Despite the rising number of new Coronavirus cases worldwide, a group of airline industry executives believe that consumers are growing more comfortable with their ability to protect themselves in an aircraft cabin from COVID-19.
Instead, the greatest inhibitor to restoring air passenger confidence is reducing the uncertainty about whether a traveler will be quarantined at their destination. Additionally, restoring a greater sense of control to travelers at airports will help, these aviation executives say.
Joanna Geraghty, president and COO at JetBlue, speaking during a webinar hosted by The Wings Club and the International Air Transport Association (IATA), noted how senior management reviews passenger feedback twice a week.
As the pandemic has progressed, JetBlue has noticed a shift in passenger concerns. “Early on, they were concerned about flying in the aircraft. Now they’re shifting their focus to the airport environment. There are different things that come into your physical space, so they don’t feel they have as much control.”
“Confidence stems from predictability in the journey,” said Dan Freeman, engineering director with Boeing’s Confident Travel Initiative. “They need to know what is expected from them, and that they are not going to get unexpectedly quarantined at their destination, or take a [COVID] test that they didn’t plan for.”
“Confidence is going to come from what I can tell passengers about their entire journey,” said Huntley Lawrence, director of aviation at the Port Authority of New York & new Jersey.
Consumers are wrangling with questions like: “Do I need to take a COVID test before I fly? What paperwork is there?” said Geraghty. “Right now, every day, something changes. Like the Caribbean. There are different rules across every single island. Could I get sent home? Do I stay in a hotel for 14 days if I get quarantined? We have got to nail that down.
“The uncertainty of what to expect plays into a customer’s travel decision. You can’t create a level of anxiety where they might say ‘I’m not going to travel,’” Geraghty said.
The aviation industry is eager to restore consumer confidence. IATA estimates that the global airline industry will lose approximately $84 billion as a result of COVID, with $23 billion in losses just for North America. If the industry cannot increase consumer demand soon, those losses could worsen and extend further out into the decade.
This will require much greater collaboration between the industry and governments worldwide, said Peter Cerda, IATA’s regional vice president, Americas.
“Canadians can go to Europe with no problems, but when they get home, they have to go into a 14-day quarantine,” he said. “That’s creating a lot of confusion. People are getting on a plane and going somewhere for a purpose. When you don’t have governments communicating with each other, you are going to have confusion.”
Cerda said that when the U.K. recently imposed new restrictions on Spain, some airlines experienced a 50% increase in cancellations. “The Brits in Spain are wondering; can they go back home?” he said.
Call for greater government engagement
The executives participating in the panel discussion were clearly dissatisfied with the lack of direction and collaboration exhibited by governments so far.
“Government should play a role around global standards,” said JetBlue’s Geraghty. She noted how different countries, even different states in the U.S., have varying policies for determining when a visitor needs to self-quarantine. “It’s incredibly challenging and complicated for customers who don’t live in this space.”
Geraghty would also like to see governments be responsible for things like temperature checks for customers. “If every airline does it their own way, that creates tremendous confusion,” she said.
IATA’s Cerda called on governments “to take the responsibility and take the first step and give the guidance to the public.”
When it comes to face coverings, Huntley said that “by and large we are seeing pretty good compliance” from passengers at his three main airports.
“Still, it’s a challenge at times with some customers for face coverings. We’re working with the local police about that. Over the coming days, you’re likely to see more enforcement in our facilities since [COVID] cases are creeping up,” Lawrence said. “We want to make sure the practices in place will continue to remain effective.”
Look for increasing industry outreach
Geraghty and others noted that they are going to step up consumer communications to both reinforce policies that can help make passengers feel more confident, but also to increase compliance with healthy and safety rules.
Geraghty appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America news program Wednesday talking about new technology being tested at airports.
JetBlue recently initiated a pilot with Honeywell at JFK International and Fort Lauderdale airports to test a portable ultraviolet light cabin cleaning system. She said the device is “like a drink cart rolling down the aisle” that has been used in hospitals.
The Port Authority also is running an ultraviolet test on some airport escalators, Lawrence said, and is looking at testing a thermal temperature check system at JFK International soon – to be followed quickly by LaGuardia.
“Our expectation is that we are going to have to work hard to win back our customers,” said the Port Authority’s Lawrence. “Their expectations are going to be different.”
JetBlue also has ramped up its customer emails, including a video from Geraghty documenting a trip she took on JetBlue. “I think the airlines are doing a pretty good job. But we need to keep it up. I think you will see more of this happening.”
Boeing’s Freeman noted how his daughter recently had friends over for dinner. “Some of her friends said they were not going to travel for a long time. One of them said, ‘If someone coughs on the plane, everyone will get sick.’ It was a chance for me to start a discussion.”
Covid testing is only a partial solution
Geraghty believes that COVID testing “will be an effective way to navigate this pandemic” especially if a negative COVID result would mean a passenger would not require quarantine. “No one is going on vacation to possibly have 14 days in quarantine, having food delivered to their door,” she said.
But right now, “testing is not where it needs to be,” Geraghty said, because it is taking too long for consumers to get their test results back. Here again, she called for consistency across the industry so that things like pricing, frequency of testing required, and who would administer the testing could be standardized in some way.
“Unless or until we have a consistent approach across states and governments with regards to testing, it will be difficult to get this industry back on its feet to the levels that we’re going to need,” Geraghty said. “Travel will rebound if customers are confident about what they will experience on the ground and in the air.”