Without aviation, the tourism industry is severely inhibited. It is the central nervous system of international business and leisure. There is of course no doubt that people will fly again, but will it be as frequently as before? Will it be as comfortably as before? Will it be as inexpensive as before? The world is watching anxiously in the hope that changes will be sustainable, addressing the needs of our fragile planet, yet still meeting the demands of a world accustomed to flying more often than taking a train. The future of our skies is being shaped as we speak.
Even as travel restrictions are lifted, the logistical challenges are colossal. Aircraft need to be prepared for flight, airports made ready to receive them, schedules drawn up and staff made available. And all this must happen as travel restrictions are lifted at different times across the world. Oh, and every pilot, air traffic control personnel and engineer must assure that their time limited qualifications have not expired during the enforced pauses to their jobs.
Not only is the aviation industry facing these internal challenges, but they must also placate us, the average passenger, and do what they can do make sure our concerns are heard and our demands are met.
In my Building Tourism Resilience Facebook group, I recently published a shortlist of measures that I would ideally like to see in place before I happily chose to take a flight. I might of course fly under lesser circumstances, but I might not fly as happily.
Airlines, just like hotels, lodges, b&bs and hostels across the world, are now in the market of selling peace of mind. The more comfortable potential flight passengers feel at every stage of their decision-making process, the more likely it is that they will click on that PAY NOW button.
Before I launch into the list, a quick shout out to three active members of the FB group who argued my ideas, suggested their own and animated the debate. Sarina Hinte from Elementos Turismo Experiencial and Elementos Eco Lodge, Pucón, Chile; Vicky Smith from Earth Changers, UK; and Roy at The Funky Dodo Backpackers Hostel, Belize. Thanks you guys!
So, here goes….
1. I would look for the airlines that are transparently communicating the upgrade and improvements they have made to their onboard air filtration systems. I want to see videos showing how the system captures a sneeze from the passenger sitting next to me. And I want to know that they are not just ideas on paper, but systems that have been implemented on the flights that will be allowed to take off again soon. I had believed that the reality of this being implemented in the short term is close to zero, but then Sarina sent me a link to Sky Airlines in Chile, who have done a great job of communicating the HEPA air filtration system that their entire fleet uses. Apparently, the system catches microscopic particles, including Covid-19, with 99.9% efficiency. They also go on to say that the air in the cabins is completely renewed every three minutes without being spread through it. I am no expert, and this might not be anything ground-breaking or even new, but the clear communication (both written and visual) goes a long way in creating consumer confidence.
2. I would love the airlines to offer flexibility in case of enforced cancellations due to extended, or new sets of, travel restrictions. I would even be inclined to pay more to guarantee this flexibility.
3. In addition, I would check that my credit card company would refund the purchase just in case the airline does not come through. I may also consider additional insurance that does not cost the earth and that will offer cover if my chosen flight cannot operate due to enforced cancellations.
4. Obligatory Covid-19 testing available at the airport. As Vicky rightfully commented, there cannot be a gap in-between test and travel until we have a trusted vaccine. Pin prick style blood tests could be the only option. Personally, I do not believe temperature checks at the airport are enough. Also, having travelled with two small kids on various occasions, I am pretty sure that my temperature is way over normal at all stages of getting through check in, security and customs and would hate to be denied boarding because of stress sweats!
5. Contactless check in at the airport and right through to boarding. This should be one of the easiest measures to implement.
6. A complementary set of disinfection wipes before take-off so I can clean my own personal area on the plane. It goes without saying though that I expect a thorough cleaning to have been done by the airline before boarding.
7. Contactless buttons in all bathrooms, and the confidence that the soap dispenser will never be left empty and the water will always be hot!
8. A visible disinfection of all luggage, ideally at both ends of the journey. My original comment talked about a sanitation spray tunnel for example, carried out in an enclosed space away from staff members or the public. There is of course a concern about what is in the spray and what it can do to our luggage and our lungs. Ozone or UV light are feasible options. Both have their pros and cons and would need investment to implement. Harnessing UVC to kill microorganisms is nothing new. It was discovered in 1878.¹ Since then, artificially produced UVC is a staple in sterilising hospitals, airplanes, offices, and factories and is even fundamental in the process of sanitising drinking water as it kills chlorine resistant parasites. “The radiation warps the structure of the genetic material of viruses and prevents the viral particles from making more copies of themselves”.¹ However, it is nasty stuff and can burn skin and cause gritty eyes in seconds. The source article also indicates that, “once the virus finds its way into the body, no amount of UV is going to have any impact on whether you are infected”.¹
Then there is that infamous debate about the middle seat. Do we leave it free or do we fill it? Personally, it would not matter to me if all of the above is addressed but it seems that, even if some airlines are offering to block the middle seat for now, it is not a financially sustainable solution in the long run.
What about face masks? Many airlines have already asked all passengers and crew to wear them. The World Health Organisation recommends that face masks should only be worn by the sick and those caring for Covid-19 patients. They mention that they can be easily contaminated and can create a false sense of security. As we know, they advocate frequent hand washing and social distancing.
I purposely have not mentioned social distancing in this list, mainly because it is automatically assumed at this moment in time. How it can be policed effectively at airports remains to be seen. I also believe that the level of public compliance will vary according to cultural acceptance and trust in the higher powers who are setting out the rules. I have no doubt that New Zealanders will just get on and do it without question.
There are however logistical concerns about social distancing when it comes to the boarding process. Heathrow airport’s chief has stated that social distancing will not work simply because there is not enough space. He says that each large aircraft would require a kilometre-long queue just to board. There is also inherent caution by airport management teams about the huge amount of money required to reconfigure their systems, but that as soon as a vaccination is discovered, the measures will no longer be needed. This is a fair point, especially given that they are facing their own crisis due to reduced revenues from in-airport retail shops, restaurants and duty free stores. However, if planes are planning to fly, then airports have no choice but to conform and invest.
The future of airlines themselves is indeed a little grim. IATA (International Air Transport Association) says that most airlines have less than three months liquidity. Larger airlines will suffer most due to the reduction of business and 1st class travel. The predicted global recession, the cancellation of trade events, and the global inclination towards home office work will further exacerbate income from this sector even after planes are back up in the sky.
There is however a ray of light for the passenger. Cheaper fares will probably be available once flights resume as airlines attempt to stimulate demand. Prices will of course be raised once passenger numbers recover. IATA believes that will not happen until 2021 at the earliest², and IAG (owner of Iberia and Air Lingus) states that it does not expect passenger demand to recover before 2023.³
With air travel restrictions being tentatively lifted across the globe the next few weeks will reveal which measures and which messages are successfully able to instil that crucial peace of mind in the flying consumer.
We, on the other hand, will meanwhile have to get used to the fact that dystopian public service announcements such as “This is a message from the Centre for Disease Prevention….” will become the norm if we choose to fly.
We also have quite some psychological distance to go before we stop reflexively seeing anyone who advances towards our socially acceptable distance of 1,5 metres as a viral threat.
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