Qantas, travel and coronavirus: Why passengers shouldn’t be fooled by Alan Joyce's $19 airfares

It's begun, even before travel has begun again. It's the great pandemic travel fire-sale, designed to entice us to start holidaying again. It was unofficially launched this week by Alan Joyce, the ever enterprising, always calculating, chief executive of Qantas, defying the influential world airlines association of which the Flying Kangaroo is a member, that the era of cheap flights is over.

Beleaguered cruise lines, becalmed in their own sea of misery, are also set to fight their way out of the crisis of confidence that has enveloped them by offering too-good-to-refuse fares. It certainly appears that discounts are going to be one of the methods employed to get Australians moving again after a once-in-a-century public health crisis and lockdown but it's surely not going to be a simple task.

A survey of more than 2000 Australians released today by Vox Pop Labs in collaboration with the ABC,  has found that fewer than one in five of us would be willing to board a plane during the pandemic crisis with the only flights likely to be offered in the medium term being short-haul services within Australasia and eventually the Pacific.

The Qantas boss declared that far from it, newly pathogen-fearing Australians wary of flying will be enticed aboard the likes of Jetstar by $19 airfares (not much more than the going rate for a packet of face-masks).

Based on bitter past experience, good luck securing one of them (the cheap fare and not necessarily the face mask) and, if you do so, make a mental note that it can't last. Any fire-sales are likely to be shortlived by the new era of COVID-19-impaired aviation because the costs of implementing and maintaining an extensive new regime of health and hygiene measures are certain to be astronomical and passed directly onto the consumer.

Airlines in the US are already discovering that they can't escape the realities of social distancing in the air. After a flight attendant complained on social media last week about having to work aboard a crowded plane with no spare seats left vacant to enforce social distancing, US carriers appear to have finally addressed the issue.

Not only have many blocked out middle seats but also those on either side of passengers. Inevitably, and in a sign of the COVID-19, vaccine-free air travel landscape set to emerge, one airline has even started charging for the reassurance of a empty seat next to you.

Alexandre de Juniac, director-general and chief executive of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) declared last month that if social distancing, meaning seats left free, is widely imposed "cheap travel is over" with IATA's medical advisor, David Powell, adding this week that nobody has demonstrated that having the middle seat empty reduces the chance of transmitting COVID-19 from one person to another."

Conscious of the parlous state of airline finances, IATA would instead be recommending the wearing of masks and face coverings – a measure Australian medical authorities, including the chief medical officer, have consistently not recommended for the public - onboard as part of a range of measures including temperature screening of passengers (itself not foolproof), and more intensive cleansing of aircraft.

But the dilemma for airlines, the authorities and travellers remains. Unless airlines such as  Qantas, as well as the nation's medical authorities, can find a way to convince the public and perhaps the government that it's safe to fly in just-like-the-bad-old-days crowded economy class cabins, even $19 may still be too high of a price for many to pay, even on a brief domestic flight, for your health.

See also: Goodbye economy class? Golden era of cheap travel declared over

See also: New economy seat design could solve social distancing on planes

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