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Recently, my colleague McKay Coppins did something that, three months ago, would’ve been considered entirely unremarkable: He caught a flight.
The trip, McKay admits in this essay recounting the short journey, turned out to be more stressful and more surreal than he expected, revealing to him an “unwelcome truth.” “The glittering allure of ‘normalcy’ that waits on the other end of these stay-at-home orders,” he writes, “is a mirage.”
Let’s rid ourselves of any such illusions today: What should you expect next time you fly?
The longtime Atlantic correspondent—not to mention our resident pilot—James Fallows offers a grim prediction: Air travel will be very bad for a very long time. Jim spoke with economists, engineers, aviation analysts, and professional pilots to make sense of just how bad.
Here are five things he learned:
1. Everything will be slower.
If you check baggage, the handles may need to be wiped before staff members touch them. If you don’t think you’ll be checking baggage, think again: The airlines will likely crack down further on carry-on items, which potentially come into contact with other passengers.
2. American airports will likely add temperature-check gates.
The gates alert quarantine officers to the presence of anyone who seems to have a fever, enabling individual follow-up examination by thermometer. Virtually no U.S. airports ran passengers through such equipment a year ago, and virtually all of them are likely to do so a year from now.
3. Say goodbye to the middle seat.
For the foreseeable future, many airlines are taking bookings for aisle and window seats only.
4. And maybe in-flight Wi-Fi.
Have you griped about the cost, speed, or reliability of airborne Wi-Fi services? You’ll have fewer of those complaints to make, because some carriers will just eliminate the service. For most of them it has been a technically shaky feature that doesn’t pay its own way.
5. Fares aren’t all as cheap as you may expect.
“Why aren’t you seeing the bargain fares you thought you’d find?” Helane Becker, a managing director at the Cowen research group and a longtime analyst of the airline industry, said to me. “The reason is that the airlines have no incentive to cut fares. Usually you can stimulate demand for leisure travel with lower fares. But now you can’t.”