Rethinking amenity kits and soft product in the new normal

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Air travel and the passenger experience has already changed beyond measure as the result of COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes it. But when passengers begin to travel again, how will the soft product on board — the parts of the passenger experience not bolted down to the cabin, in essence — change?

Travelers are already wearing airline eye shades as makeshift face masks as authorities encourage (and in some cases require) mouths and noses to be covered in close situations where physical distancing is not possible.

Given that wearing a mask — whether reusable cloth or disposable — seems likely to be a prerequisite for being allowed into an airport, are actual airline-branded facemasks going to be the new airline pajamas? Will the hot towel service be replaced by a flight attendant clad in branded PPE walking down the aisle with a tub of Clorox wipes? Is PPE the new IFE?

It certainly seems likely that we will see passengers going full Naomi Campbell when they fly.

In just one sign of how much our world has changed, pulling out a pack of disinfecting wipes on the aircraft a year ago would have drawn sideways looks from seatmates (though passengers with allergies have been doing it for years). Now, it feels like a perfectly sensible thing to do.

On the regulator side, the US TSA has been allowing hand gel in excess of the standard 3-1-1 rule since shortly after the effects of COVID-19 started being felt, recognizing both the problems of supplying smaller bottles and the need for frequent hand disinfection.

(And, on the hard product side of regulation, will the newly appreciated need for handwashing kill the unpleasant trend of microlavatories with sinks so small as to be ineffective?)

But does it make sense for airlines to be the suppliers of this sort of kit for onboard use? It certainly feels problematic if, say, business class passengers, who already have a certain amount of physical distancing, get an amenity kit with a generous helping of PPE but economy class passengers do not, or get less.

Japanese carriers have long offered the simplest style of mask as a “moisture mask” on board, where the humidity in your breath helps to keep your nose and mouth from drying out at the 8,000-foot cabin altitude of older jets. The ubiquity of this sort of mask in Japanese homes, offices and public transportation, of course, makes this more of a convenience than a piece of PPE.

The Japan Airlines moisture mask packet - grey plastic with the JAL logo on it

Japanese airlines hand out moisture masks, which may also go some way to preventing droplet and aerosol spread of diseases. Image – John Walton

Amenity kit maker Kaelis is already talking about options for onboard supply, with its Self-Protective Pocket Pouch SP3 (pictured at top), containing a three-layer disposable mask, nitrile gloves and hand sanitizing alcohol wipes, as well as potentially an information sheet for travelers and other options from its personal protective equipment range.

There are, of course, questions of whether handing out this sort of PPE on the aircraft itself is the right place, echoing the criticisms from some quarters of the middle-seat-free social distancing situation that passengers may be in closer proximity in terminals than on the aircraft.

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