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What Will Flying Be Like After the Coronavirus?

For one, they might stop serving snacks

Like most things, air travel has been done tremendously dirty by the coronavirus, forcing many airlines to ground at least some of their precious planes until people feel comfortable enough to set foot outside again. The airlines themselves are, naturally, freaking the fuck out, pleading for even more bailout money on top of the mammoth bailout mountain they already have coming. And frankly, so am I, because the thought of flying on a plane that just spent months accumulating dust and grime in some random desert hanger is horrible and terrifying.

But apparently, my post-coronavirus flying fears are largely unwarranted. “Any aircraft that carries passengers must meet or exceed the maintenance standards set by its national or regional safety regulator,” explains Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and president of the Atmosphere Research Group. “If a U.S. airline stores an aircraft for an extended period of time, it must ensure that the plane meets or exceeds the Federal Aviation Administration’s maintenance standards before returning to scheduled service. These standards cover the plane’s key systems and components, such as engines, flight controls, avionics, hydraulic and electrical systems, and safety equipment, such as the cabin oxygen system. The aircraft must also be brought up-to-date with any Airworthiness Directives the FAA may have issued while the aircraft was out of service.”

Ross Aimer, CEO of Aero Consulting Experts, concurs, emphasizing the rigor of these standards. “Major airlines in the U.S. follow very strict FAA regulations and guidelines in respect to maintaining their grounded fleet, commonly known as Pickling,” he explains. “During grounding, the aircraft is still maintained and receives certain checks. Before being returned to service, the plane also goes through a series of checks.” If you want more specifics, Boeing was forced to ground some planes last August after two fatal crashes, and legions of maintenance workers were required to keep them lubricated, rotate their tires, remove any wild animals, scan them for corrosion, move them out of daily sun and nightly cold, among other arduous tasks.

Now, while all of that might mean planes will be generally safe when we start flying more frequently again, you should still expect some changes, temporary and possibly lasting, to air travel in general after the coronavirus. One change could be that there might be fewer flights. “If a plane has been out of service for several months, it may take the airline time to get it ready for passenger service, based on its maintenance facilities and number of mechanics that work for the airline, or access to FAA-authorized and approved third-party maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities,” Harteveldt explains. 

Put simply, these grounded flights could take some time to get up and running again. That said, economic distress and lingering coronavirus fears are expected to stop people from traveling much for a good while, anyway.

Maintenance aside, planes being out of the skies can result in airlines losing their choice flight slots, another factor that might result in fewer flights. You may have heard about how airlines have been sending out ghost flights, where planes fly their routes without passengers. This is usually because worldwide flying is a highly synchronized business that relies on planes flying the routes they were supposed to fly, or else another airline might snag that route, leaving the first airline with one less spot to make money on. However, in an effort to stop airlines from wasting fuel and cash on empty planes, legislation has been put forward to help them maintain their routes during the coronavirus outbreak — and hopefully keep them flying those same routes when we all get up and running again. While they work on that, you can expect more flexibility with rebooking and cancellations until the coronavirus panic is long gone.

Another possible change: Several large airlines have already stopped serving drinks and snacks on their planes, especially on shorter flights, to pinch pennies and keep flight attendants from spreading the virus. The airlines are suggesting that these changes are meant to be temporary, but you can definitely expect both airlines and travelers to be much more cautious about the spread of germs in the future, and that could mean saying goodbye to your beloved midair ginger ale.

On the bright side, for passengers at least, some airlines might be pushed to retire their older, uncomfortable, inefficient planes because of the lack of business right now and the unaffordable cost of grounding them — remember, planes require loads of costly maintenance, even while grounded. Some airlines are even desperately cannibalizing parts from their grounded planes to save on buying new parts right now. Fingers crossed that this will encourage airlines to invest in new and improved planes in the near future.

In the end, though, all of these potential changes depend on the length of this pandemic, as well as the economic and social outcomes, none of which anyone can speak to with much certainty right now. If we stay inside for too long, more and more airplanes will need to be grounded, which means fewer flights in the long run. But if we can get the coronavirus under control and return to our normal lives with some swiftness, airlines could relatively quickly return to the same old, same old

Whatever happens, for what airlines normally charge so we can be crammed into a crowded plane, continuing to serve ginger ale is the least they could do.

The MEL Guide to Life in Quarantine