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Five ways in which COVID-19 may have changed the aviation industry

The way we travel, or companies operate, may not be the same again.

December 28, 2020 / 02:22 PM IST

The novel coronavirus has upended our lives. The travel industry was dealt a body blow by lockdown as the movement of people was restricted to break the chain of infection. COVID-19 may have changed the way we travel not just for a few months but at least for the foreseeable future.  A change in travel habits will have a huge impact on airlines and as well as airport operators who have been forced to re-draw their SoPs.

As we head into 2021, here are a few trends that will likely play out in the New Year and beyond:

Digitisation, a critical recovery tool 

Since resuming operations, airlines and airports across the world have used digitisation to ensure safety and assure customers.

"Already, COVID-19 has brought in two years worth of digitisation in the travel industry in two months. Airlines are increasingly becoming digital," VK Mathews, founder of IBS Software recently told Moneycontrol.

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COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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Touchless booking, seamless check-in and increasing use of face-recognition technologies will be the order of the day. Frisking may become history too.

On the operations side, digitisation will encompass reservation, airport management, flight operations, crew operations, disruption management and loyalty management.

COVID-19 may have forced some airlines to curtail some of their spending on technology but they will need it in the coming days to keep their costs in check.

Non-stop long haul travel and...

Talking about 2021, IndiGo CEO Ronojoy Dutta recently said long-haul travel may migrate more towards non-stop travel.

"The USA to India traffic is a good example of this emerging trend. We are seeing a number of US carriers start non-stop flights to India and Air India has also started non-stop flights to the USA from Bengaluru and Hyderabad," he added.

While right now customers prefer non-stop to avoid stoppages and increase chances of exposure to the virus, the trend may continue beyond as airlines, too, look to cut costs.

...preference for narrow-body over wide ones

As non-stop travel gains, airlines are veering towards smaller aircraft that can fly longer but consume less fuel. This will reverse a sight that had become common over the last few decades—the prevalence of wide-body aircraft.

It was one of the reasons that Boeing's 737 Max was sought after before twin tragedies grounded it. Experts are counting on a comeback, once aviation regulators across the world give it a green signal.

Equally promising has been the Airbus A321XLR, which has been ordered by IndiGo. The airline can use the aircraft to fly non-stop to Europe.

The demand-supply scenario for pilots

With some of the biggest airlines across the world cutting down fleets and truncating orders for more, there is a reset in the need for pilots, among the most sought after in the aviation industry.

In India, airlines are just about beginning to call back their employees sent on leave without pay but it will be sometime before all the pilots are back in the cockpit.

Internationally, some airlines, including American carrier Southwest Airlines are still reviewing their requirement and many may announce more job cuts. With lower demand, pilot salaries could also take a hit.

Business travel may not recover completely

A recent study by IdeaWorksCompany, a consultancy, said that business travel could drop by 36 percent as companies get used to using video platforms for meetings.  About 20 percent of business trips, said the study, comprised intra-company meetings and these may come down by 60 percent in the near future.

In India, too, the trend is visible. The rush on the Delhi-Mumbai route, the busiest before the coronavirus outbreak, has already come down and may remain low in the coming months.
Prince Mathews Thomas heads the corporate bureau of Moneycontrol. He has been covering the business world for 16 years, having worked in The Hindu Business Line, Forbes India, Dow Jones Newswires, The Economic Times, Business Standard and The Week. A Chevening scholar, Prince has also authored The Consolidators, a book on second generation entrepreneurs.
first published: Dec 28, 2020 01:29 pm

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