How Airlines Can Restore Trust In Long-Haul Flying

While flying has been in the doldrums for much of 2020, there are welcome green shoots in some markets. But long-haul flying everywhere continues to stagnate at record low levels. That’s causing significant problems at airlines, particularly legacy mainstream airlines who’ve long invested considerable infrastructure and resources into long-haul flying.

Emirates Airbus A380
What can get done to restore confidence in long-haul flying? Photo: Emirates

Experts say domestic and regional flying will recover, but passengers will be warier of long-haul flying. It was an issue canvassed on an eGlobal Travel Media webinar last week called “What Might the Future of Aviation Look Like”.

A call to restore confidence in long-haul flying

The webinar raised several issues. But a common theme was the need to restore confidence in long-haul flying.

“The main concern is still the passenger’s confidence in traveling,” said Joanna Lu, an analyst at Cirium.

“This is an issue for all airlines, but particularly so for mainstream airlines.

The panelists were united in their call for consistent messaging from governments and health authorities. There was criticism of mixed messaging. This left potential travelers confused and reluctant to travel.

There were calls for airlines to better spread the word about what they were doing to keep travelers safe. This included better communications about the usefulness of HEPA filters and enhanced cabin cleaning.

There was a call for stronger, more consistent messaging, to get passengers back in the air. Photo: Hong Kong International Airport Newsroom

COVID vaccine not necessarily a silver bullet for long-haul flying

One of the barriers to restoring long-haul flying is the lack of a COVID-19 vaccine. Many governments are crossing their fingers one will soon come into production. But that crossed fingers strategy sometimes seems to account for the bulk of the forward crisis management planning. But there is no guarantee there will be a vaccine. Even if a vaccine eventuates, less than optimal effectiveness, particularly in first-run versions, may pose an issue.

That means COVID-19 testing will become more and more important. As the time to get test results continuously improves, there was a call to link the results to flight tickets, clearing the way to travel. While COVID-19 isn’t a silver bullet, in the absence of an effective vaccine, it remains one of the best ways to facilitate long-haul flying and manage the spread of COVID-19.

“The airline industry is profoundly changed,” said Joe Cusmano from Stray Nomads.

“One thing I believe will give consumers the confidence to get back onboard is a vaccine. Again, that’s questionable too. It depends on how many people take the vaccine, and is the government going to issue some sort of passport to say, ‘I’ve been vaccinated, I can travel safely’?”

COVID testing getty
Rapid pre-flight testing is what the industry wants. Photo: Getty Images

Mixed messaging from governments under fire

The behavior of governments and senior officials in governments came under some criticism. Several panelists were critical of mixed messaging. One prominent travel agent highlighted a government relaxing travel restrictions while at the same time, a senior police official warned people to stay at home.

“We’ve got to get some confidence the international market will return,” said the travel agent.

The majority of panelists agreed the outlook for domestic and regional flying was more positive than for long-haul flying. But high yield business travel would recover slower than leisure travel.

“Passenger confidence is particularly an issue for mainstream airlines,” said Cirrum’s Joanna Lu.

“The business travelers contribute a big share of their yield. Continuing lack of confidence in that business travel sector would make higher-yielding routes harder to resume. Many major airlines might need to adjust their network strategy for the near future,”

One thing’s for sure, airlines and governments have a long way to go yet to restore passenger confidence in long-haul flying.