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James Fallows, editor, “The Atlantic”: For the foreseeable future, they do not expect a return to normal. And when there is a normal, they say it will be after a vaccine.
Gary Kelly, CEO, Southwest Airlines: If we get to the point where we are in the fall of 2020 and things are still as poor as they are, there is no other choice. We are going to lose $ 900 million in cash in April. And obviously, it’s just not sustainable.
And these are not the only changes that this industry is now facing – as you can imagine, air travel has been particularly affected by this pandemic, as people around the world have been invited to stay at home.
So far, a federal bailout for the airline industry has prevented layoffs, but officials have estimated that once the ban is lifted, up to a third of all jobs in the sector could be lost.
Normally, I travel a lot for work, so I wanted to know what it all means for the future. Is it safe to travel? Should you take advantage of this cheap offer to go to Miami? Will airports one day return to normal? I’m going to talk about all of this in this episode.
When we started this podcast, I talked about travel safety throughout the fourth episode with Dr. Henry Wu. He is the director of the Emory TravelWell center. So I decided to call him back to talk about all the travel changes that have happened just in the past two months – and all the changes that he says will happen again in the future.
Gupta: The last time we had you at the show was in March. We were still discussing at this stage the question of whether people should postpone their travel plans for the spring break. What do you think was the most surprising trip change since our last conversation?
Dr. Henry Wu, Director, Emory TravelWell Center: Well, so much has changed since March. Clearly, travel has dropped significantly due not only to the State Department and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] advice for travelers, but also better recognition of the risk of traveling, not only internationally, but also in the United States.
Gupta: I think people will be surprised when they may be traveling for the first time after all of this. That the airports are going to be different. What did you hear
Wu: I think the rapid passenger test is certainly interesting.
I think that in the longer term, my hope would be an effective vaccine. Travel vaccine requirements are not new. As you know, you need things like the yellow fever vaccine or the polio vaccine for certain trips.
And that would be my hope for the future. A vaccine that could be used and then recorded in travel documents like your yellow card for vaccinations.
Gupta: And it should be reminded people that, strange as it may seem, many countries around the world require proof of vaccination against the infections that worry them, such as yellow fever, especially in some African countries.
Now, when you look to the future, what are the indicators that you would look for to know that it would now be safer to travel again?
Wu: So, I would like to see the number of new cases fall to very low levels in Europe and North America and South America to levels that we have seen some Asian countries have managed to reduce to.
I think when it is clear that new cases are low in much of the world, I certainly agree that the risk to travelers, both of being infected and of being in a country with a health system overwhelmed, will be minimized. So, you know, obviously, it partly depends on having good data to be able to diagnose.
Gupta: Will you be on planes this summer?
Wu: I would if I certainly had a significant problem, I have elderly parents who live far away. And if I needed to see them, I would certainly not hesitate to do so. I am obviously very familiar with the recommendations on personal protection, and I am also convinced that the major airlines are taking many proactive measures to protect their passengers.
So, if we are talking about summer, I certainly think again, for the necessary travel, this can be done with most of the risks mitigated.
Gupta: Well, I appreciate your time, Dr. Wu. I know these are weird and disturbing moments for everyone. And your hair is a little longer, looking at you on Zoom, than the last time I saw you.
Wu: Absolutely. Hahaha.
Gupta: So what do you think of traveling? What do you think needs to happen to convince people to travel again? We decided to ask Erika Richter from the American Society of Travel Advisors.
Erika Richter, Senior Director of Communications, American Society of Travel Advisors: The future of travel will really depend on building the confidence of the traveling public. And these are improved standards of cleanliness and hygiene.
Gupta: In addition to requiring face masks, which you’ll just see more of, some airlines are also cutting down on in-flight dining services.
Richter: There has been a lot of discussion on the middle seat. And the reality is that airlines and their business model depend on an aircraft load factor.
So the economic rule basically says that if you take 30% of the seats out of this business model, the rates may have to go up, and that might not be beneficial for passengers or airlines.
China has started to allow domestic travel, although its borders are still closed to most foreigners. Thailand is considering special tourist resorts that also act as quarantine zones.
Here is Erika Richter again.
Richter: It’s not going to be the same for everyone. And that is part of what creates this uncertainty is that the situation of each traveler will be different. And what they will expect will also be different.
And that’s why we say, “Okay, we need to have these standard procedures in place and they need to be clear,” so that we can communicate with our customers what they will expect when they get to airport. And that remains to be seen.
Gupta: Now, we do not yet know what these standards are and we do not know how permanent they could be.
Richter: If you think about September 11 and how we rotated after September 11 from the airport screening process to boarding the plane. You know, these improved airport controls have ultimately become faster and more effective. Take off the shoes, take off the belt, 3 ounce bottles, things like that.
And we know there are going to be changes. This is where we need government intervention with a standardized process.
Gupta: Aside from the changes we can see happening now, there will likely be more in the future.
For some experts, this means that we will have to rely on technology to travel without contact. And that could mean high-tech solutions. This is Andrea Serra from the World Economic Forum. Even before the pandemic, she was already working on a digital identity project called [Known Travelers Digital Identity] program.
Andrea Serra, Project Manager, Digital Identity of Known Travelers, World Economic Forum: What Covid has highlighted is that the future of travel must now be contactless, contactless and seamless. Right? And second, it highlights the fact that we now need to integrate health as a key part of the end-to-end journey.
Gupta: For Andrea, the future of travel is contactless and paperless. The truth is that we already have some in place – our boarding passes are already on our phones, and we are checking in online already.
Will be: Perhaps you could enter a check-in counter with easier facial recognition and get a bag label.
And there could also be a feature to avoid the queue at the door. This is true, because at the door, it is also a point where many people gather. I mean, airlines have been thinking about this for some time now. I know Delta had – some time ago – a digital queuing program. So there might be a way for you to be in the queue for your phone, and you get called whenever it’s your turn, etc.
Gupta: Travel, like so many other sectors affected by the pandemic, is still evolving. But many experts agree that we will adapt. We have already done this in other circumstances and we will do it again. I’m convinced.
We will come back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.