The challenge of rebuilding global travel

Singapore's Changi Airport.
Singapore's Changi Airport. / SUR
  • Future tourism looks cleaner, probably greener, and certainly leaner

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, wrote in 1789 that " this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes". Well, I think you'll agree, we could all add a few other certainties to that list, and for sure, I'd add 'change'.

Rebuilding better

Change is constant in life and when we face a crisis, like that of the Covid-19 virus, we see change accelerate.

So inevitably, travel is changing. For the past few months, the global industry has faced an almost existential crisis, when many of the planet's citizens have been forbidden to leave their homes except to shop for essential food, let alone head out on a journey for pleasure.

Yet the thing about change is that it creates opportunities. Successful people and businesses embrace change rather than fear or ignore it. That's why crises drive human innovation, forcing us to adapt, often rapidly.

The ‘Germfalcon’ sterilisation machine can fit in the aisle between aircraft seats.

The ‘Germfalcon’ sterilisation machine can fit in the aisle between aircraft seats. / SUR

As travel is once again becoming part of our lives, the industry is endeavouring to meet the new challenges we all face. It has to almost reinvent itself and certainly evolve. In the short-term there will be pain, in terms of inconveniences, risks and higher costs for travellers, and financial burdens and fewer clients for providers.

Yet I am in no doubt that travel will rebuild better. So here I wanted to explore a few of the medium- to long-term benefits that this health crisis will have upon travel.

Squeaky clean

The video of supermodel Naomi Campbell's aircraft-boarding ritual, where she cleaned and disinfected everything in her seat area with wipes, went 'viral' last year. Yet now in 2020, the year of the coronavirus, her approach no longer seems so compulsive. Cleanliness is the new, all-encompassing priority for the travel industry. This has to be among one of the best legacies of this crisis. Planes, trains, and rental automobiles are going to be cleaner than ever before.

US firm Dimer UVC Innovations has invented the 'Germfalcon', a sterilisation machine that can fit in the aisle between aircraft seats and extend its 'wings' of UV lights over the seats, sterilising them as it passes. This is the future of our cleaner, healthier world of travel.

Go Green

Trains will continue in popularity, as their journey times and cost per kilometre begin to compete even more favourably with airline schedules, which will need to be adjusted for longer turn-arounds (as planes are cleaned; and boarding processes become slightly slower, less crowded affairs).

Need more space for social distancing? Just hook up another train carriage. That's not possible on an aircraft, so trains will take a lot more strain for intercity travel in the coming years.

Meanwhile, rental car companies have invested in new cleaning protocols for vehicles using not only disinfectants but also ozone. So, expect not only a fresher smelling car for your holiday, but a genuinely cleaner one too.

The Covid-19 health crisis has also accelerated the retirement of large kerosene-guzzler aircraft. Instead twin-engine, more fuel-efficient 'greener' planes are being scheduled for use in the future. Boeing 747s and 777s, and Airbus A380s are all set to be nothing more than nostalgic travel memories.

Do you remember the first time you checked in for a flight online? I do; it was complicated, and fraught with frustrations, with a slow internet connection and a cumbersome website.

Yet it was a revolution for airline travel. Now, online check-in for flights is taken for granted - and it's that kind of innovation we are going to see a lot more of over the next few years.

Driving innovation

With the new obligation to minimise queues and crowds in airports we are going to see new ideas that will be equally transformative for us as travellers. We'll be able to check our luggage online, download personalised digital luggage tags that integrate with our suitcases, and arrange our bag drop-off at different locations away from the airport.

Driving to the airport in our own cars will decline, and use of autonomous vehicles will increase, allowing airport car parks to be converted into terminal space.

Once we arrive at the airport, the way we navigate these larger terminals will be far more intuitive and controlled through apps on our smart phones. Forget the last minute jostle to board the aircraft and stow your cabin bag in the last empty overhead locker. The future promises a far more controlled boarding process. Checked and carry-on luggage will be closely monitored and agreed in advance before you leave home. Passengers will be guided through the terminal in smaller groups, arriving at the gate in stages, guided by smart phone alerts.

In the short term I know that won't be the case - travel this summer for example will be no joy. But look ahead a few years and I think it's going to be a much smoother experience.

Airports will evolve into healthier spaces, with more square metres per passenger, more natural light, sophisticated air filtering systems, and lots of plants. Singapore's Changi Airport gives us a glimpse into this attractive future.

Healthy hotels

Hotels too are making their contribution to rebuilding travel better. One of the changes I am most looking forward to is the end of the traditional check-in. Hotels have always been innovators, yet few have seemed enthusiastic to get rid of the anachronistic Front Desk.

Well, now it would seem its days are finally numbered. To avoid queues and groups in the lobby, budget properties will roll-out more automated self-check in, using terminals or smart phone apps.

High-end properties and luxury resorts will avoid groups in reception by providing dedicated check-in within a private space, the guest suite, or by offering direct suite access via a smart phone app.

Keyless entry will become the norm. Once initial check-in is completed online, or in a private dedicated area, guests will receive their 'key' on their phone. The mantra will be in 'no-touch, no-contact'.

Rooms will be cleaned to a higher standard, and don't be surprised to see more use of automation. Cleaning robots will be a more familiar sight in airports, train stations and hotels. Properties are also installing UV light disinfection for guest rooms and within air condition systems.

Yet the challenge for the hospitality industry will be to avoid creating spaces that feel more like hospitals than hotels. Despite innovation and technology, the focus has to remain on old fashioned thoughtfulness, friendliness, and hospitality.

Sailing the high seas

The cruise industry has suffered significant harm to its image during this crisis. Yet the industry is working to create new guest experiences that are safer and cleaner. Passenger numbers may be reduced in the short term, but travellers will see innovations in food and beverage and technology that will stay for the long term.

Late last year Princess Cruises showcased its latest cruise liner in Malaga's port. Among the innovations onboard was the 'Ocean Medallion', an interactive digital device that allows guests to order and pay for services, locate friends and family on board, and so much more, without touching or signing anything. This is the future for sure.

Robotic bar waiters were at first gimmicks on cruise ships, but they are set to be more common where self-service of refreshments will no longer be possible.

Buffets will definitely stay. But as with large resort hotels, the cruise ships will provide all-you-can-eat spreads with more control on quality and health. Guests can choose whatever they want, whenever they want, but expect it to be displayed behind a transparent screen and served to you by a robot or a member of staff.

Mindful choices

Of course, innovation and change doesn't always delivery immediate savings. The demand for investment, combined with the short-term drop in tourism over the next year or two will probably lead to higher travel prices. For example, if airports focus less on retail and more on keeping passengers spaced apart, and airlines schedule fewer routes with smaller loads, then prices for air travel will inevitably go up.

Yet that's not always a bad thing. As a kid born at the end of the '60s, I didn't travel outside Europe with my family until I was eight or nine. Instead we had traditional family holidays in the UK's West Country or short trips to France. I have such fond memories of those times. Maybe a whole new generation will enjoy the simplicity of those kinds of trips; while going on an intercontinental holiday will be a treat again.

Road less travelled

If flying and international travel once again becomes a little more of a luxury, then we'll all be encouraged to make more mindful choices of when and where we go abroad.

Over-tourism will seem so 'last year!' Who wants to crowd around the Eiffel Tower for a selfie, or queue for hours to go inside Barcelona's Sagrada Familia cathedral, when there is a world of uncrowded possibilities waiting to be discovered and explored?

The road-trip, the wild hiking adventure, the nature retreat, the staycation, the family seaside holiday, the local cooking course, and the camping trip look set to be as much a part of our future travel as robots and UV light sterilisers.