Official News Magazine of the Canadian Snowbird Association
Once upon a − seat backs and tray tables in their full upright position and flight attendants prepare for cross-check − time, getting there was half the fun and travel (sometimes hectic and frustrating) was much easier and carefree.
Fast-forward to masks, social distancing, disinfectant electrostatic spraying and touchless check-ins. While travel is making a determined rebound, it would be a misleading stretch to suggest that it’s either easy or carefree.
The business of travel calls it challenging. Consumers call it iffy.
It’s no secret that significant public health and safety measures, combined with drastic regulations and restrictions, have sent the Canadian and the global travel industries reeling.
In 2019, Canadian airlines flew approximately 94 million passengers with an average load factor of approximately 83% capacity. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) representing some 290 airlines around the world, when the final 2020 tally is calculated, passenger traffic is expected to be down by more than 55% from last year.
Although Canadian airports and airlines are gung-ho about both subtle and major health safeguards and winning back consumer confidence − not only with health assurances, but also with flexible booking, change and cancellation policies − Mona Aubin, IATA’s Canadian spokesperson admits that, “It’s going to take time. The airline outlook for 2021 is not great. IATA released a revised forecast in late July, showing that global passenger traffic (revenue passenger kilometres, or RPKs) will not return to pre-COVID levels until 2024, a year later than we previously projected.”
IATA Canada spokesperson Mona Aubin
Despite some lingering COVID-anxiety media saturation, there is encouraging positivity with airports and airlines not only talking the talk, but walking the walk of passenger safety and earning back trust.
There have been changes made! From contactless technology of moving through the airport without any paper, two-stage body temperature scans and boarding in groups of 10 to maximize physical distancing, to enhanced and high-tech cleaning such as fogging, disinfectant electrostatic spraying, HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters which capture more than 99.99% of germs − thereby rendering cabin air flow as pure as a hospital operating room – and sanitizing high-touch areas inside the airport and the aircraft, more frequent in-flight cleaning of lavatories and other new ways of doing things.
Since consumer confidence relies heavily on consumer perception, the airline industry is aggressively communicating the documented fact that the quality of air in a modern aircraft is better than most other enclosed environments. It is exchanged with fresh air every 2-3 minutes, compared to most office buildings, which exchange air 2-3 times per hour.
“The feedback has been positive from our guests, as they adjust to the new normal,” says WestJet’s Morgan Bell. “We understand that there will be different levels of comfort or confidence with travel right now and we are doing all we can to ensure that those who are comfortable with it can travel safely and responsibly.”
Julie Roberts, Air Transat flight attendant and
president of the Air Transat Component of CUPE
Julie Roberts, an Air Transat flight attendant and president of the Air Transat Component of CUPE, agrees. “For the most part, passengers seem to feel safer with all the new safety measures but, as with anything else, there is always room for improvement. Some passengers remove their masks when they speak to flight attendants, which defeats the purpose of wearing masks. Flight attendants also feel as if it’s falling on them to police passengers to ensure that masks are worn throughout the flight.”
While airlines are implementing both blatant and subtle changes for public health and safety, so are the airports. “I haven’t heard about many concerns,” says Daniel Gooch, president of the Canadian Airports Council, representing Canada’s large and regional airports. “From what I understand, things are going smoothly in Canada when it comes to ensuring traveller health and safety. But when it comes to the business of flying, there is still an urgent problem. There has been very little movement in opening up regulations and travel restrictions and the industry is a bit pessimistic about this changing any time soon, which means that recovery will be delayed even longer.
Canadian Airports Council
president Daniel Gooch
“Looking at the stats, which are constantly changing, traffic continues to be down more than 90% at most airports, with just a slight uptick over the summer. For next year, we were initially thinking that traffic may be about 65% of 2019 traffic levels, but now airports predict that it may be closer to 50% or worse,” he said. “It really depends on what governments do on restrictions and messaging on travel.”
Absolutely, definitely, public health and safety are key. But IATA’s Mona Aubin notes that, according to various recent Canadian airline industry surveys, “passengers are even more concerned about possible quarantine regulations at destinations and that, in Canada, non-essential travel is still restricted. Even between our own provinces!
“Airlines have been urging the Canadian government to relieve these travel restrictions, as one-size-fits-all is not fair to travellers nor does it make sense economically. Right now, the borders are closed to everyone,” she points out. “Which is badly hurting the airlines but also the entire travel and tourism sector, which employs 1.8 million people and is worth more than $100 billion annually to the economy.”
She suggests that it’s possible to do both. “There are options that can be implemented (such as more testing) and differentiating between countries whose COVID spread is under control and those that are still considered hot spots. IATA is proposing a layering of temporary non-quarantine measures until we have a vaccine, immunity passports or nearly instant COVID-testing available at scale. This approach would provide governments with the confidence to open their borders without quarantining arrivals.
“It is absolutely a priority to keep Canada safe, but there are ways of doing it without cutting us off from the world,” Aubin says with emphasis.
The proactive airline focus on passenger trust and confidence in travelling safely is showing signs of success. It’s also starting to have an impact on travel health insurance worries, especially for snowbirds who wonder about the risks of escaping to popular nests such as the Miami, Naples, Fort Lauderdale and Gulf Coast areas of Florida, as well as Arizona, Texas, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.
When the pandemic crisis hit, most Canadian providers denied travel health insurance and, as of mid-summer, maintained that COVID coverage will only be available when travel advisories are lifted in Canada. Medipac was an exception.
In late July, Medipac updated its policy and allowed customers to book single-trip insurance policies for out-of-country emergency medical coverage that included COVID-related claims.
The company acknowledged the often-overlooked fact that snowbirds are unique travellers. “The needs of snowbirds are distinctly different,” explained Christopher Davidge, Medipac vice-president. “Many Canadian snowbirds travel south, own homes in the U.S. and are able to practise physical distancing just as effectively there as they are here in Canada.”
The Medipac approach refreshingly underscores the ultimate pandemic coping factor − people and attitudes. “While we’re aware of the high numbers of COVID cases in the U.S., we do not think that the risks will impact the particular demographic of our clients. They tend to be more mature, more aware of the virus and the importance of preventive measures to take while travelling.”
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