MIAMI – From the beginning of the pandemic, onboard social distancing and other safety measures have been implemented by airlines worldwide, ushering in the ‘new normal’ in air travel.

How have commercial airlines around the world faced this scenario and tried to maintain passengers purchasing tickets? Six airline strategies have emerged to regain customers’ trust in air travel.

Photo: United Airlines.

Low Fare Tickets

Economists say that if you want to sell something and there is low demand for it, you must lower the prices to gain interest in purchasing that something. The good-old supply and demand model. As governments around the world started to impose travel restrictions, suggesting travelers not to fly, the aviation industry saw it operations grounded and service cut in an unprecedented and escalating manner.

To keep afloat, Asian airlines were the first ones to offer low fare tickets to leisure destinations in Q1, when the virus had not spread worldwide yet. AirAsia X (D7) led the strategy with packages valid for over a year for less than US$20. Other carriers followed suit on Asian destinations and medium-haul flights to incentivize flow within the Asian-Pacific market. 

In Q2, when most of the world was put into quarantine and travel restrictions seemed they would last until year-end, European and American airlines decided to get on the low-ticket-fares wagon. British Airways (BA), Jet2 (LS), American Airlines (AA), United Airlines (UA), Delta Airlines (DL), JetBlue (B6) offered certain inbound flights on their respective markets for as low as US$14 and US$40.

Regardless of the low fares, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) showed that low fare tickets were not enough for a passenger demand to rebound.

Change Fee Waivers

Another way carriers creatively maneuvered to adapt o the dire circumstances was to eliminate change fees. After United Airlines (UA) announced that it would not charge for flight changes, the other two major US airlines were quick to respond. In a surprise press release at the end of August, UA announced major alterations to the company’s change fee policy and standby rules.

With the permanent removal of change fees for most domestic flights, UA’s new policy also allowed for free changes to international and basic economy tickets issued by December 31, 2020. The airline would also allow travelers free same-day standby, available beginning January 1st, 2021.

On their part, American Airlines (AA) and Delta Air Lines (DL) announced that they would eliminate change fees for tickets purchased for travel within the US. Finally, Alaska Airlines (AS) and Frontier Airlines (F9), Hawaiian Airlines (HA) stopped charging the fees. In doing so, US airlines had to quickly adapt to keep current customers and bring in new ones. 

Seats onboard the A320 in an IndiGo flight to New Delhi. Photo: A. Wee.

Middle-seat Blocking

During Q2, concerns about passenger’s health and safety increased in lieu of an eventual launch of a vaccine in Q1 2021. As a result, both IATA and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) suggested new business policies to keep operations going amid the long-term virus. These included onboard social distancing and obligatory mask wearing in planes and airports.

As the peak-Summer season arrived, several American airlines resumed various inbound operations with less available seats as these could reduce the risk of contagion. Some seats were blocked, especifically the middle ones, so customers had empty side seats.

Depending on the carrier, middle-seat blocking would last for just a few months while in other cases it would be implemented throughout the extended Summer season, until September/October. 

Carriers expected, a lightly rebound during the season to cover related costs of having less incomes with the fewer seats, but the rebound did not occur. In the cases of AA and UA, social distancing on seats was removed after a couple of months amid customers complaints. On their part, Southwest Airlines (WN), B6 and DL extended the measure for the duration of Summer, Fall and over until 2021, respectively.

While the approach sought to get customers back on board by retaining and reducing the risks of catching COVID-19, the cost structure of the airlines could not support obtaining such low seat income while they waited for demand to return. Worldwide travel restrictions would not be lifted.

Photo: Lufthansa

Health and Safety Kits, and other Policies

Amid rising concerns from IATA and ICAO, airlines began to adopt the aviation entities’ guidelines. Asian and Middle East carriers such as Turkish Airlines (TK) and Etihad Airways (EY) launched safety kits. These included face mask coverings, antibacterial gels, and depending ob the airline, gloves. Indian carrier Vistara (UK) even went and launched safety and relaxation videos, mixing yoga and aircraft safety passenger positions. 

These policies were complemented by mandatory face covering, social distancing and enhanced cleaning procedures in partnerships with related area businesses and airports specialized in such tasks. This preceded and was conducive to the process of COVID-19 testing in situ.

However, some of the first airlines to restrict mandatory COVID-19 safety measures such as mask wearing were Lufthansa (LH) and B6, but you needed to produce a negative COVID-19 test result.

Ecolog COVID Testing Facility. Photo: Ecolog

Testing Facilities

Alongside the safety and health measures, more airlines began to request PCR negative results before boarding. This was implemented due to certain countries’ travel regulations that mandated travelers to self-isolate upon arrival.

Working with laboratories and airports, carriers also started to provide testing facilities in Q4. UA offered pre-COVID-19 testing at home or at the airport for regional service. In Europe, LH did the same. Other remarkable efforts to offer more guarantees to passengers were AA and BA’s joint-testing program and Philippine Airlines (PR) with the launch of its COVID-19 testing center.

While this strategy increased the price of flying, it eased passengers into the new traveling system, especially to those destinations that required the presentation of negative results. Additionally, this approach showed customers that the airlines were committed with their safety regardless whether they took into consideration the aforementioned onboard social distancing measures.

Photo: Emirates

Insurance Policy

There is no doubt that one of the reasons why people choose not to travel during these times are the costs related to self-isolation and any possible medical expenditure. Knowing this, Middle East carriers like FlyDubai (FZ) and Emirates (EK) started to offer free COVID-19insurances to customer who fleww ith them and happened to get infected in the following two weeks. British airline Virgin Atlantic (VS) also offered a similar COVID-19 insurance to its customers. 

In the end, however, airlines had to refund most tickets. During the pandemic, state-backed Middle Easter airlines benefited from their status and kept operations in the air. As a result, the Dubai-London Heathrow route just topped the New York-London Heathrow route as the most operated frequency.

2020 is about to end and restoring customer confidence is still a concern amid the ongoing pandemic. Despite all the aforementioned strategies and efforts, worldwide travel restrictions and the passengers’ fears of getting infected remain as variables to take into consideration in the process to return the aviation industry to pre-pandemic operational levels.

Apart from the start of the pandemic, 2020 can be considered a test year for airlines. COVID-19 and its new strain will affect air travel until at least mid-2021. The goal is to maintain carriers afloat and to be ready to rapidly resume their frequencies once the virus begins to be neutralized with the global rollout of the vaccine.

Featured image: American Airlines Cleaning. Photo: AA.