For as long as most of us can remember, air travel hasn’t been a whole lot of fun. As airlines crawl out of virus-lockdown mode, passengers can expect it to be even more of a bummer, with new temperature check points, lines of distancing people stretching into the parking lot, and plexiglass barriers isolating baggage clerks, baristas, and other staffers.

Face masks and gloves will be de rigueur, disinfectants will be everywhere, and even though many processes will be automated to minimize human interaction, industry officials predict travel times will have to increase to accommodate the hygiene-inspired precautions.

“Going through an airport, the whole travel experience, will be as enjoyable as open-heart surgery,” says Paul Griffiths, chief executive officer of Dubai Airports, whose workers wear disposable gowns and safety visors that wouldn't look out of place in a Covid-19 ward.

As governments draw up plans to get the world flying again, proposals aimed at keeping passengers safe are often confusing and contradictory—for instance keeping people from sitting next to each other at the departure gate but cramming them six or eight abreast for hours during a flight. And if implemented long-term, executives say they could do almost as much damage to airline and airport profits as remaining closed altogether.

Keeping 400 people—the capacity of many jumbo-jets—two meters from one another “means a queue of close to a kilometer, which fills up the departure hall and out into the car park,” says John Holland-Kaye, CEO of London’s Heathrow airport. Enforcing a two-meter rule could reduce the airport’s capacity to 20% of its usual level, he says. “That’s not something we can keep doing until a vaccine comes along.”

Instead, Holland-Kaye says airports would do better to screen passengers for Covid-19 at the terminal entrance. Heathrow, Europe’s busiest hub, is testing a thermal detection system intended to identify people with the virus, technology that’s been used in Asia for years. The U.K. government, though, has yet to endorse it.

At Frankfurt airport, Europe’s fourth-busiest, check-in counters, baggage-claim areas, and boarding-pass and security checkpoints have been redesigned to ensure people stay at least 1.5 meters apart, with markings on the floor indicating the required distance. Hundreds of posters and digital displays promote distancing, the PA system lights up every five minutes in multiple languages with announcements on distancing rules, and trained agents walk the halls to enforce them. Disinfectant dispensers are ubiquitous, and plastic shields have been installed anywhere staff interact with customers.

“We’ve put in place a good package of measures to reduce the risk of getting infected,” Matthias Zieschang, chief financial officer of Fraport AG, the operator of the Frankfurt airport, said on a call with analysts.

At Amsterdam Schiphol, Europe’s No. 3 hub, every second check-in desk and departure gate is closed to minimize mixing, and at baggage claim each flight gets its own belt. Munich has installed a vending machine dispensing masks, sanitary wipes, and disposable gloves. Helsinki airport, a major crossroads for travel between Europe and Asia, provides masks for anyone who doesn’t have one and requires people meeting arriving passengers to stay in their cars or wait in a deserted terminal building that has been idled.

At Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, alternating seats are blocked off. Cleaning staff spray the terminals with disinfectants every night, and the elevator floors are marked to ensure distancing—allowing just three people in a spacious cabin. At a pharmacy, there’s a mannequin wearing a mask and visor in addition to an inflatable neck pillow. And the airport is testing new Chinese-made machines that can check the temperatures of 16 people per second as they leave baggage claim. Passengers with a fever will be pulled aside and given the option of seeing the airport's medical personnel and a rapid Covid-19 diagnostic test.

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