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Each country coming up with their own version of safety protocols is slowing down any recovery prospects for airline industry. That has to stop. Image Credit: AFP

Many governments are struggling to develop robust COVID-19 strategies. With borders still closed and travel restrictions in place, the recovery process for kickstarting long-haul travel is slow in getting started. The serious struggle to boost customer confidence in air travel is very real.

A big question mark still lingers over the notion of genuine demand recovery and how the aviation sector can best recover. It is apparent that restoring customer confidence is going to be the key to recovery. Whether that means investing in hygiene solutions, creating marketing initiatives or lowering air fares, each airline and airport is exploring various strategies.

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Giving that sentiment lift

However, the market remains inconsistent in its approach and there is a danger that this inconsistency could frustrate recovery. The key to boosting passenger confidence is the implementation of a solid pre- and post-flight testing protocol.

The integration of COVID-19 testing into the passenger flow, during the airport journey, would help reassure passengers at a time when health and safety are a primary concern. According to an IATA survey, 88 per cent of respondents are willing to undergo testing as a part of the travel process, even if it testing would also reshape the security experience at airports .

Accounting for the hours

Travellers will likely be spending more time at the airport - three- to four hours before long-haul flights. The entire customer journey has to be redesigned with the help of technology. Through the application of customer-centric strategies, his needs, wants and communication preferences have to be put at the centre of the buying process.

Pricing is not the key in the rebuilding of air travel confidence. This is because the people who have the motivation to fly during the pandemic will also have a higher willingness to pay a premium for the ticket, and therefore on ancillary products with safety- and health-related benefits.

Consistency in communication

Companies from the aviation industry have been communicating their "confidence-boosting" messages to consumers. However, more consistency is needed to drive trust – not just in messaging but in actions. Initially, airlines were prioritizing safety.

As countries opened, most have turned their attention to promoting their expanding route networks, rather than consistently highlighting the steps they’re taking to ensure passengers remain safe onboard.

The IATA and ICAO have been most consistent in the past few months. The ICAO launched their CART Report ‘Take off: Guidance for Air Travel through the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis’ as a standard framework of risk-based temporary measures for air transport operations amid the pandemic. The IATA introduced a roadmap of biosafety for air transport, to ensure that air travel does not spread COVID-19.

It’s not just in the saying, it’s the doing that will drive confidence among consumers. For example, it has been widely reported that aviation industry executives have said that passengers want visible plastic barriers in economy. And that passengers do not entirely trust industry assurances about high air quality onboard.

A coordinated approach

Cases are rising, travel restrictions remain and economic challenges are deterring people from travel. The industry globally shares a huge challenge and should set aside competition. Instead the industry should rally around a multi-channel campaign - one that targets governments and consumers.

The campaign should address the three main issues impacting travel: easing travel restrictions, rapid testing and promoting visible safety changes during the travel journey to provide reassurance.

Security coordination

The aviation sector should respond to the coronavirus crisis in a similar way to how it reacted to the 9/11 attacks and come up with a uniform biosecurity system that can be rolled out quickly across the globe.

Currently, each country has a different set of regulations dictating what kind of health and hygiene measures are implemented by airports and airlines to curb the spread of COVID-19. The result is a disjointed, confusing and cumbersome set of systems which is damaging demand for air travel.

At the beginning of 9/11, every country was looking after their own and implementing their own protocols and it was a challenge for airlines, airports and customers. However, it can not be ignored that the optimization of the security processes, after 9/11, quickly restored customer confidence in air travel (e.g. creation of a systematic way of boarding an aircraft).

Thus the sharing of knowledge, and the lessons learned from 9/11, within the medical community is essential, to develop a framework for implementation of international testing protocols at airports.

COVID-19 started as a health crisis, but it has quickly evolved into a social crisis in many parts of the world; this has to be very clearly communicated to the governments and media. At the end of the day, up to 57 million jobs worldwide depend on the aviation industry.

Confidence in air travel will return; however, airlines, airports, manufacturers and regulators must be consistent in their communications and strategies in order to restore air travel worldwide.

The industry must take a step-by-step approach, similar to how it did in the wake of 9/11, with the EU coming to an agreement with the US to make hassle-free and safe air travel possible again, for example. Standardisation won’t happen overnight and will require aviation industry stakeholders to work with technology providers and governments to come up with suitable and affordable biosecurity solutions.

- Linus Benjamin Bauer is Managing Director at Bauer Aviation Advisory and visiting lecturer at the City University of London.