Living underneath the flight path for London Heathrow airport, the disappearance of aircraft from the skies as the pandemic took hold was dramatic. A sight not to see, as it were.
Having played our own very minor role in Heathrow’s easterly operations descent procedures for fifteen years now, the flights never really bothered me.
The groan of air brakes being applied a few thousand feet above from 4.30 am was a useful if obtrusive way of marking the start of the day. Now I rely on the alarm on my phone, although Apple really should consider adding a tone called ‘Airbus air brake’. (I see they have one called ‘radar’ already. Maybe it’s something to consider in the next iOS? They could change the charger connection again also. That’s always popular.)
It is only in the last week that we have started to notice the odd aircraft again. Odd because they now seem so otherworldly. “Ooh! A plane!”, we now say, at the sight of a gleaming fuselage in the clear blue sky, transfixed like Toad on his first encounter with a motorcar.
Indeed surprise may be the standard response for some time to come, as it’s hard at the moment to see how air travel will return to anything near its previous levels. Even with lockdown relaxed, unfettered air travel runs contrary to countries’ impulse to close borders and hunker down. The idea of social distancing on a plane is somewhat ridiculous.
This week, Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary said he wouldn’t reopen his airline if he was forced to remove middle seats and provide some form of buffer between passengers. He claims that removing middle seats would be an “ineffective” social distancing measure, although his suggestion that the Irish Government could pay for those empty seats suggests a motivation born out of concern for a P&L and not public health. It also denies a pleasure that most budget airline travellers don't usually have: more space to stretch out their legs.
No, the real threat to low-cost airlines is that their business model is suddenly very pre-COVID and now looks questionable. Perhaps it only ever worked in a world of weekend stag dos in Prague and grabbing a few days in a charming village in the Lot et Garonne?
Worse, even carriers at the premium end of the market are struggling, with Virgin Atlantic boss Richard Branson pleading for a bail-out despite being on record for having suggested in 2009 that troubled airlines should go to the wall. (As a side note, Michael O’Leary asked why “he doesn’t put his hand into his own pocket?”)
While separated by some nearly half a century, Freddie Laker and Michael O’Leary would no doubt both agree that the airline business is challenging. “If you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline”, Branson once said. Yes, him again. Although he is offering up his Caribbean island as collateral on a loan for Virgin Atlantic, so the music business must be pretty good if it can offset losses on his airline.
It would be tempting to file air travel in the category of Things That COVID Killed Forever, alongside pubs, restaurants and cinemas. I disagree. The closure of our borders, whether as a precaution or kneejerk reaction, won’t last forever, and the world is simply too interconnected to stop people travelling. Once connected, you can’t disconnect people.
At the first opportunity, many will be queuing two metres apart on an airport concourse, willing to wear the mandatory facemask and undergo the test for fever, simply to board a plane and see friends and family on the other side of the world. No amount of Zoom calls can replace the hug of a friend in another timezone.
Will the £25 flight to Toulouse still be offered? I doubt it. Air travel could become far more expensive, perhaps even regaining its luxury status. Who knows, it might even start to recapture its former romance; echoing an age when BOAC’s flying boats took days to reach Australia, serving cocktails and lobster thermidor to well-heeled guests en route. Sign me up.
Indeed, this move up-market echoes changes in top-end consumer behaviour, which in the West has seen a shift from acquiring luxury goods to unearthing unique experiences. Even less well endowed Millennials want to spend what money they have left after paying their extortionate rents on savouring new tastes, sights and sounds.
So while it might look a little different from behind a face mask, air travel is most definitely here to stay. Who among us doesn't want to get the hell out of our homes when allowed to do so, and soar above our increasingly small world?
One last request: put the plans for space travel on hold, will you, Richard? The last thing we need right now are alien pathogens, thanks.