I know we need to fly less – but I still worry about the end of cheap flights

There is no way to say this without sounding like a terrible person, so I won’t try to sugar-coat it: I thought that one silver lining of the coronavirus crisis would be that I would be able to score a cheap flight from New York to London to see my family at Christmas. By then, I reasoned, travel restrictions would be loosened, international arrivals would not have to quarantine for 14 days, and desperate airlines would be luring us into their flying Petri dishes with deep discounts.

I reasoned wrong; there are no bargains to be had. What’s more, there may be no bargains to be had ever again; the era of cheap flights could be over. We may have grumbled our way through the golden age of aviation without truly appreciating it. In fact, a number of experts and industry bodies are predicting that flying may soon become very expensive indeed.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents about 300 airlines, has warned that fares could rise by more than 50% if airlines are forced to comply with physical distancing measures by, for example, leaving the middle seat open.

Having to operate with reduced capacity is not the only thing that could cause prices to skyrocket; there is also the probability of reduced competition. Airlines are haemorrhaging money and not all of them will survive. Frankly, not all of them should: governments should be focused on bailing out citizens, not corporations.

Many airlines are in dire straits because they were irresponsible and spent their cash reserves on share buybacks, which enrich investors and CEOs, rather than ensuring that they were prepared to weather a rainy day. Many airlines deserve to die – even if it results in unfortunate collateral damage in the form of inaccessible fares.

If flying does not become ridiculously expensive, there is a good chance air travel will change drastically for the worse. As we all know, 9/11 altered flying for ever. Security at airports was ramped up; wait times and intrusive searches increased. It was boom time for the tiny toiletry bottle industry and gloom time for the average traveller.

Some people are predicting the coronavirus will normalise a similar sort of “public health theatre”. Temperature checks before every flight could become standard. Boarding could be slower because of physically distanced lines and more thorough cleaning of planes. “Healthy traveller” credentials, such as immunity passports, could be introduced. Flying could become such a hassle that no one will want to do it if they can possible avoid it.

I know I ought to be celebrating the idea that flying may become a lot less common. I am sure Greta Thunberg is. But while I am well aware that flying is disastrous for the planet, I am concerned that long-haul travel may become a luxury only a few can afford.

Of course, while a lot of dramatic predictions have been made about how much everyday life will be changed by coronavirus, there is also the possibility that, if we develop a vaccine, things will get back to normal very quickly. Many experts who are making pessimistic predictions about the travel industry seem to be underestimating just how much people are prepared to risk for a good bargain.

You would have thought, for example, that coronavirus would sink the cruise industry. However, last week Carnival announced that some of its cruises would resume in August; apparently, industry-wide bookings for that month are up 200% compared with August 2019. Young people, lured by cheap fares and buoyed by a sense of invincibility, are snapping up cabins.

Ultimately, the truth is that it is still too early to make any meaningful predictions about how the crisis will affect our future travels. Everything is still up in the air.

  • Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

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