The end of the 30-minute turnaround in the age of sanitised travel

“As countries lift restrictions, confidence-boosting measures will be critical to re-start travel and stimulate economies,” says Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

How do you boost confidence in the post-COVID-19 era? As mentioned in our latest report, The Rise of Sanitised Travel, we believe that sanitation will be key to regaining passengers’ trust. Airlines will have to adapt and re-think their cleaning procedures throughout the travellers’ journey before, during and after the flight. All of these changes, however, come with a price.

Today we’ll look at how this may affect the 30-minute turnaround – a bedrock of the modern LCC model.

The pursuit of the 30-minute turnaround

For years, the main driver for choosing flights among the majority of passengers has been the price. To satisfy this need airlines have been searching for ways to cut costs. Budget airlines especially have gone far to save time on the ground in every possible way so that they can fly the same aircraft more often per day, hence reducing the cost per flight.

In the early 1970s, Southwest Airlines pioneered their famous 10-minute turnaround and have now perfected it to around 35 minutes. Southwest also optimised their boarding process to fit in with this time – something our CEO Shashank Nigam covers in detail in his book, SOAR. Back in 2004, Ryanair improved their turnaround time to just 25 minutes by removing seatback pockets from the interior of its aircraft and subsequently reducing the cleaning time needed.

It’s not just budget airlines that are seeking for ways to optimise their ground handling operations. Some years ago, Delta Air Lines managed to save a minute or two on the ground by changing the angle they push planes away from the gate — from the more standard 90-degree turn to a 45-degree angle instead. 

All these improvements of procedures, along with new seat arrangements and pricing policies have led to increasing numbers of people being able to afford to travel. Before COVID-19 hit, 2020 was expected to set a new record in the number of scheduled passengers -4.72 billion! With air travel down by over 90% in the first months of 2020, it will take some time to get back to pre-corona levels.

Why aircraft turnaround time will change

As airlines return to something resembling a normal service, passengers are likely to see fewer flight options. It’s clear that social distancing on planes is not a sustainable strategy, which is why we can expect stronger measures to emerge.

We believe there will be two areas that will be important for airlines’ success in regaining people’s trust (and help them win long-term):

  • extra health assessments and letting only “fit to fly” passengers onto the aircraft;
  • enhanced cleaning of the cabin between flights.

We have already covered in our earlier blog articles that until a vaccine is found, extra health checks for travellers will need to take place before and after flights. The additional time needed is likely going to have an impact on the aircraft turnaround time, but it would also signal to the passengers that the airline brands take their health seriously.

After all, it doesn’t matter how many people are wearing masks on board, if they then deplane and mix with the local population. The onus now is on the industry to screen out infectious people before they even come on board.

The need for enhanced cleaning of the cabin between flights

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the role of cabin cleaning between flights more prominent although it has been under attack for years already. Some years ago researchers found that “disease-causing bacteria can linger on surfaces commonly found in aeroplane cabins for days.” 

Experts admit that cleaning methods have been pretty much the same as they were 25 years ago. Each airline has its own manuals for interior cleaning, as there are no standard guidelines for that. Before COVID-19, Lufthansa, for example, deep-cleaned its jets after approximately 500 hours of flight. Similarly, budget airlines like Ryanair would do it just every 40 days. 

In most cases, cleaning between flights would be the responsibility of the cabin crew. Some crew have admitted that the 30-minute turnaround between flights made it nearly impossible to disinfect an entire aircraft. “When [cleaning] was a priority, it wasn’t necessarily for cleanliness, it was for an aesthetic purpose.”

No doubt that old methods won’t help us in the future when another global pandemic breaks out. The time is now for airlines to re-define their cleaning standards.

The new standards of clean

The industry will definitely need more time to develop new technology to tackle germ transmission on aeroplanes, including self-sanitizing toilets, using robots or even artificial intelligence to disinfect planes. Some airlines like Alaska Airlines, Air France, Qatar Airways and others are already leading the way.

Delta, however, has gone one step further with its ‘New Standard of Clean.’ Starting May, Delta is fogging their aircraft before every flight and has committed to elevated cleaning measures for the long term. 

The highest levels of clean should not be reserved for times of crisis – customers deserve to feel confident and safe whenever they decide to travel,” says Bill Lentsch, Delta’s Chief Customer Experience Officer.

Air Canada has also stepped on the bandwagon, introducing CleanCare+, highlighting how they are prioritising sanitation at every stage of travel.

The silver lining for 30-minute turnaround

The world will recover from COVID-19 eventually. The cleaning technologies and procedures will improve with time, and we may ultimately return to the 30-minute turnaround in the future. Meanwhile, airlines have to focus on the changing priorities of travellers; what we like to call the 3 “S”: Safety, Sanitation and Sustainability.

Those airline brands who can satisfy the three needs equally well will emerge stronger and win in the long-term. The industry needs to focus on learning from the past and rebuilding better for the future as we emerge from this global pandemic.


Rapid Response Team - SimpliFlying - The Rise of Sanitised Travel - Covid-19

SimpliFlying has set up a Rapid Response Team to help airlines be ready for post-corona travel’s realities. The team has been holding Board-level briefings to orient executives with the new touchpoints. We will be happy to do a 30-minute call with your executive team to run through the detailed post-corona customer journey map. In order to help the industry, these calls are free for airlines and airports. Get in touch to set up a call.

Baiba Dreimane

Baiba Dreimane

Project Manager at SimpliFlying
Baiba Dreimane manages SimpliFlying's digital products and consulting projects to guide airlines through their concerns. She joined the team in 2016 and has since managed a multitude of projects internationally, including research and consulting projects for SimpliFlying's global clients, Airline Marketing Innovation Labs in places like Miami, Singapore and London, SimpliFlying's Annual Awards in London, among other projects. With a deep interest in digital innovation and design, she has tried her hand at founding a MarTech startup and has created one of the top travel micro-influencer profiles in Valencia, Spain, where she resides now.
Baiba Dreimane
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