Hearing experts and politicians opine that COVID-19 is behind us and that we should put it in our rearview mirror, I remain highly skeptical.
While spring is here and hope springs eternal, the reality is that the life we’ve been living over a year is going to stay in effect in the airline and tourism industry for years. Like the security measures taken after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the reality is that flying or cruising or staying in hotels will never return to the way it was before the pandemic.
Social distancing, whether it’s three feet or one meter, will not be abolished, although any airlines that still promise a blocked middle seat will eliminate that perk come summer. Anyone wishing to travel will need to provide a negative COVID-19 test.
Those clutching their Green Passports or vaccination certificates will find that when it comes to boarding the plane, the only qualifying item will be your negative COVID-19 test. Many countries, Israel included, will not only demand a negative COVID-19 test or a PCR test to fly into their country but will require a second COVID-19 test immediately after the airline touches down.
This is the reality, and as airlines increase their frequencies and ramp up for the summer travel, these regulations will be the norm.
Just this week, my office had three emergency trips, all necessitated by the deaths of loved ones abroad. Whereas in the past we prided ourselves on finding the quickest way to depart the country, we now had to inform the clients that first they had to arrange a COVID-19 test and have the results in a timely manner. Future passengers must keep this in mind: That emergency trip will now have to be delayed a good 12 to 24 hours.
Many countries, in addition to such tests, also require a health declaration to be completed. Successfully completing said declaration requires apt concentration, as many of the questions are formulated so poorly and are often filled with double negatives.
Our own country asks incoming passengers a basic query: If you have been around any with COVID-19, do you agree to go into quarantine? Yes or no? Many passengers select no, meaning that they had not been around anyone with COVID-19, only to be denied permission to get on the plane.
LET’S START at the very beginning: When will it be safe to fly again?
The short answer is that it’s safe to fly now. The airline industry and airports have taken great steps to create the safest environment they can. I’ve personally traveled a couple times during the pandemic, and it’s really all about passenger compliance: making sure everyone is following the rules and aware of what’s expected of passengers. I think the vaccine is going to further enhance people’s comfort level for getting out there and traveling again by air.
What should airline travelers be prepared for, if they do decide to fly, either now or in the immediate future?
I think general best practices for travel at this time are really just knowing and following the guidelines in place. That, however, is not an easy task. The reality is they change constantly; and now, more than ever, one needs to rely upon a third party. It has proven to be near impossible to follow by oneself all the changing regulations.
Exiting Israel to most countries requires a COVID-19 test; to return, our present government requires a PCR test. And no, they are not the same. Sometimes your health maintenance organization can provide the results in a timely manner. Many Israeli hospitals have seen a nice bit of income charging hundreds of shekels for the results. Those close enough to Ben-Gurion Airport can avail themselves of the services of Check2Fly; for NIS 41 it provides results in 14 hours, and for four-hour results it will set you back NIS 136.
Trust start-up companies both in and out of Israel to create an app to assist the traveling masses on what each country requires. Travel tech start-ups are raking in money. With travel protocols and restrictions changing constantly, trip planner app TripIt recently added destination-specific travel guidance to help users stay up-to-date on COVID-19 requirements at their destination as well as at any stops along the way. Once a trip is booked – whether it involves a flight, hotel, vacation rental or any form of travel – users can see the latest information on COVID-19 for the destinations they are visiting.
This includes key information about infection rates, hot spots and any quarantine or testing mandates – including health documentation requirements, entry and exit rules, travel bans – for travelers entering the area. Travelers can also monitor regulations currently in place, including mask requirements, curfew orders, and restrictions on dining and shopping.
Things like wearing a mask and physical distancing have become the norm at all airports and inside of all planes. Airports have been redesigned to manage social distancing during the pre-boarding phase, and when you get on the plane as well. Touchless travel should also become standard at most airports with biometric technology. And passengers should expect temperature screening and reduced in-flight services to be the new norm. Surprisingly, boarding last may be your best option for avoiding people.
Many airlines provide antibacterial wipes when you enter the airplane, and I always wipe down everything from the seatbelt to the arm rest to the upper buttons and tray table. So, really it’s just following protocols and being smart about it.
IT IS not as simple as just getting planes back in the air. A more formidable challenge for airlines will be reestablishing air routes while ensuring their ongoing viability.
El Al has proven the least nimble of the three Israeli airlines in both navigating the pandemic and starting anew. New ownership has brought in new management which continues to make the same errors as in the past. Choosing to focus solely on WhatsApp to communicate with the public means that speaking to an El Al representative or sending an email are options yet to be reinstated. Stymied by financial constraints, El Al’s inability to repay clients and suppliers has led to near daily cancellations and rescheduling of flights.
While other airlines are slowly building confidence as they resume daily flights to and from Israel, trying to predict where El Al will be flying in the next 30 days, let alone in the next quarter, is a fool’s job. El Al’s blueprint for winning back passengers’ confidence seems to be missing from its playbook, and its failure to communicate or compensate passengers makes its future even more daunting.
Whether American Airlines or Delta is the largest airline in the world can be argued when using revenue or passengers as the basis, but American announced that, come May 7, an AA plane will be back at Ben-Gurion Airport. With daily flights to JFK and the following month thrice weekly flights to Miami, El Al’s crumbling position as a leading carrier will be seriously challenged. United and Delta have successfully competed with El Al over flights to the United States, along with Air Canada to Canada. This latest entry will prove challenging for the new team at El Al.
With Emirates and Etihad coming to Israel with flights to both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, El Al will find challenges to the East as well. El Al can pivot into a consumer-driven airline with competitive prices and desired destinations, but will need to get its act together quickly.
Regrettably, trying to turn El Al around is like turning an ocean liner on a dime. In theory it can be done, but it is rarely accomplished.
As airlines slowly build up their flight networks again, travelers will have to put up with less frequent connections, longer journeys and drawn-out stopovers. Inside the United States, for example, many cities have seen their air service severely curtailed.
WILL PROOF of the COVID vaccine be required to travel by air in the future?
The answer is an emphatic no. Realizing that even the best vaccines have shown to be 95% effective, the only way to guarantee that everyone aboard the aircraft is healthy is with a COVID-19 test. Cruise liners so decimated in the last year have made a vaccination a requirement to board, but air travel is a different story.
I believe knowledge must inform decisions. In Israel, the cessation of requiring permission to depart or return to Israel resulted in an avalanche of passengers making concrete travel plans. This Passover saw thousands of Israelis purchasing tickets at the last minute, primarily to visit loved ones in their countries of origin or simply to set their feet in the Persian Gulf.
It felt as if they had been starved of oxygen, and no election or government requirements would stop them from boarding a plane or making spring and summer plans. We are a resilient people, but I have been amazed at the near desperation to escape our borders and enjoy a bit of freedom.
Most of Europe remains closed to Israeli passport holders, but come summer that too shall change. Few of us have had the chance to fly in the past year, so the siren call of getting on a plane is proving quite seductive.
In short, welcome to the era of conscious travel. This year will see the rise of the conscious traveler, someone who is far more discerning about the journeys they go on; willing and able to be away from home for longer time, thanks to remote working; more appreciative of their surroundings and local people. People will pay more to sit in a better seat, stay at a better property, cruise on a bigger boat.
So no, COVID-19 is not behind us when it comes to traveling, neither in a hotel, nor on a ship, nor on a plane.
As Dr. Seuss said, “You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.”
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem and a director at Diesenhaus. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]•