There’s no question that the future of airline travel in the post-coronavirus era is going to evolve.
Already, the spread of COVID-19 has forced numerous procedural changes as carriers tear up their playbook and, pardon the pun, wing it in the face of an unprecedented drop in demand for flights.
Numbers don’t lie. Based on the number of screenings at airports over the last three to four weeks, the Transportation Security Administration has reported an almost 90 percent drop in the number of passengers taking to the air.
So, presuming the virus dissipates over time, what is the one thing every airline needs to do to entice people back into the air?
Well, for starters, let’s say it’s the more immediate thing the industry needs to do.
And that is, it must ensure the public that the cabin is sanitized and there is the ability to maintain some sort of social distancing. The former should not be a problem; the latter will be more difficult.
Airlines have gone to great lengths to change the way they clean and sanitize aircraft, using fogging machines and just plain old-fashioned elbow grease to disinfect a plane. And, frankly, it was long overdue even before the onset of COVID-19.
The tightly confined space of an airplane cabin is a breeding ground for germs, mold and bacteria. If you’ve ever seen a passenger use a tissue and then put it in the seatback pocket, or, worse, change an infant’s diaper on the seat or the tray table, you know what we’re talking about.
It’s likely that the entire world will emerge from this pandemic with a greater view and appreciation for the idea of cleanliness, of washing their hands, of cleaning up their personal space. Nobody is going to get on an airplane, book a hotel room or go on a cruise unless they can be relatively assured their health can be protected. After all, airlines already do inspections of the plane itself right down to every bolt and rivet.
Why wouldn’t they be sure to protect your personal safety inside the plan as well?
Part and parcel of that is social distancing. With the dramatic drop in travel, there have been numerous reports of flights with fewer than 10 passengers on board – some with just one passenger. Keeping fliers six feet from each other right now is fairly easy.
But as the airlines grow smaller – which, admittedly, they say they will – it’s going to be difficult to maintain the practice of social distancing on a full flight. And with fewer flights to choose from, they will be crowded. It would not be surprising to see face masks handed out for every flight as part of a new standard operating procedure.
But there are other things airlines must do as well.
Offering up reduced fares – at least in the beginning when traveling becomes more “normal” again – is certainly a good start. Waiving change fees, or at least reducing them, is an even better option.
It’s doubtful the airlines will ever go to a model of refunding passengers’ money in lieu of credit or vouchers toward future flights (even though the government is forcing them to do so now because of the extraordinary circumstances). But airlines likely need to take that step regarding change fees as a show of good faith.
And in light of that, one more thing airlines need to do: Carriers need to re-embrace the notion of working more closely with travel agents, and so does the general public. There were far too many instances of frustration and anger from fliers who spent hours on the phone to change a ticket or get a refund on their own when their flights were canceled by the virus and restrictions were put in place by the government.
There were success stories, sure. But most of them had a travel agent working in the background.
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