Official News Magazine of the Canadian Snowbird Association
Billy Nolen, WestJet vice-president of Safety, Security & Quality
Fears of Flying
Travel with the new normal
by John Hardy
Everybody’s talking about the new normal. Airlines are doing something about it. They have no choice. It’s not only about good business but, suddenly, it’s about survival and re-jigging the industry.
Despite the best public health and government guidelines, the travel industry − and particularly airlines − rely on the critical and unpredictable factor of consumer confidence. It’s the ‘make it or break it’ factor. Reopened restaurants, salons, stores, gyms and hotels and resumed flights rely on the impossible intangibles of trying to predict and strategize for customer moods and worries.
Although there’s consensus that life and any kind of normal cannot and should not be on indefinite hold, health-care, business and government officials also agree that until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, consumer confidence will likely continue to be a significant social and business factor.
For the airline business, the undisputed backbone of the travel industry, there’s lots at stake. In April, the global airline group IATA estimated that the 2020 bottom line will show a 39.8 million reduction in Canadian passenger volumes. Considering the sudden mid-June infection spikes in some popular snowbird hot spots such as Florida, Georgia and Arizona, and encouraging signs that reopening and a gradual recovery has begun, IATA stats show that the four COVID-19 shutdown months will likely end up being a staggering US$314 billion hit to the airline industry.
Travel and airline experts warn about important added challenges for some snowbird-popular, but smaller airlines (including WestJet, Sunwing, Zoom, JetBlue, Allegiant and others), which rely on the cost-efficiency of squeezing in as many passengers as possible and maximizing turnarounds by limiting aircraft on-the-ground downtime. The low-fare airline formula may have to change with more time-consuming intense cleaning of the aircraft and longer airport and boarding procedures.
There is blunt but unanimous airline consensus: the goal is to maximize safety without going out of business. Unlike some other still-closed or reopening business sectors, the travel industry is complex, big money (very big money!) and fiercely consumer-driven. Travel experts and airline analysts caution that – pre- or post-vaccine − luring back the customer and re-earning consumer confidence will be a challenging and tricky maneuver.
John Gradek, former Air Canada executive and now an aviation leadership and airline management instructor at McGill University
“Mitigation actions such as wearing masks, washing hands, plexiglass shields, intense cleaning, distancing and other stop-gap measures will allay the fear of some travellers, not all,” says John Gradek, a former executive at Air Canada who now teaches aviation leadership and airline management at Montreal’s McGill University. “The new check-in and boarding process, digital boarding passes, new luggage rules, cabin cleaning, limiting the on-board sale of snacks and food and strict rules for washroom use are intended to create as contact-less an experience as possible, whether at the airport or aboard an aircraft.”
Billy Nolen, WestJet’s vice-president of Safety, Security & Quality explains that when the jolt and impact of the pandemic first hit in Canada, together with the subsequent closure of borders for travel, the demand for air travel dropped by almost 90 per cent. WestJet reduced the size of its workforce by more than 9,000 people and parked more than two-thirds of their aircraft.
He mentions various ways in which WestJet is now “changing up procedures for customer peace of mind and the unconditional policy of putting passenger safety above all. We have increased our cleaning and sanitizing protocols across our fleet. High-touch areas are frequently cleaned and disinfected with four different hospital-grade products and we’ve introduced a new procedure called fogging. When it’s time to board, temperatures will be taken with a contactless thermometer and passengers will be asked a few health-related questions. We’re limiting bookings to provide space and adjusted food and beverage service to limit touchpoints and contact.”
Airports are notoriously busy and hectic places, and are also important pieces of the travel industry puzzle. “Consumer confidence is a huge factor,” notes Canadian Airports Council president Daniel Gooch, whose organization represents Canada’s large and regional airports. “Airports and airlines are working together to rebuild public trust. Even before COVID-19, Canadian airports were some of the cleanest facilities anywhere.”
He explains the airport focus of minimizing contact and touching. “New technology and new ways of doing things in airports − from check-ins to security, boarding and baggage-claiming systems − were already being developed for several years, long before the lockdown. The changes and airport new normals are now being accelerated. Mobile technology has already begun to leapfrog the kiosks, and traveller processing innovations such as facial recognition and facial verification will soon be in place.”
Canadian Airports Council president Daniel Gooch
But Gooch points out that, “No matter what, until there is a vaccine, some people just won’t feel comfortable to fly. And even with technology and the positive changes of a new normal, the situation will take time to evolve and may not return to previous traffic levels for as long as five years.”
While rewriting the basic and quirky guidelines and protocols of flying is happening and new technologies are kicking in to satisfy traveller comfort zones, Gradek suggests that, for the balance of the year, if not longer, properly figuring out passenger concerns will continue to be a work-in-progress. “How will access to the already limited aircraft washrooms be managed? How will the exit from an arriving aircraft be handled to maintain some semblance of social distancing? And will there be marked spaces to stand while waiting at the baggage carousel?”
Airlines are working hard to navigate the first wave of the pandemic, make contingencies for a possible second wave, maximize safety, make changes and do whatever it takes to earn back consumer confidence.