Social Distancing bane for Travel & Hospitality Industry?

Governments, across the world, have been stressing on social distancing, as a key measure to fight against current pandemic Covid-19. Social distancing is likely to change consumer behavior in short to medium terms, thus affecting economic activity and consumer choices. Travel and hospitality industries are likely to be most affected. Since January, Aviation and Hospitality stocks, in Nifty 50, has corrected nearly 29% and 60%, underscoring the impact on these industries. Our industry community contributor, has shared his travel experience and stressed upon the behavior change.

“Jahan Hain, Wahin Rahein” – The advisory given by PM Modi on 21 March while announcing 21 days lockdown. At that time nobody knew that the lockdown will go from days into months owing to covid-19 pandemic. Nobody knew that this pandemic will take a toll on physical and mental health as most of us have never ever faced such restrictions in our lifetime and that too for such long period. It is like all of us are participating in a nation-wide BIG BOSS episode. It becomes more difficult for people like me who stay away from home for work and are home alone during the lockdown. The announcement of opening of domestic air travel from 25th May sounded as a huge relief as people like me could finally plan to get back home. Here, I will be describing my experience of travelling by air amid lockdown.

The first advice that I would give to anyone travelling by air during lockdown is don’t book connecting flight as there is good chance that the chaos in which airlines are operating, you might get one flight cancelled. My connecting flight got rescheduled and I had to look for alternative options to get back home. Getting through to the customer care is a nightmare that ensues during the pandemic. After waiting for almost an hour, the only solution I was offered was to reach first destination and cancel the second flight. As I was not in mood to extend this BIG BOSS experience further, I arranged for a cab from there to reach the final destination.

The magnitude of fear and terror that this pandemic has filled minds with, I decided to be extra cautious and wore a PPE kit on travel day and believe me I was looking ready for doing a surgery but unfortunately I am not a doctor. Outside the airport, there was a queue of people with every person standing 6 feet wide as per marking, waiting to enter airport. Near the gate there was one guy standing who was spraying bags with disinfectant as a precaution against virus. It was followed by booth where a policeman was checking temperature and then final booth where policeman was checking the status on Aarogya setu app, boarding pass and ID proof. There was strictness with respect to status on Aarogya setu app as I saw a person sent back because of high risk status on app. After acing all the checks, I entered airport and to my surprise it gave a deserted look as I have never before seen so few people inside airport. I reached 3 hours before keeping huge buffer but it was of no use as I had to wait for one hour for airline counter to open. I kept on sanitizing my gloves every 30 minutes or whenever I touched any surface.

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After checking in my baggage I went for security check and instead of stamping the boarding pass, security personnel asked me to scan the bar code with boarding pass making the security check also contactless. In the waiting area, seating was allowed on alternate chairs with an aim to maintain social distancing and it was a sight to watch in waiting area as people had used innovative ways to protect themselves from virus. One lady had only her eyes visible and rest everything was covered with PPE kit and helmet. 20 minutes before the boarding, announcement was made to collect PPE kits consisting of sanitizer, face shield and face mask. One big change that I saw was the way airline made passengers board and de-board the plane which I think will be the new normal. Boarding was started with 3 rows at a time starting from rear end of plane. Normally on announcement of seat numbers, all the passengers flock towards gate but this time only those rows that were called moved towards gate and people were maintaining 6 feet distance in the queue.

When I entered the plane, it was as if 4 doctors welcomed me into the plane as all crew members were wearing PPE kit and they smiled after looking at me as I was also wearing one. The flight took off after 10 minutes and during the flight no eatables or anything was served. The duration of flight was 2 hours and believe me I have never experienced a quieter flight than this. Just an advice, don’t dare to cough in flight otherwise you will get flurry of stares from 3 rows in front and 3 in back. A guy did that and he was made to feel as if he has committed a crime. Normally when the plane stops after landing, everyone gets up and start taking out there bags from overhead cabin. But to my surprise, this time no one got up and everyone waited for instructions from flight captain on deplaning row wise. It was as if fear of corona has taught people on how to act in a civilized and disciplined manner.  As I reached baggage belt to collect my bag, I saw markings around the belt area maintaining social distancing guidelines and people were standing accordingly. After collecting my bag, I had to undergo a final temperature check and came out of airport after that. This whole experience was totally different from what I have experienced in air travel before. People need to prepare themselves for travelling this way and get accustomed to this new normal. After experiencing this new normal, I thought that may be this is actually how people should travel (PPE kit is excess I know) and we should call it correct normal and not new normal.

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