Qatar Airways is rolling out a new range of hygiene, safety and entertainment innovations – some of which, they say, may become long-term changes in world aviation as passengers return to air travel.
The airline is adopting a series of new measures aimed at helping passengers feel more secure and Thomas Scruby, the airline's Vice-President of Sales for Australasia and North Asia, says the changes have been made to "suit the current pandemic environment".
They include becoming the first airline to use hi-tech, state-of-the-art UV light to sanitise aircraft cabins, 100 per cent touch-free entertainment systems and trials of the new Travel Pass 'digital passport'. The airline is stopping short of requiring vaccination
for air travel but is continuing Covid-19 testing for all passengers in the meantime.
"Plus we have increased hygiene and safety measures for passengers and staff," he says.
Cabin crew have strict bio-security screenings and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including disposable protective gowns, safety glasses, gloves and a mask.
"Passengers are now required to wear face masks at all times and we give out face shields for any passengers who want that extra protection. Everyone is also provided with a complimentary protective kit that has a single-use face mask, disposable gloves and hand sanitiser."
All food tray items are individually wrapped – even down to the bread rolls – to avoid physical contact.
The UV light is Honeywell's ultraviolet light technology which can clean an aircraft cabin faster and more effectively than traditional cleaning methods. Clinical tests conducted on the former SARS and MERS viruses found virus levels were reduced by UV light by a range as high as 90-99.99 per cent.
"We have always led the industry in terms of passenger safety," says Scruby, "and the UV lights and other protective measures have helped us take over 2.8 million passengers home to their loved ones, with 99.998 per cent of our passengers travelling Covid-free."
The other innovation is touch-free inflight entertainment technology, available from the end of March and early April: "Passengers can pair their own personal electronic devices, such as mobile phones and iPads, to the inflight entertainment system. They use their devices to navigate inflight entertainment to minimise contact between passengers; it's an added layer of hygiene."
Many airlines are looking at digital passports in the near future to help restart air travel – with Qatar Airways aiming to become the first airline in the Middle East to trial the new Travel Pass 'Digital Passport' mobile app in partnership with the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
The first trial phase of the Digital Passport will be rolled out in March on the Doha-Istanbul route. The app will enable passengers to receive Covid-19 test results and verify they are eligible to fly – plus travellers will be able to safely and securely share their verified 'OK to Travel' status with the airline and other stakeholders, even before arrival at the airport. The IATA Travel Pass will also provide up-to-date information on Covid-19 health regulations, so travellers meet the latest entry requirements of their destination.
"Digital Passports will give passengers more confidence to start travelling again and create a more contactless, secure and seamless travel experience," says Scruby.
"We don't currently have plans to make vaccinations compulsory for air travel. We are working closely with global and national authorities to implement the latest advice and guidance on COVID-19 and operate our services accordingly.
"Entry requirements such as a negative PCR test or vaccines are determined by [different] governments and we will continue to implement boarding requirements as per the direction of the authorities of the countries we fly to." All current Qatar Airways passengers are required to go to a designated medical panel for a Covid-19 test.
Scruby says flexible bookings will be of utmost importance as it offers "ultimate convenience" for passengers to manage bookings. Qatar Airways currently offers one of the most flexible booking policies in the event of flight cancellation, with unlimited date or destination changes and no fees for refunds for any unused portion of a ticket.
The airline is also rebuilding its network, he says: "This has become increasingly important during the last 12 months with so many people in need of flights to get home, and various restrictions being placed by governments and airlines.
"Our network never fell below 30 destinations but we have now rebuilt to more than 800 weekly flights to over 130 destinations across the globe."
On ticket prices, the airline believes fares will remain competitive as demand returns. "Entry restrictions around the world are the biggest impediment to many people resuming travel. As those restrictions begin to ease around the world, we expect passenger demand to increase gradually.