Facing the unprecedented drop-off in passengers during the Covid-19 pandemic, commercial aviation industry leaders must closely collaborate on technology, cleanliness, and other means to reduce health risks, increase passenger confidence, and facilitate the return of travel, government and industry officials agreed.
By June, airlines globally had cut back their capacity by 75 to 85 percent, “a huge proportion,” Oliver Wyman partner David Stewart said during an FIA Connect 2020 session on the relaunch of commercial aviation on Monday. “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our aviation ecosystem has been unprecedented and dramatic. Now the industry has to prepare to facilitate the recovery,” Stewart said, adding that the industry needs to understand what drives consumer confidence. “The airlines need passengers to be happy to travel.”
He noted surveys conducted by his consultancy revealed passengers pointed to government regulation and restrictions as the biggest factor in decisions to travel. However, airline cleanliness was a top-three factor in passenger decision-making. Passengers further rated the airport environment as equally important in their travel decisions. On a more positive front, Steward added, 75 percent of business travelers expressed a willingness to return to travel in the future as much as or more than they had pre-Covid.
However, a key to drawing travelers back will be confidence and communications, said Jack Goodwin, deputy director, restart, recovery, and engagement unit for the UK Department for Transport. The industry must overcome issues such as insurance for Covid and unexpected cancellations, Goodwin said. Recognizing the importance of aviation to the UK GDP, he said the government should endeavor to lift quarantines from various countries to gradually open travel without mandatory self-quarantines. Consumers must be reassured that travel is safe again, he said.
To provide that reassurance, industry leaders have begun collaborating on a multi-layered approach that looks at the travel experience from beginning to end, the airplane and airport environments, and protection with the acknowledgment of the possibility of passengers who may be carrying the virus, said Mike Delaney, v-p/confident travel initiative leader for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
In the short term, airlines and airports have concentrated on cleanliness and measures to enable passengers to fly again. But focus also must also center on preparing for an increase of traffic as passengers return and “hardened systems” based on lessons learned to not only help airlines navigate through the pandemic but future possible pandemics.
Such systems must provide an equivalent level of safety as measures taken on the ground, even if they take into account other approaches, Delaney said. While basic social distancing might be helpful on the ground, it is not a practical solution in the air, he added. But, stressing the belief that aviation remains the safest form of transportation, he said other measures are effective, from the air filtration system to the use of masks, anti-microbial coatings, aircraft geometry, and operational systems.
Technology can play a significant factor in the recovery, said LeAnn Ridgeway, v-p of avionics and general manager of information management services for Collins Aerospace. In the airport environment, biometrics present an “easy solution” to reduce touchpoints and congestion. The technology is already available and had been growing in acceptance. With Covid-19 a number of key international aviation organizations have expressed more support for expansion, Ridgeway said.
Other areas to help in the airport include the use of kiosks to minimize the use of cash, increased use of mobile applications to help ease congestion points, and the deployment of artificial intelligence to help in the gate areas to minimize exposure risks, she said.
Research further centers on ultraviolet technologies in the airplane to help kill harmful pathogens, but more needs to be explored on the effects on passengers and airport materials, Ridgeway said.
The participants in the FIA Connect panel agreed that communication of all such efforts is essential to facilitate the return of ridership, but they also agreed that the industry must apply the measures consistently to reassure the traveling public.