Airlines are desperate to build confidence among passengers and put them in the planes that are slowly returning to the skies.
In the absence of a vaccine, tracking and tracing is being pushed as a means of keeping infection rates down and new technologies are coming to the fore to meet the challenge.
Recognizing that downloadable apps might encounter some opposition, not least because of worries over privacy, Matthew Hiller, CEO of TrekSecure, a contagion response platform for travel, has a solution that he believes would work quickly and alleviate such concerns.
His initial thinking was to offer the technology to governments but saw an opportunity for the travel industry, specially airlines, cruise ships and hotels.
Hiller says his research on how some elements of the industry handled the contagion demonstrated the need for a far more automated process which could contact airline passengers as soon as a case manifested itself.
“It’s about connecting the entire value chain without being dependent on the government agencies," he argues
Most passengers will have provided some sort of identification at check-in or to board an aircraft, making it easy to trip a contacting process.
Passengers can then acknowledge that they have seen the alert and if they do not, a follow-up notification goes out.
Other benefits of the TrekSecure system include its use for pilots and cabin crew who can quickly be advised that they need to isolate themselves.
The platform can also have checklists built into it so airlines can keep a close watch on cleaning regimes.
Hiller says he’s already talking to several U.S. airlines as well as the cruise industry about the solution.
He adds that while the technology is not a panacea for the wider problem, it’s about giving the industry a "jump start" in terms of helping to build confidence and getting people flying.
“If we had had something like this six months ago, we could have contained this," he believes.
He also stresses the flexible nature of the technology so that as advisories change and new processes are implemented, the system can take them into account.
It is likely that flexibility from all components of the travel industry will be key going forward.
During a webinar organized by TravelPerk last week, Rami El-Dahshan, head of travel management companies and European sales for Virgin Atlantic, also stressed the need for flexibility from every player.
He expects “a two steps forward, one step back environment” for the foreseeable future, as countries open and close.
“Airlines and TMCs are going to have to be more comfortable being agile in saying 'such and such country is open now and if we get stuck there, this is how we’ll get you home.’
“All airlines, hotels and others will need to adapt quickly in terms of how they do revenue management and pricing. We’re all looking to how we innovate during this period to change some of the standards we’ve known for perhaps 40/50 years.”
The biggest challenge we have right now is the complete lack of consistency even within the same city.
Rami El-Dahshan, Virgin Atlantic
During the webinar, El-Dahshan also spoke about the need for consistency from all parts of the ecosystem in the industry and a standard for cleanliness.
Highlighting some of the current challenges facing aviation, he says: "All airports have different ownership models, different structures. They have all outlined to suppliers very different procedures around what we can expect.
“The biggest challenge we have right now is the complete lack of consistency even within the same city.”
He adds that while companies are asking what a carrier’s procedures are for check-in and boarding, there are no simple answers.
“There are so many nuances airport-by-airport in the same city, never mind country-by-country where variance gets even wilder and the speed at which things are changing is miraculous.”
He says the industry should work together to establish minimum standards around hygiene and not “make cleanliness a competition.”
El-Dahshan's sentiment echoes that of the wider aviation industry for a "standards" approach to restarting the travel industry.
Last week, the International Air Transport Association laid out “five key principles” for restarting the aviation industry, centered on safety and security, being flexible and working according to the science.
The fifth element concentrates on operating to “global standards which are harmonized and mutually recognized by governments.”
Commenting on the principles, Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of IATA, says: “The restart will go much more smoothly if governments cooperate. As I have said before, we must avoid the mess that followed 9.11 when governments acted unilaterally. This created confusion for airlines and travelers alike. And it took many years to clean up.
"We have a small window to avoid these mistakes with COVID-19 by agreeing global standards for a re-start. In doing so, we must build-in measures for continuous review so that we can streamline the system as science and technology evolve.”
IATA also unveiled a paper called Safely Restarting Aviation, put together with Airports Council International, which includes some detail of the sorts of measures and recommendations that passengers might face.
But, it’s a big ask in a highly competitive industry where margins are thin. Add individual airport and country specifics into the mix and the picture is blurred further.
Many carriers have already published details on their health and hygiene procedures and what they expect from passengers.
JetBlue, for example, announced last week that it was continuing its distancing policy, with middle seats blocked, into the first week of July.
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Others, however, have been vociferous about the middle-seat policy being unworkable.
Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, described the idea as “idiotic” at the end of April, adding that the carrier would not resume flights if this was a policy.
During the TravelPerk webinar, El-Dahshan picked up on the middle-seat policy, saying it was a way of instilling confidence but questioned whether it would be sustainable longer term.
More recently, O’Leary has criticized quarantine measures from the U.K. government as “ineffective and unimplementable” and supported EU guidelines which would mandate the wearing of masks on flights.
Going forward, increased automation is inevitable to fall in line with monitoring, tracking and tracing guidelines from governments as well as the drive for greater efficiency in travel and the need to demonstrate health and hygiene concerns from consumers are being addressed.
During a recent World Aviation Festival webinar, Barbara Dalibard, CEO of SITA, stressed that the future of travel would be mobile.
Such a statement might elicit a sigh under normal circumstances, but airports and airlines have an opportunity to organize and manage processes via mobile.
She pointed to how low-touch airport technology such as its own SmartPath system and biometrics would play an increased role.