How flying could change for the better after coronavirus

Simon Calder
Thermal cameras monitors are used to check the body temperature of passengers at Fiumicino airport, near Rome, Italy: EPA

In what travellers will look back upon fondly as the golden year of 2019, my final air journey was from Sharm el Sheikh via Istanbul to London with the Turkish airline, Pegasus.

It was certainly the journey on which I endured the highest number of searches, due to a tragic event five years ago.

In 2015, a Metrojet passenger plane en route to St Petersburg crashed shortly after take-off from the Egyptian resort with the loss of 224 lives. The presumption is that a bomb was placed on board in Sharm el Sheikh, and as a result the UK banned flights to and from the airport for the following four years.

As I wrote in December, checks began at the road entrance to Sharm el Sheikh airport from the highway, with dogs sniffing my baggage.

Inside the terminal, twice the details from my passport were painstakingly inscribed in a ledger. My laptop was laboriously swabbed for traces of explosives a couple of times, and I went through two full-body pat-downs, within sight of each other.

In an age of social distancing, it will be interesting to see how Sharm el Sheikh airport changes its approach to security.

But allow me to focus on what happened next, on touchdown at Sabiha Gokcen airport (the city’s Gatwick to Istanbul’s shiny new airport, the equivalent of Heathrow): the exact opposite of social distancing.

Several planes had arrived almost at once, and about 1,000 of us packed into to a tiny security search area – groundhog day for we arrivals from Sharm el Sheikh.

According to a roadmap from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), that second search should become unnecessary. The organisation is urging mutual recognition of search procedures between many more nations.

If you fly from Edinburgh to London and connect to Chicago, you will be deemed at Heathrow airport to be “clean” and need not suffer the indignities of security once again.

The same applies in the US when you have been screened once by the Transportation Safety Administration: at subsequent connection points, you swerve security. If nations are confident in each other’s standards, it makes good sense to subtract the intermediate security step – saving time, stress and an avoidable airport pinch point.

The idea is that passengers arriving in Turkey from Egypt, who have an immediate connection and plan to remain "airside," will be treated as though they have just cleared security in Turkey.

The same would apply for passengers from Turkey to Cairo, with onward connections, and many more country pairs.

Even at a time when nations seem more disunited than ever, it would cut costs as well as reducing hassle and the Covid-19 risk.

Iata has many more recommendations for the post-coronavirus era. It urges: “Access to the terminal building should be restricted to airport/airline workers and travellers.”

That makes sense from the point of view of both biosecurity and old-fashioned aviation security. But it will not play well with “meeters and greeters” (and their converse on departure, the “weepers and wailers”), nor with the catering outlets that depend upon them.

Yet a less-crowded airport environment is a definite plus for the passenger.

At the departure airport, IATA foresees several layers of protective measures:

“Boarding should be made as efficient as possible with redesigned gate areas, congestion-reducing boarding priorities, and hand-luggage limitations.”

With the possible exception of those of us who shun checked baggage, those priorities looks good.

On board, the main concern is that the airline should be able to sell all the places on board – rather than leaving the middle seats free.

“Social distancing on board (leaving the middle seat open) is obviated by the wearing of face coverings by all on board on top of transmission-reducing characteristics of the cabin.

"Everybody is front facing, air flow is from ceiling to floor, seats provide a barrier to forward/aft transmission, and air filtration systems that operate to hospital operating theatre standards."

Ryanair’s “ask before you go to the bathroom” approach receives the IATA seal of approval. The organisation calls for: "Reduced congregation of passengers in the cabin, for example, by prohibiting queues for washrooms."

On arrival, some parts of the roadmap take on the hue of a wish list: “Accelerated processing and baggage reclaim to enable social distancing by reducing congestion and queuing.”

All travellers would enjoy that prospect in the sunlit uplands of future travel: your bag waiting eagerly as you stroll up to baggage reclaim.

I don’t believe that any ground handler is deliberately slouching; without massive investment in people and equipment I can’t see much room for improvement. But I hope I will be pleasantly surprised.

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Things may look bad for aviation, but we will fly again