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Passengers Face New Reality As Airlines Adapt To Pandemic Restrictions

NOEL KING, HOST:

To make flying safer, airlines are requiring passengers and crew members to wear masks. Some airlines have blocked out the middle seats for social distancing. And there could be more measures coming. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Think about being on a plane and trying to stay 6 feet away from other passengers. In recent years, airlines have been forcing the opposite, cramming in more seats and squishing passengers ever closer to one another, not to mention the tightly packed lines of people queuing up at check-in counters, security checkpoints and on the jet bridge for boarding. But now...

FRANK GARCINI: Airports are empty. The flights are empty.

SCHAPER: Physician Frank Garcini recently arrived in Chicago on a flight from Phoenix.

GARCINI: I mean, I was traveling in a small airplane with probably 40-something seats, and there were only six passengers on the flight - everybody keeping their distance, everybody wearing masks.

SCHAPER: Garcini says life as we know it is changed because of the coronavirus, and airlines will need to adapt.

GARCINI: Probably the standard operating procedures in the future will change because of our new reality.

SCHAPER: Indeed, airlines are making changes. Mike Hanna heads operations for United Airlines at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. He says in addition to requiring masks, the airline is marking floors at 6-foot intervals where passengers might wait in line.

MIKE HANNA: We've put up sneeze guards throughout the terminal between customers and employees at the gate when you scan your boarding pass. We're encouraging customers to scan their own boarding pass as well so we're not handling their documents. We're also limiting the number of folks that will go down a jet bridge at one time so that they can also separate and socially distance themselves.

SCHAPER: And the airline is more thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting interiors by spraying electrostatic cleaning fluids throughout the airplane cabins.

HANNA: We definitely are blocking out middle seats and where we have two seats on an aisle, we're doing them alternating - window, aisle, window, aisle - to try and drive as much separation as possible.

SCHAPER: Many other airlines are doing the same but not all. On discount carrier Frontier, if you want the middle seat empty, you'll have to pay for it. The airline is charging $39 to $89 for the privilege, raising the ire of Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar in a hearing on air travel yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMY KLOBUCHAR: I'm just concerned. I don't think it's appropriate for some passengers who can't afford to pay an additional charge for a seat to be less safe than other travelers.

SCHAPER: Social distancing on airplanes right now is relatively easy since air travel demand is next to nothing. But aviation industry analyst Marissa Garcia says mandating the removal of middle seats is not financially sustainable for airlines long term.

MARISSA GARCIA: It would force a reduction of capacity on all aircraft to the point where air fares would probably skyrocket, increasing by as much as over 50%.

SCHAPER: Garcia used to design aircraft interiors and says airlines and airplane manufacturers are looking at other ways to protect passengers. Some suggest sneeze guard-like dividers between the seats or turning the middle seat around to face the rear of the plane. And Garcia says an Italian company has drawn up plans for a kind of capsule that would surround each seat.

GARCIA: So you might still have three passengers seated together, but there would be a plastic bubble between you, if you will.

SCHAPER: Any such solution would cost the airlines plenty. And right now, the U.S. airlines are burning through cash at a rate of $10 billion a month. But there are less expensive changes, like using technology for more touchless transactions so passengers and employees don't interact as much, temperature scanning of travelers as they board or go through security and requiring so-called immunity passports that would indicate if you've recently been tested and cleared. But regardless of the changes, it's safe to say a new normal will be coming to air travel, and it will be unlike anything we've experienced before. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "THROUGH LEADEN CLOUDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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