Airlines need to resort to confidence building to get the public to fly again, as a fear of travelling has set in amid COVID-19
A cold-war memo by the National Security Council tracing back to 1968 stated, “… the whole success of the proposed program hangs ultimately on recognition by this Government… and all free peoples, that the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake.” Eerily we are faced with a similar situation. Only this time the enemy is a 120-nanometer particle which uses common citizens as vectors and which isn’t even alive in the first place. Namely, the Covid-19 virus, and, one of the most impacted are airlines.
Interestingly, the cold-war era also has mitigation measures that were prevalent. These measures referred to as CBMs or confidence building measures were steps towards minimizing tensions and building trust between nuclear powers. First implemented in 1975, at the Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, they soon found their way into trade policy as well. When in 1999 there were protests in Seattle in opposition to potential free trade agreements and impact on labour and employment, once again a series of CBMs were announced. Fast forward to the present day and the fear of travelling and a narrative that airports and airlines pose contagion risk has set in. As such, airlines will have to resort to confidence building measures to get the travelling public to fly again.
Reducing fear via information and communication
For the first time in aviation history, an atmosphere of global fear has impacted the demand for travel. In India, domestic travel volumes are likely to fall by 60% - 70% this year. The various lockdowns and each state having a different spread of the virus is not helping. But going forward, mistrust and lack of information can also continue to hamper any recovery. Much like the cold war era, steps will have to be taken to alleviate this. Communication will be critical.
Primarily airlines will have to focus on communicating the measures taken to mitigate the risk of being infected the virus during travel; airport authorities will have to communicate measures being taken to ensure the airport does not become an area of contagion; government authorities will have to communicate measures being taken to isolate risks if and when they are detected – and all of these stakeholders will have to exchange information with each other and further disseminate it to consumers. Interestingly, this requires not only basic information such as social distancing guidelines and enforcement but also technical details such as air conditioning at airports and airflow circulation on aircraft via high efficiency particulate air filters. Because at the end of the day the vectors are the passengers themselves and each consumes and assimilates information in a very different manner. And thus, for the first time it cannot be only a one way exchange. Engagement and interaction will have to be factored in. And stakeholders are doing just this. Whether it is Indigo’s latest campaign that highlights the aircraft as a “lean, clean flying machine” or Bangalore Airports focus on obsessive sanitization towards hospital OT levels of cleanliness , efforts are indeed geared towards reducing fear via information and communication.
Transparency, engagement and interaction
In spite of these measures passengers continue to be apprehensive. Partly because the spread of the virus that has been traced back to aviation, and also because if each unplanned interaction can is classified as a random risk, then the overall travel experience aggregates to significant randomized risk. Airlines that don’t engage or take a lackadaisical attitude stand to be most impacted. Airlines will be forced to be more transparent with policies and norms.
In looking to the cold war era transparency was driven by simple exercises such as access to facilities, joint exercises and invitations to observe activities. In many instances these were “unequal” measures which did not explicitly carry the benefit of reciprocity. Such measures may just be required by several stakeholders. Whether it is inviting the travel distributors to witness how exactly processes have procedures have been re-aligned towards the new normal; or joint exercises by airlines and security personnel on planned responses; or even a simple mock-up of an isolation facility which passengers can visually inspect – these will be required to slowly but surely address apprehensions of the travelling public – towards a recovery of volumes.
Interaction is also likely to play a key role. Current travel processes have at least 10 touch points where a customer necessarily interacts with another person. For the most part these touch points have been trained to drive compliance and questions may be answered in a binary form. For instance, “do I have to take off my belt?” for the security check or “is there an elevator that I can take to the concourse?” Yet the new normal is one where the nature of questions will change and training staff to not only answer but assure the travellers will be the need of the day.
This also spills over to the management teams. Since the start of the crises while several challenges have come to the forefront, airline management has simply not been out and center. Indeed, CEO’s may need to internally hold public briefings similar to the ones undertaken by the New York Governor – which are honest, frank and forthright and put the facts on the table no matter how grim. Over time these can go a long way towards building trust.
Constraint measures also are required
Finally constraint measures will also be required. These are measures that indicate to parties what is “non-acceptable” behavior. For airlines this currently includes constraints on scheduling flights within similar time-banks (this move counter-intuitively also helps airlines financially); or ensuring that the process does not allow someone with symptoms such as a fever to bypass thermal scans by taking an antipyretic; or identifying travellers who have come from or are headed to areas that have been classified as “hotspots”; or even something as simple as sanitizing toilets on aircraft after each use. Constraint measures overall will pose the greatest challenge because they touch many legal, health and safety aspects and require a collaborative effort by aviation stakeholders alike.
Finally the contrarian constraint measure that will take a fair bit of focus is one that takes away constraints on time. This will require focused and deliberate effort the focus for airlines has always been on minimizing time. Whether it is the time the airplane stays on the ground; or the time for check-in; or the time taken at immigration and security. In what will be a 180 degree turn now the focus has to be to increase times for each activity towards adequate social distancing measures. Because rushed processes will almost inevitably lead to violation of constraints and these must be guarded against.
Overall as airlines are flying again, confidence building measures will be critical. The old models of communication and “spray and pray” methods simply don’t do. Engagement and large moves, as opposed to incremental moves, towards building trust will be required. Without these the recovery of travel volumes is likely to be very challenging.
(The author is an aviation professional. His positions include working as the Head of Strategy at GoAir and with CAPA (Centre for Aviation) where he led the Advisory and Research teams. Views expressed are personal)