On March 31, 2020, just under 150,000 people passed through TSA airport checkpoints — more than two million fewer people than on March 1 of the same year. It seemed to be a sign for how the rest of the year would go for airlines: Many governments severely restricted travel to slow the spread of COVID-19. By 2021, the number of passengers started to tick back up, and that number has jumped significantly as an increasing number of people are vaccinated and destinations open their borders.

Some of the responsibility for safe travel is on the passengers themselves. The debate over vaccination passports rages on, and the CDC advises that only vaccinated people take trips. Yet it’s not all on the travelers. Airlines and airports have been steadily making improvements to ensure that passing through airports is safe.

We spoke with a number of airline officials, an architecture firm that works with airlines, and airport administrators for information on how the flying experience has changed, as well as how it will continue to change in response to COVID-19 in upcoming years.

1. A new era for business class lounges

If there was one part of an airport that was a haven from the crowds for a certain set of frequent travelers, it was the lounge. The two pandemic-era musts of more privacy and more space were already in place for these lounges, but that doesn’t mean they won’t change.

“Most higher-end lounges now have servers handling buffets, or there are pre-plated entrees to take away, avoiding the need for customers to touch tongs,” Jamie Larounis, a travel industry analyst at UpgradedPoints.com, says.

You may also see more spaced-out seating with options for single travelers or small groups. This means that busy or popular lounges will hit capacity quicker, however, which could “annoy some elite passengers,” says Bethany Fox, an interior design project manager at the global architecture firm HKS. More lounges could institute time limits for travelers in response. On the plus side, Fox says, a pivot to more touchless technology could mean greater digital access to newspapers and magazines while on the lounge Wi-Fi.

“While these changes may not be permanent, they’re likely to remain for a very long time,” Larounis says. “In fact, even without COVID, these changes are generally seen as more premium, so if they can be branded as a higher-end offering while still keeping safety in mind, it works well.”

2. It’ll be harder than ever to avoid the middle seat

Inside of an airplane

Photo: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

In the early days of the pandemic, studies found that transmission on a plane decreased from one in 7,700 to one in 4,300 when the middle seat is left open. A more recent study from the CDC found that exposure to COVID-19 could decrease between 23 percent and 57 percent when the middle seat is left open. Many airlines blocked off the dreaded middle seat for a time while flight numbers were down regardless, but the middle seats are back. And now there’s a chance that they will be harder to avoid than ever (unless some of these wild, often ridiculous, redesigns ever happen).

“Prices for future flights have gone up dramatically, and it’s no secret that window and aisle seats are more liked,” Larounis says. “Airlines can capitalize this (and likely will) by offering ancillary revenue packages selling these seats, or offering them to higher-end customers.”

3. Minor changes in the way you get your food and drinks

Food and beverage service during flights also ended during the pandemic. And while the middle seat coming back may not be ideal, everyone who knows the realities of in-flight dehydration will be happy to know that flights won’t be serviceless forever.

“Inflight food and beverage is likely to return to pre-pandemic levels for the most part,” Larounis says, “though we are likely to see reduced touchpoints as unions negotiate this into their contracts (for example, one-tray meals instead of multiple courses) or replace full meals with smaller portions at different times of the day (for example, a cheese plate instead of a full meal). Meals are an important part of the premium cabin experience, so as COVID ends, they will be restored to some semblance of normality — these are things that won’t go away entirely or be reduced to such meager levels that they drive away passengers.”

How you order said food and drink, however, may change.

“We’re already seeing airlines slowly bringing this back, and I believe we’ll see more of this since costs are dropping thanks to portable solutions,” says Bayram Annakov, CEO of App in the Air and LiFE in the Air. “More and more passengers want to be able to order and access in-flight amenities like food and drinks right from their phones. New technologies like LiFE in the Air are enabling this and creating solutions that help airlines turn the existing cost-center setup into a revenue-generating engine for them.”

4. A different type of in-flight entertainment experience

There are two types of travelers: those who abhor watching movies on the small screen on the back of the seat, and those who fully embrace it. For the latter, the good news is that in-flight entertainment is likely to return as it was, Larounis says.

Some airlines are moving more toward providing Wi-Fi for passengers who prefer their own screens. Others are adding more ways to reduce touchpoints on existing built-in entertainment devices. Qatar Airways, for example, is adding zero-touch technology in its A350 planes, and it’s also updating its Boeing 787-9 fleet so that people can pair Bluetooth headphones to the seatback entertainment devices. The airline partnered with PressReader to offer more than 6,000 magazines and newspapers digitally using the Oryx One app as well.

5. Less emphasis on travel reward points

Credit card

Photo: ms_pics_and_more/Shutterstock

It’s probably been quite some time since you’ve received an influx of mail touting cards with the best travel points or been harangued by people at stalls in airport terminals about reward points. There’s a good chance we won’t exactly go back to those days. For one, more points programs may turn to a revenue-based model where the points are tied to the cost of the ticket.

“Very soon we are likely to see a devaluation of travel rewards program points — there’s too much points currency circulating, and with that comes the need for programs to require more points for redemptions in order to balance out their balance sheets,” Larounis says. “We are likely to see actual elite levels continue to be rewarding or offer more benefits as many travelers hit a ‘reset’ point in their travel experience, allowing them to choose a different carrier, though no matter the airline, points programs are likely to devalue.”

6. More streamlined security

Some of the biggest changes to flying will be seen before you even board the plane. Security checkpoints are becoming speedier (the less time surrounded by others in a tight line, the better), the amount of contact with other people is decreasing, and scanning technology is getting better so there will be less time spent rummaging through bags. Even the act of verifying your identity will be permanently changed.

“Last summer, The Transportation Security Administration introduced Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) at GSP,” says Michelle Newman, the communications manager at Greenville-Spartanburg Airport District (GSP). “The CAT digitally scans passengers’ IDs to verify identification and reservation information in one step. Passengers no longer need to show a boarding pass, or hand their ID to an agent, eliminating a major touchpoint while maintaining security. Security lanes at GSP also feature CT technology to scan luggage. The enhanced scanning creates a 3-D image of the carry-on that cuts down on the need to manually remove many items.”

7. Touchless airport experience

Parts of the airport outside of security will also transition to fewer points where you have to physically touch a screen in order to move through the airport.

At Greenville-Spartanburg Airport District, touchless technology like a texting program that travelers can use to communicate with airport staff was introduced last year using the number 864-485-8885. It’s proven popular and is here for the long run, Newman says, though the in-person information booth isn’t going away. Thanks to a touchless parking payment system that was already in the works at Greenville-Spartanburg Airport District, Newman says travelers can go from their car seatbelt to their airplane seatbelt without touching anything that isn’t yours if you take advantage of all the new technology.

Greenville-Spartanburg Airport District isn’t the only airport doing so, of course.

“Design will be geared more towards a touchless experience,” says James Lugaila, the aviation senior project manager at HKS. “Airports and airlines are starting to implement this; however, it varies from airport to airport. The touchless experience allows you to more personalize your travel experience. From your phone you can decide to find a nice remote corner of the terminal and order food and retail, entertainment and check on your bags and cleanliness of your airplane.”

8. A new way to manage airport space

Airport

Photo: Jaem Prueangwet/Shutterstock

The inside of the airport could see some changes, as well, according to staff at HKS. Seating next to the gate area could expand so that people can keep an eye on their gate without as much crowding, HKS Regional Design Director Jorge Barrero says. Barrero adds that there may also be more pre-determined pathways to control the flow and movement of people, and gathering areas could be more carefully monitored and laid out.

“Open food courts and areas where there has been typically less oversight may change, especially with the rollout of more food and shopping delivery options in the airport,” Barrero says. “However, this will increase the need for detailed and regular cleaning beyond the food/beverage concession spaces because of limited spaces within concession areas.”

But don’t expect to see these changes right away. In some cases, you might not even actively notice the changes have been made at all.

“Many of these changes will occur over the next couple of years,” says HKS Aviation Operations Director Joshua Stephens, “since funding to pay for the changes is necessary as well as projects that were put on hold will be re-activated, possibly with some changes to adjust to the new needs of spaces in a post-pandemic environment. The major changes are mostly passive. The average passenger will notice the social distancing and face mask signage as well as the plexiglass dividers and hand sanitizing stations.”

9. Cleanliness changes

Another set of changes relates to the sanitation of airports and planes. For travelers who picked up a few (ok, a lot) of new hygiene habits and an eye for cleanliness over the past year, rest assured that some changes can’t be seen.

“Safety and cleanliness from an architectural standpoint isn’t necessarily visible,” Stephens says, adding that many projects were put on hold at the start of the pandemic. “Within the last six months we are hearing more about non-visible efforts that airports are doing to mitigate the spread of the virus through the use of UV lighting to help scrub the air, common touchpoints, and floors.”

Cleaning has also become the responsibility of more than just the custodial and maintenance departments. “Now, many airports have moved that under safety, and it is scrutinized as a security threat,” Lugaila says. “Many airports have appointed an infectious disease specialist and partnered with local healthcare systems to review and improve all functions within an airport, not just the restrooms.”

On the planes, UV cleaning has joined other standard cleaning procedures for a number of airlines. It’s all part of the many ways — both seen and unseen — that the flying experience will be different as soon as people feel safe to venture out once again.