Airlines and airports adopt new measures to get passengers flying ahead of a coronavirus vaccine

Airlines and airports have begun taking steps to ensure air travel can ramp up again before a coronavirus vaccine is found.

Australian airports will ensure cleaning practices are ramped up looking ahead,

Looking forward, cleaning measures will remain ramped up in airports and social distancing will stay in place if required. Source: Getty Images AsiaPac

With a coronavirus vaccine still months away, the aviation industry is looking at ways to get people flying safely again.

But with 60 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Australia linked to overseas travel, airlines and airports will need to take extra precautions to gain the trust of potential passengers. 

So how will the experience of flying change? 

Social distancing on a plane?

While social distancing is considered key to limiting the spread of coronavirus, it may not be possible on planes.

Centre for Aviation chairman Peter Harbison said requiring airlines to undersell flights to leave empty seats between passengers may be unviable. 

“On the aircraft - and I'm not a health specialist - but I think this idea of say, having a spare seat is little more than tokenism. I don't think we can have social distancing on-board an aircraft in that way.”

Footage taken by a passenger on a Ryanair flight between London and Lisbon showed there is little chance of social distancing taking place on the budget airline. 

On the ground, it may be more possible.

Melbourne airport spokesman Jai McDermott said that social distancing regulations will remain if needed.

“Throughout COVID we have supported social distancing measures with changes to processes like shuttle bussing and queueing, and through the introduction of in-terminal announcements, signage and social media communication. These measures will stay in place for as long as they are required.”

Mr McDermott said Melbourne airport would also maintain high standards of cleaning.

“We introduced more frequent cleaning of contact surfaces and other high traffic locations from the early stages of COVID-19 and we will maintain that to reduce risk and support confidence as guests start to return.”

“We will be installing additional hand sanitiser units across our terminals for guests and the airport community.”

Mr Harbison expected airlines would also need to spend more money in order to sanitise planes in between each flight. 

Should passengers wear masks onboard? 

Several airlines have made it mandatory for passengers to wear masks on planes. 

French flag-carrier Air France announced last week that masks would be compulsory on its flights as France emerges from its lockdown.

Passengers would have to provide their own masks, the airline said, adding they would be notified prior to flights "to ensure they possess one or more masks for their trip."

Air France announced on Monday that masks would be compulsory for passengers and staff on its flights from next week.
Source: Getty

While we are unsure if social distancing rules will remain in Australia, Air France said it would implement "physical distancing" on board where possible.

On Ryanair flights passengers will have to wear masks and put their hand up if they want to use the bathroom.

"We'll be operating temperature checks, people who have a temperature of over 38 degrees will be asked to return home and self isolate," Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary said. 

"And I think it's that combination of temperature checks and masks that will give us a high degree of confidence as they already have proven successful in Asia, that people can fly freely without passing on the COVID-19."

In Australia, travellers on one of the few remaining flights considered essential who show signs of an infectious disease must be reported to biosecurity authorities.

They'll then be assessed before getting off the plane and may be isolated or referred to a hospital.

This process is likely to remain in place for months if flights continue.


As more European countries follow Australia's lead and introduce 14-day mandatory quarantine periods, airports are offering ways around it. 

Iceland has announced plans to offer arriving travellers a COVID-19 test to avoid having to self-isolate at home or in a hotel for two weeks. 

 Iceland will conduct coronavirus tests to travellers on arrival.

The government will cover the cost of the test initially, but travellers would be asked to repay it.

Travellers will also be required to download and use an official tracing app already in use by 40 per cent of the population.

Vienna airport in Austria has taken a similar approach, offering passengers tests on-site at a cost of more than $300 AUD. 

The results of the molecular-biological test (also known as a PCR test) will be available within two to three hours. 

Some airlines, including Emirates, are also using rapid coronavirus tests to screen passengers before they get on board. 

However, such a measure is unlikely to be practical in the long term when restrictions ease and tens of thousands of people are taking off and landing. 

Instead, most airlines and airports have implemented routine temperature screening of passengers and crew. 

It will be some time before Australian travellers experience the changes to international travel with the borders expected to remain closed for some time.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said international travel demand will take years to recover. 

Mr Harbison predicts it will take five years to recover.

“You imagine at the moment how hard that will be - and it won't get a lot easier. Some intra-region travel might be possible but - on a global basis - widespread international travel might not be possible for five years. I would forget about international travel. It won't happen for a long time.”

Will prices go down?

While international travel is not possible for Australians, it may be possible to fly interstate within months. 

Qantas recently announced that they are extending the suspension of domestic travel and trans-Tasman flights until the end of July. 

But when they do resume, Mr Joyce said that domestic flight costs could fall to as low as $19 as Qantas aim to get as many people back in the air as possible.

However, Mr Harbison said that domestic flights could start off cheap and then increase progressively.

“We will also have a lot of aircraft to be used, and they will also want to use them. They won’t want to fly them empty - they will need to put out competitive prices to get people to travel, at least for the short term. If its cheap, people are more likely to take the risk.

“Domestic will likely become more expensive but with the caveat that we will have a pretty competitive situation depending on what comes out of the Virgin administration.”

Mr Harbison said that Australians can expect to travel nationwide next year if the coronavirus curve continues to flatten.

“There's no doubt the domestic market will recover quicker. As long as we maintain our current level of health measures we could be substantially up and running in 2021. It means we have to continue with these measures. We have got to be a whole lot more cautious in how we go about things and aviation will be no different.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits. Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia.

If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at

Published 13 May 2020 at 5:47pm
By Bernadette Clarke, Steven Trask