Bring back dignity to travel

In Summary

• In the context of social distancing, the current Economy seating on an aeroplane does not make sense anymore.

• Passengers have for a long time complained about the ever-reducing seat-pitch & width in Economy Class seats

In the context of social distancing, the current Economy seating on an aeroplane does not make sense anymore.
In the context of social distancing, the current Economy seating on an aeroplane does not make sense anymore.

As an insider in the travel industry, I've hoped that industry players will take the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to clean up and change some of the things that make travelling a daunting endeavour to many travellers and holidaymakers. Even before the crisis, health experts had always warned that aeroplanes, trains and hotels are some of the worst germ-infested public places that exist. It’s no wonder then that air travel became one of the best conduits for the virus. 

With this pandemic, traveller expectations and awareness have been heightened and the airline or hotel willing to invest in safety and health as a priority will recover quickly and return to profitability in the shortest time possible. Shortcuts taken when it comes to health and safety measures will no longer be acceptable. 

Therefore, and in the spirit of learning from our past mistakes, here is our wish list of the things we believe shall vastly improve travel experiences for all travellers.  

Increase the toilet size and improve toilet designs on aeroplanes!

Trying to use the Economy cabin’s toilet facilities is probably one of the most undignified experiences about air travel, and a nightmare for any person with claustrophobia. Your body can hardly fit in the tiny cubicle and you can barely use the toilet seat. Even for a professional contortionist, the space is too small. Due to poor air circulation, the hideous stench of your waste can suffocate you before you finish your business, and you’ll feel sorry for the passenger who’ll use the toilet after you.

I recently became acquainted with the term ‘toilet plume’. According to Wikipedia, a toilet plume is the dispersal of microscopic particles as a result of flushing a toilet. In such a miniature aeroplane loo, it’s certainly possible to have these particles splash on you after flushing, making you a walking pathogen courier, delivering bacteria, viruses and disease to everyone and thing with which you come into contact. However, the dispersal of pathogens may be reduced by closing the toilet lid before flushing and by using toilets with lower flush energy. So far, it’s unknown whether the Coronavirus can be transmitted through toilets, but it is time airlines rethought this essential service for travellers.   

Replace Economy Class with what is now called Premium Economy.

In the context of social distancing, the current Economy seating on an aeroplane does not make sense anymore. Passengers have for a long time complained about the ever-reducing seat-pitch & width in Economy Class seats and space. A passenger whose height is slightly taller than the average 5 feet 7 inches will always have an uncomfortable journey during a flight. Their long limbs will suffer the absence of adequate legroom and they'll be shifting restlessly in their seat trying to adjust their posture and find some space for stretching their aching appendages. Woe unto them if they just had knee surgery or an ankle injury. They’ll wish they had trekked to their destination instead. On the other hand, for a passenger whose body weight is more than the average, they’re not only cramped but their seatmates are hugely inconvenienced as well. The uneasy neighbours will be fidgeting in discomfort, obviously silently judging the plump passenger, who’ll be silently feeling embarrassed for taking up more space than narrowly allocated.

A spacious seat and decent space is the greatest desire of any Economy Class flier. Surely, a passenger has not paid for an air ticket to feel like they are in an overcrowded Akamba bus. Change is certainly needed, not merely for comfort but also the passenger’s safety. The airline that dismantles their previously squeezed Economy seats for a safe and spacious configuration is bound to win the hearts of many passengers and further, provide dignity to the Economy Class traveller. In short, why not eliminate Economy Class and introduce Premium Economy as the standard? It is time to embrace social distancing in the Economy Class cabin.

As a professional courtesy, I should mention that Kenya Airways has made small strides in this area with their product, ‘Economy max.’ With this service, KQ allows customers to buy the seat next to them or the entire row for a maximum of $120 per seat, to give the passenger that much needed reassurance of social distancing on the plane.   

Install Perspex screens or Plexiglass shields on all economy class seats!

Personal space did not exist in flights before COVID-19. 

Involuntary physical contact was the norm. One would sneeze or cough and spray their nasal fluids on their seatmate. A baby would vomit on the next passenger. 

Someone would doze off, unintentionally rest their head on their neighbour and unknowingly drool on them as they slept. 

Together with an increase in seat width and space, installing Plexiglass shields on the sides of each seat would provide a healthier travel experience. With this installation, elbows need not touch, and breaths need not mix for those sitting next to each other. Like masks and curfews, these protective structures should become a necessity in these covid times and availing them on planes proves that the airline cares for their health and safety and are attentive to their needs. 

Digitize everything!

During and post-COVID, we no longer need a desk clerk at check-in counters in airports. Self-check-in should be as easy as paying for your parking fees while exiting a mall. A passenger should be able to walk through a health scanner and have all their vitals checked. Once approved, they should move onto the check-in kiosk or desk and wait for facial recognition. Once their face has been matched to their passport and ticket – details already with the airline – they should wait for step-by-step instructions to place their luggage on a rump which would weigh it, tag it and automatically push it onto the luggage belt straight into the aircraft. A human supervisor would only be needed if the luggage did not meet the requirements programmed into the computer.  

Even the elevators should have movement detectors installed to automatically bring it down and have a voice-activated floor request. 

Frequently used surfaces have been proven to fester the Coronavirus and therefore airlines and airports should strive to be as touchless as possible. The use of automation, paperless transactions and contactless payment options should be part of the new normal. I’m encouraged by the endless possibilities presented by the development of the IATA travel pass. Once it comes into operation, it will allow passengers to manage their travel documentation digitally and seamlessly throughout the travel experience, find testing centres & labs at their departure location, and share their tests or vaccination certificates with authorities to facilitate travel. 

Ease up on the terms and conditions!

I will go ahead and say it: airline terms and conditions are in place to benefit the airlines only – a stark resemblance to dictatorship! Passengers are forever baffled by the numerous and ever-changing terms and conditions developed to work against them. I recently read that a passenger with the foresight to buy an extra ticket as required for overweight passengers (some American airlines require this), had the extra seat taken away from them by the crew upon boarding. They explained that they needed to accommodate passengers on the dreaded ‘waiting list’. The ‘waiting list’ is a list that airlines create to play Russian roulette with the demand and supply of seats on a flight. To say the flight was uncomfortable for both passengers is an understatement.  

Charge one price for every seat in its class!

The ‘savvy’ traveller is so good at looking for flight bargains that whole algorithms and bots have been created to scour the internet for such bargains. These questionable discounts should be banned with the swiftness of Ezekiel Mutua. Everyone in the same class must be offered the same price or the same discount. It should be like a supermarket. Same products have the same prices and should there be any special bargains a poster or stand with the discounted offers is conspicuously displayed for every shopper to see. Seats in the same cabin sold at different prices is daylight robbery. Fraudulent. 

Discriminatory, even.

Theft and loss of luggage should end!

In these days of smart IT gadgets and ‘find your phone Apps’, airlines and airports should invest in technology that passengers could use to protect their luggage. Many have lost invaluable items due to negligence and a lack of safety policy in place to ensure safe delivery and recovery of passengers’ luggage. I am sure there is an IT geek somewhere in the world who would happily develop a luggage tag that can be placed on all luggage and can detect if the luggage is being tampered with, with the signal relayed to security. It is time that airlines take aggrieved passengers’ complaints seriously and do everything in their power to resolve the reported theft or loss while creating solutions that will prevent future incidents. Additionally, airports should carefully vet the people handling passengers’ possessions before employing them because let’s face it; some airport staff are thieves. 

Make long layovers better! 

Waiting for the next flight doesn’t have to be unpleasant as it usually is. It is not strange to find passengers with long layovers sleeping on the floor at airports! Airports and airlines should liaise to provide services that make layovers more tolerable for its various customers, especially those with children, medical conditions, expectant mothers, the elderly, and those with layovers that are more than 4 hours. Airlines could offer complimentary hotel stays to these passengers where they could take showers, quick naps and enjoy a relaxed rest as they wait for their flights. Emirates and Qatar Airways have these services at their Dubai and Doha airport hubs but the service is only offered to passengers with 10+ hours of layovers. Airports could also offer complimentary lounge use to those with 4+ hours layovers. Airport lounges are accessed for free by Business Class passengers, but Economy Class passengers have to pay a minimum of $50 to access them. 

Feminize our lodges and hotels! 

Last but not least, if you can provide tissue in the toilets, surely, sanitary pads should be an accompanying staple. Just the other day, my family and I were staying at a 5-star establishment at the coast and one of us got her period. When we relayed our need to the hotel concierge, a packet of pads was delivered to our room within an hour. This was great, except that the packet of pads had been wrapped in newspapers and hidden in several envelopes as if the package contained a classified, top-secret government document with damning information on the president. Our hospitality industry ought to be among the first industries to earn the confidence of women and girls who frequent their establishments by being thoughtful enough to add a packet of sanitary towels in their toiletries assortments – and not hide it in layers of newspaper pages as though menstrual periods are shameful.

In conclusion, just like the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the global economy, its devastating effects should positively shift the modus operandi of every airline and airport to provide comfort, security, support, health safety, fast and easy check-ins, baggage protection, among other emerging options that would make air travel an even more worthwhile experience. 


Wanjiru Catherine is the CEO of Saffara Travel and a member of WomenWork

You can reach her via [email protected].

 Twitter: @ShiroCatherine

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