restart their operations, once again allowing people to travel from one country to the other. But there are a lot of things that the airlines and the source and destination airports are working on to make the transit safe and hassle-free to the passengers as well as the crew members.
Coronavirus is here to stay and even the World Health Organization (WHO) says that COVID-19 does not seem like something which will completely go away. While things may improve substantially once a cure or a vaccine is available for COVID-19, people and industries have to independently ensure the safety of their consumers and take all measures proactively to prevent further outbreak or surge in coronavirus cases due to loopholes in their operations.
The same goes for the airlines’ industry as they plan to resume its operations. The airlines and international airlines operators have to be extremely careful to protect the health of its travelers while ensuring that there are no cases of cross-country infections.
From a medical traveler’s point of view, it is important to know what these measures are to feel safe and comfortable before traveling to another country for medical treatment.
A medical traveler’s health, in most cases, is already compromised. They are not like a normal passenger traveling to another country for leisure or business. Therefore, it is all the more important to know what measures the airlines and receiving airport has implemented before knowing that it is alright for them to travel.
While a healthy person’s immunity may be robust enough to ward off infections by itself, medical travelers need to pay special attention to the arrangements that have been made to prevent people against COVID-19 as their immunity may already be compromised.
This article highlights some of the concrete ways by which international commercial airlines and airports are preparing themselves to allow movement of people, including medical travelers. Needless to mention, the sanitization and hygiene protocols will anyway be mandatory at all checkpoints of a travelers’ journey after international commercial flights resume its services.
Limited Flights To Limited Countries
Most of the airline operators around the world are planning to resume commercial flights, domestic as well as international, in a phased approach. Initially, all major flight operators such as Emirates, Etihad, Turkish Airlines, and Lufthansa are planning to resume commercial airlines to selected countries in June 2020 and would gradually expand their reach to other parts of the world in the third quarter of the year.
Resuming commercial airline operations in a phased manner will help in two ways:
- The countries will get to know if there is any surge in coronavirus cases due to possible infections brought in by a foreign national and whether or not to keep international travel limited.
- The gradual increase in international traffic will give the airport authorities enough time to ensure that the measures that have adopted are enough for people and if the crowd is conforming to the guidelines concerning social distancing. Any hiccups during the process can be identified and more robust arrangements can be made to ensure passenger safety in the coming times.
Social Distancing at Airports and Inside Flights
The airline operators in India and several other countries have initiated mock drills to train its staff on how to practice and follow social distancing guidelines while handling the travelers when the commercial passenger flights resume as per the schedule.
Most of the busiest airports in the world, including the Frankfurt airport, are also preparing themselves to receive international travelers. They have started to identify the areas where travelers generally have to wait in queues, including security checkpoints, baggage claim, and check-in counters. Efforts have been made already by the airport authorities to ensure that people conform to the rules of social distancing and have at least a 1.5 to 2 feet gap between them.
Some airlines are planning to implement self-check-in from home and provision to add baggage tags by the passengers themselves to avoid unnecessary crowds at the counters.
Several airports are considering using just one or two terminals to operate initially until commercials flights start running in full swing. Measures such as rear boarding, allowing only six passengers to board at a time through step-ladder (with a distance of 3 steps each between them), and keeping the middle row empty between two passengers are some of the rules that certain flight operators and airport authorities are planning to implement.
Deep-Cleaning and Sanitization
Deep-cleaning and sanitization protocols will be mandatorily followed by every airport authority and commercial airline operator once international travel resumes.
Airline operators are expected to carry the sanitization process after every one-way trip. On the other hand, the sanitization process at airports (including for marked areas, trolleys, and railings) will be carried out after every few hours each day as decided by the authorities depending on the number of visitors and daily operating flights.
Restrictions on In-Flight Services, Cabin Baggage
Many airlines are now planning to initially limit the cabin baggage that a person can carry with them to laptops, handbags, and baby items. Emirates, for example, has resumed several flights to certain countries, including those in the European Union. However, certain restrictions are there for the passengers that they have to follow to avoid COVID-19 transmission.
Travelers are now requested to check-in three hours before boarding for the recommended safety procedures. Also, the flight operator has temporarily stopped their lounge and chauffeur services and the distribution of in-flight reading material. The food and beverage services continue to remain available but with certain modifications.
Automated Passenger Screening At Airports
Automation is likely to become common at many international airports, especially the busiest ones. The use of technology involving robotics and bio-metrics is expected to be given high importance because it limits human involvement to carry out important functions, which could be highly useful at the airports.
Automation is also likely to be promoted because passengers would demand minimal human interaction and less need to touch surfaces, both of which can curb the risk of COVID-19 infection.
Therefore, medical travelers can expect to experience a range of contactless and self-service technologies that allows the authorities to conduct virtual health screening using thermal cameras and sensors.
For example, Etihad Airlines is working in close collaboration with Elenium Automation to develop a range of contactless services that can be utilized at health screening kiosks and baggage drop area at the airports with minimal to no human interaction.
Cabin Crew With Face Shields, Masks and Gloves
Gloves and masks have been made mandatory for all employees and staff at the airport and those working with the airlines. However, many airlines have made it mandatory for passengers to weak face masks throughout all stages of their journey.
The cabin crew team and the staff employed on the ground at the airports are now required to wear a protective shield, masks, and gloves to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
Etihad Airways Medical Centre has collaborated with Etihad Engineering to produce 3D-printed protective face shields that it plans to distribute among the staff as well as healthcare professionals across the UAE.
Passengers are also encouraged to abide by the rules and follow all guidelines to avoid any confrontation with the staff. Several airlines and airport authorities have released strict instructions for the travelers on the guidelines that they will have to follow, no matter what, at all stages of their travel.
Both Lufthansa and Jet Blue made it mandatory for the passengers to bring their facial mouth/nose covering and that they will inform the passengers of the mandatory requirements through SMS or email a few days before the date of departure.
“We kindly ask you to bring your own face mask and, for the sake of sustainability, we recommend a reusable cloth mask. Of course, you may use any type of face covering, such as simple disposable masks or even scarves. For now, wearing a face mask remains mandatory until August 31, 2020,” reads the official statement issued by Lufthansa.
Virtual Queuing Feature
Many airlines are also expected to implement a virtual queuing feature on their iOS and Android mobile applications. The use of this feature was first announced by Delta Air Lines in January 2020.
“We continue to put boarding under the microscope – looking at how technology can help alleviate some of the crowdings at the gate that all of us have experienced,” Vice President – Global Distribution & Digital Strategy of Delta Air Lines, Rhonda Crawford, said in a statement.
The use of such apps can help reduce crowds at the boarding gates and waiting areas significantly. The passenger will get a notification when their seat is boarding and they can reach the gates then and there. Before that, they can enjoy their time at a restaurant or somewhere in isolation, while practicing social distancing.