Special Note: the opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily represent the views of TravelMarketReport or its publisher. Also to be noted: I am opining here as an outside observer from a considerable distance. I have not been involved in any industry planning or execution regarding the issues I am discussing. That said, I believe these ideas are worth further serious consideration.
It was foreseeable that as soon as the reports of new COVID infections aboard cruise ships began to come in that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was going to recommend that people stop cruising. It didn’t take long.
It was not the first action of its kind and likely will not be last, especially if the trajectory of COVID continues and large segments of the population refuse vaccination. I am not going to argue here about the rationality of refusing vaccination. I am going to proceed on the assumption that a huge swatch of people will continue to serve as a petri dish for the spread and mutation of the COVID virus. If that is true, and the science says it is, we are going to continue to struggle to recover. And if that is true, the government is going to continue issuing “don’t do it” directives and pleas. These will drive further changes in industry practices, along with much angst.
In those circumstances, the public will continue to face conditions of uncertainty, giving rise to fear for personal safety and thus loss of potential business to the travel industry. The problem plaguing the cruise industry is just a symptom of the broader issue. The entire travel industry, along with the many businesses that “feed” it and/or depend on it to bring customers to them, will continue to struggle and many firms will simply not survive.
On October 15, 2020, Travel Market Report published an op-ed I wrote regarding the prospects for travel industry recovery. Back then, vaccines were still an aspiration. Many parts of the economy were completely shut down and various quarantine and lockdown measures were being applied, removed, modified, and reapplied. The struggle to understand the virus, how it spread and what measures worked to stop it continued its uneven forward progress. Public health advice was seen by many as inconsistent and conflicted, perhaps an inevitable consequence of our facing a new, invisible and deadly foe on a scale rarely imagined. Learning can be complicated, and it was.
In October 2020 the death toll from COVID exceeded 210,000 Americans. Today, despite all the progress in vaccinations and other public health measures, the death toll exceeds 825,000 Americans and 5,440,000 humans globally. Those figures do not include the cases of “long COVID” that have wrecked the health of uncounted people that must number in the hundreds of thousands.
The reality is that public health policy is not going to be driven exclusively based on vaccination status. Huge amounts of public treasure and health care resources will continue to be devoted to trying to save the, almost entirely, unvaccinated population that now accounts for almost all cases of COVID hospitalization and death. This likely also means that public health directives will be pointed at COVID infections regardless of the details of who gets sick, who dies, and so on. The population is so interconnected and interdependent that there seems to be no practical alternative. Thus, outbreaks on ships will, regardless of actual medical impact, lead to restrictions and uncertainty that impact all travel sectors.
In my October 2020 op-ed, I set out four principles that should guide industry efforts at recovery from COVID. The central problem among those four was consumer uncertainty that was the direct result of constantly changing public health advice and inconsistent and conflicting industry policies and practices. People generally despise uncertainty, disorder and chaos, especially as regards a death-dealing, invisible enemy like COVID. The government is not going to take the risk of excessively lenient approaches to a pandemic if it can avoid it.
The question then remains, more than a year and multiple mutations later, what can be done to re-establish conditions of consumer confidence that are necessary to the industry's long-term recovery?
Given what we now know, I believe that the industry, including all the major sectors, must come to a common and firm position on the management of COVID health practices that is based on the best available science and takes the long view regarding recovery.
What does that mean in practice? It means that the industry’s principal business drivers (major airlines, hotels, cruise lines, airports, and principal industry associations, including ASTA representing the businesses that sell much of the travel and industry unions whose workers will be on the front lines of enforcement) should now coalesce around a single set of policies and practices that will offer maximum assurance that the public’s health is the sole determinant of how business is done. If the parties are too committed to independent action to cooperate to this extent, they should engage mediators to facilitate agreement on key practices. And, as I argued in 2020, the new policies should be vetted with travelers.
This proposal requires joint conduct of an unprecedented nature both legally and in industry custom. To the extent necessary the joint industry players should request the necessary Business Review Letter protection from the Department of Justice to do what I am recommending.
New health-driven practices must be understandable, practical, and reassuring, as well as effective. Government health policy leaders should be engaged in this process from the beginning. Industry and government should be speaking with one voice and coordinated messages on this issue. Until consumers are assured that the industry’s actual practices are not conditional but are firm, reliable, and vigorously enforced across the board, uncertainty will likely continue to undermine recovery.
A separate word regarding enforcement. No rational person would welcome facing a drunk or belligerent passenger who boarded a plane knowing the mask policy, refused to comply, and then attacked other passengers and/or crew members. This happens all too often. Enforcement has been inconsistent and conditional. “Reserving the right” to ban or arrest is not sufficient. Travelers should be confident that the rules will be followed.
This requires that enforcement be automatic, rigorous, and unyielding. Fines and arrests should be automatic and publicized. Anyone violating mask and other health policies should be banned from traveling on all airlines everywhere for an extended period of years, perhaps even for life. If the risk is just a “maybe” for consequences, we’re going to continue seeing these disruptions, until something unthinkable happens on an aircraft in flight. It is foolish to wait for disaster to do what seems obviously necessary. Ensure that people follow the rules or stay home.
The change in mindset I have recommended will be difficult. We should have no illusions about the practical problems involved, but one thing seems clear above all else: continuing what appears to be an “every firm for itself” approach is not going to work.