Changing spaces: How Covid is reshaping passenger transport

Battered by the pandemic, the passenger transport industry on land, sea and air is feeling its way back to a new normal shaped by Covid-19 shocks. Selwyn Parker explores how “customer experience” could be the next big thing.

The industry’s latest acronym is CX, which stands for customer experience and is being used everywhere to lure back travellers.

Although CX is not always visible, it affects every stage of the traveller’s journey, whether it’s a five-day cruise, trans-oceanic flight or half-hour train trip.

First, more space. Cruise ships, railway stations and airports are giving passengers more room to keep their distance in public places. Even the notoriously overcrowded Mumbai rail station has installed new seating arrangements that separate travellers. In airports, check-in lines have become shorter – and less virus-prone – because bag drops and boarding have become more automated in the last two years. A lot of the work was done when airports were pretty much deserted.

Second, pure air. In enclosed places such as aircraft cabins, the latest air circulation systems claim to eliminate 99.9 per cent of viruses and particulates as the entire volume of air is swapped every two or three minutes. Carnival, the giant of the cruise ship industry, has followed suit and installed all its fleet with air filters as well as segregating ventilation throughout the ship.  

Third, better hygiene. Swipe-activated doors on some cruise ships reduce the risk of infections spreading. The authorities are looking over the cruise industry’s shoulder. In March, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention toughened its regulations by requiring physical distancing during short excursions, among other measures.

In airports, the rating agency Skytrax has announced that henceforth it will issue results based solely on physical inspections and testing rather than on the previous paper-based systems that, according to Skytrax, “had very limited validity.” Although travellers will be largely oblivious, frontline staff are scouring seats, toilets, food and beverage outlets, ATMs, vending machines and lounges as they respond to tougher standards. If it doesn’t move, it’s being cleaned.

Digital journey

But what exactly is CX? In technical terms, it’s about using digital technologies to track the traveller’s journey almost from the moment they leave home. In aviation, CX takes in parking, queuing, checking in, shopping, boarding, flying and every other stage of the “customer-centric experience.” Etihad’s passengers, for instance, can remotely check in bags, choose their seats and collect their boarding passes under a wellness programme that avoids much human contact.

Customer Experience leading competitive advantage: CX explained

 “We recognise and alleviate passengers’ stress-inducing points … as they move through the terminal,” one airport official explains.

Artificial intelligence underpins the digital journey. Athens International Airport has gone to great lengths, engaging consultants that purport to measure the intensity, nature and type of travellers’ feelings in the quest for “emotional engagement metrics”. Having accumulated the metrics, they are then interpreted and appropriate changes made.

Everybody’s trying to make travel faster, simpler and more congenial. Miami International has introduced biometric boarding through an instant touchless click of a camera, one of scores of CX-style projects being made at American airports under a USD 600m programme designed to make them “better, safer and more accessible.” Another US airport, Arizona’s Phoenix Sky Harbour International, is piloting a system that allows travellers to book their own time for security in order “to eliminate uncertainty and stress.”

A faster gateway: Wall Street Journal reports on biometric scanning to speed up the airport experience

Lost revenues

Already it’s clear that post-pandemic travel won’t be the same as before. Take rail, for example. Big-city public transport systems are trying to figure out how to recover revenues lost in the collapse of rush hour as officer-workers stay at home two or three days a week or, when they do travel, make sure to go off-peak.

In London, the Monday to Friday strap-hanger hours have long been the golden goose for rail companies charging sky-high ticket prices. Not any more. In mid-May 2022 peak-hour numbers had plummeted to 15-20 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Just as worryingly, overall commuter density had fallen to below half, according to the Centre for Policy Studies, an influential think tank.

Similarly, in US cities “ridership” on public transit has barely scraped above half of pre-pandemic levels, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Most rail experts see this as a transformational moment. In Britain, a new government-run body, Great British Railways, has promised more CX-oriented ticketing and timetables that should attract previously neglected off-peak travellers who don’t want to go into the cities. The organisation must move fast though, if the government wants to recoup the GBP 14bn bill accumulated by propping up the rail system during the pandemic.

“Unless UK rail is radically overhauled and able to respond to new passenger demands for freedom and flexibility, it will be plagued by a future of decline and underinvestment,” warns the Centre for Policy Studies’ research fellow Tony Lodge.

Meantime, in an effort to boost revenues, airports and stations are being sold as exciting spaces even for people who have no intention of jumping on a plane or train. In short, destinations in their own right. Turkey’s Istanbul Grand Airport has opened a Youth Lounge where university students are offered free internet, games, low-priced food and live music.

The issue of urban space was thrown into the spotlight by the pandemic: ITF’s Streets That Fit

And in France, anybody can sit down in one of hundreds of rail stations and read a short story dispensed by an automated booth. Now, that’s history repeating itself. In 1852 Louis Hachette opened little book shops in the Grandes Gares where travellers bought cheap novels to read on the journey. They were considered the golden days of rail travel – and they may be returning.


Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.


The International Transport Forum (ITF) offers a wealth of policy insights to help its 64 member countries navigate transport in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Learn more here

A new ITF report looks at how street space has typically been allocated in the past, examines the rationale for street space allocation and describes how to measure space consumption for mobility purposes. Get the report on Street That Fit: Re-allocating Space for Better Cities

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