Travel and COVID-19: Say goodbye to economy class as the golden era of cheap travel is declared over

The golden era of affordable international travel, which enabled hundreds of millions of people to travel to all corners of the world, has been declared over with COVID-19 social distancing regulations and other health measures set to undermine the viability of airlines.

Alexandre de Juniac, the director-general of influential peak aviation representative body, the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association (IATA), in a briefing to the world's media overnight, said that the imposition of social distancing on aircraft would mean the end of "cheap travel" because empty seats will need to be left next to each passenger on most if not all flights.

The issue also has serious implications for Virgin Australia, which entered voluntary administration this week, as it struggles to find a way to survive in the pandemic era, as well as for Qantas and its "low-cost" affiliate Jetstar.

Mr de Juniac said: "It is very clear that if social distancing is imposed inside the aircraft we will need to neutralise a huge proportion of seats, at least a third for short and medium haul aircraft…And so it means that if social distancing is imposed, cheap travel is over. 'Voila'.

"It means two things: either you fly at the same price, selling the ticket at the same average price as before and then you lose an enormous amount of money, so it's impossible to fly for any airline. Or you increase the ticket price for a similar product by at least 50 per cent and then you are able to fly with a minimum profit."

Such pressures on the cost of airfares may even render the term "economy class" redundant with a vaccine to defeat COVID-19 unlikely to be found in the next 12 to 18 months, if at all.

Qantas was heavily criticised recently for operating a near-full economy class cabin, contrary to government social distancing guidelines, on a flight between Townsville and Brisbane.

Meanwhile, the Dubai-based Emirates has already introduced radical and time-consuming finger-prick COVID-19 tests before passengers board flights.

Dr Cheng-Lung Wu, associate professor at the University of NSW's School of Aviation, said that airlines such as Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia had no choice but to conform to government-imposed regulations including rules like social-distancing aboard an aircraft.

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"It would of course create pressure for airlines including Virgin Australia because the seats available to sell will been have reduced," he said.

"Budget airlines [will be] hit equally hard due to a slump of demand. Depending on their financial margins, some airlines survive and others may not. If governments don't help then the airlines [which do survive] will emerge weaker and in a poor position for international competition."

Mr de Juniac stressed that the grave health management implications for aviation "are not theoretical", pointing to Virgin Australia falling into voluntary administration this week.

IATA, of which Qantas and Virgin Australia are members, called for "immediate relief measures" such as direct financial aid; loans, loan guarantees and support for the corporate bond market by governments or central banks; and tax relief.

See also: Qantas, Virgin join other airlines in scrapping middle seat

See also: Higher fares, fewer destinations: What Virgin's collapse would mean for travellers

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