The Travel Advisor: Pandemic fatigue is setting in

People are getting antsy about staying at home, tired of stay-cations and eager to get out of the country.

ISRAIR FLIGHT attendants wear full protective gear as they help a passenger disembark in Belgrade earlier this month.  (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
ISRAIR FLIGHT attendants wear full protective gear as they help a passenger disembark in Belgrade earlier this month.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
Planning to fly somewhere in the next few months? Thinking about racing off to Dubai or the Seychelles? Hanukkah in the US perhaps?
Surprise, surprise: the planes will not be as empty as they’ve been the last eight months. People are getting antsy about staying at home, tired of stay-cations and eager to get out of the country. As American may discover in US President Donald Trump running for the presidency in 2024, what goes around comes around.
Travel experts have been discussing how the post-COVID industry is reverting to the profile of decades ago with its reduced traffic levels, the prospect of more active government intervention, smaller networks and competitive fares. In the earlier, gallivanting days of aviation, the biggest inhibitor of commercial air travel expansion was safety. There was an uncomfortable tendency for airlines to crash, a feature that would be passengers found offsetting.
It took many years for each of these constraints to be overcome. It took intergovernmental agreement on new norms to be achieved, mostly around standardizing safety regulation.
Today, most national borders are effectively closed to airline operations. And once again it is the fear of illness, and perhaps death, that has been clearly demonstrated as a major deterrent to air travel. Air travel is itself a generic spreader of disease, as are other forms of transportation; that is a prime motivator of government restrictions on international travel, making extensive cross border operations near-impossible.
But it will ultimately be the willingness, or not, of travelers to fly that will decide how and when air travel recovers. And they will make their decisions based on their personal confidence about safety. Clear evidence is now emerging that even short-haul travelers are actively deterred from flying where COVID-19 cases are surging. Simply adding capacity, or even ultra-low fares, will not persuade travelers back into the air if sanitary and health conditions are risky. The basic challenge is winning hearts and minds. Flying to both the Seychelles and the United Arab Emirates has lured the Israeli public into a near frenzy, resulting in a deluge of reservations and a large number of airlines deciding this fall and winter the locked down, paralyzing environment that permeates Israel will entice locals to venture abroad. For those parched individuals, the ability to travel to a country and return home without being in quarantine trumps their decision-making process.
Safety should not be a marketing weapon. Some airlines are blocking middle seats as a token move toward social distancing and marketing the fact as a travel incentive. This cannot ultimately allow commercial returns for the airline, but it may help build customer loyalty for the future. For decades, airlines have eschewed marketing passenger safety. Selling a “safer” in-flight solution, whether by keeping a middle seat empty or using other differentiators is not where airlines need to be. From a public point of view, it is clearly highly preferable for standards to be agreed or set across the industry. Seeking to differentiate on safety grounds can rapidly undermine consumer confidence in the industry overall.
In other words, aviation’s recovery rests in the hands of airlines and airports collectively, not individually, to provide an environment for travel that is visibly and practically safe. That won’t be easy. It will require significant operational changes to provide the levels of comfort and security that the bulk of travelers need.
By the same token, governments have also shown they are unwilling to open borders unconditionally where their residents are likely to be at risk. It has to be assumed that these policies also reflect popular feeling, as well as a perceived national health responsibility.
The depth and length of the impact of the pandemic on the air transportation industry struck hard in 2020. The International Air Transport Association is a trade association of the world’s airlines founded in 1945. In a grim update on the financial outlook for airlines, IATA said it expected them to burn through $77 billion in the second half of the year – or $300,000 per minute – and not become cash positive until 2022.
Second waves of the virus hit regions like the UK, Europe and some parts of Asia, as well as Israel, prompting governments to return to stronger lockdowns and border shutdowns. The number of deaths for example in the US is more than 240,0000 the highest of any country, and the number of cases has been steadily climbing in many states.
THE RESULT is a significantly lower demand for air travel for far longer than predicted when the pandemic began. Adding to the criticality of the situation, many government-aid packages for airlines, including some 36 payroll support programs, have expired. El Al’s new ownership bemoans the fact that the $200 million bank guarantee the government promised them has still not materialized. Refunds to many El Al clients remain frozen with firm assurances that all customers will be reimbursed, but with no set deadline.
“It is an unimaginably difficult time,” said IATA director-general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac. “You will see more and more airline bankruptcies. It is critical and urgent.” IATA, in unison with Airports Council International and other industry organizations, understandably has switched gears from trying to persuade governments to lift quarantines and border closures – a seemingly hopeless campaign while the coronavirus rages – to calling for 100% COVID-19 testing for all international passengers before their departure and return flights. Surveys show that 83% of participants would not consider air travel if there is a risk of being quarantined, but a similar percentage favors mandatory testing for all travelers.
IATA’s new position was not decided lightly, but there really is no choice. Yet it will be very difficult to implement and there are many unanswered questions. First, where and when will the tests be conducted and who pays for them? IATA believes the availability of viral antigen screening tests that are quick to give results in fewer than 15 minutes and under $10, can be administered by a non-medical official, are highly reliable and will soon be widely available. That will make it possible for the tests to be conducted at departure airports, but this will require considerable work to administer in a way that does not cause crowding on the land side of terminals, which would be undesirable both from a distancing and a security point of view. IATA hopes that governments will foot the bill for tests, but that may be optimistic and problematic for states where taxpayers don’t see why they should “subsidize” those who choose to fly.
It’s taken Ben-Gurion Airport more than nine months to finally inaugurate a COVID-19 testing station, but at the present its designed for passengers’ final destination with zero connection to the actual flight. It’s being touted to the travel industry and the traveling public to utilize it for those countries that require a negative COVID-19 test. However, no concern is being shown whatsoever about the safety of other passengers flying with passengers, as the normal results are sent to after 14 hours. Will the operators at the airport suggest all flyers whose results came back positive to perhaps inform the airline they flew? Or will that be too pushy?
No doubt Israel will consider that any person: citizen, resident or tourist also provide a negative COVID-19 test to set foot in Israel? Unfortunately, it’s not even being discussed, and the skies remain closed to any and all outsiders, save a very small few exceptions.
INTERNATIONALLY, THERE is still the issue of all the details. Should testing include young children? How do governments, which have failed woefully to coordinate globally on their approaches to the pandemic, agree to a system of mutual recognition of each departure airport’s tests? Will labor groups worldwide support mandatory testing for all flight crews ahead of each flight? If quarantines continue in countries where people can easily cross borders via trains, cars or ferries, how will governments separate the flyers from the other travelers; or will they mandate tests for all international travelers? And what will be the criteria for ending mandatory testing?
So many questions. The global airline industry, however, cannot be sustained on domestic markets that exist in the US or China alone, and the next big step in pandemic travel must be taken.
But whether mandatory testing, even if successfully implemented, will change the minds of those who choose not to fly until the pandemic is addressed is another matter. The industry has some pretty compelling statistics indicating it is safe to fly, with there being a far higher risk of being struck by lightning than of catching the COVID-19 during a flight on a commercial airliner. IATA medical adviser David Powell said only about 44 people are thought to have caught the virus during flights this year. That is among the 1.2 billion people who have flown, making the risk of transmission about one in 27.3 million. Even if some 90% of cases were not reported and the risk were 10 times higher, it would mean the likelihood of catching COVID-19 on a flight would be one in 2.73 million, making it “an uncommon event,” Powell said. He compared it to the much greater probability of being struck by lightning, a chance of between one in 500,000 and one in 1.2 million.
More people are flying these days with reasons including a business trip that can no longer be postponed. There are a large group of working people who must eschew whatever concerns they have and get on a plane. Flying in for a simcha or a death is becoming more normal these days and, of course, the leisure passenger who physically cannot stay cooped up in his or her country are voting with their feet and boarding aircrafts. Dubai and the Seychelles will see in the next four months more Israelis than they have ever seen or imagined. Thousands will spend time in both countries, and their thirst for travel will in the short term be quenched.
But the airline industry still hasn’t found the outside cheerleader, the celebrity, who can convey that safety message to the greater public, especially to those people they most need to convince: the majority that are staying grounded. Perhaps a soon to be ex-president could be persuaded to take on that role.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email [email protected]