Travellers are nervous about flying again after coronavirus, IATA finds

Apr 23, 2020

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The majority of travellers will take some coaxing to get on a plane again once coronavirus pandemic restrictions are lifted, a new study finds.

Only about 14% of would-be travellers are willing to fly immediately after restrictions on travel aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 are lifted, according to an April survey by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that queried people in the U.S. and 10 other 11 countries. A significant number of people, 40% of respondents, said they will not take to the skies again for at least six months once restrictions are lifted.

The issue? Lack of confidence that travellers will not be exposed to the virus when cramped into a 30-inch pitch seat in an aluminium tube breathing recycled air.

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(Image courtesy of IATA)
(Image courtesy of IATA)

“Confidence is everything”, said IATA chief economist Brian Pearce on the survey on 22 April. “We really do need to see measures that restore passenger confidence”.

Pearce did not claim to know what measures are needed to restore passenger confidence. However, he did suggest that they will likely include initiatives on the ground and in the air, and by both airlines and governments.

Experts anticipate things like pre-flight health checks and, at least initially, social distancing measures onboard planes — like blocking middle seats — to be the norm for those flying post-COVID-19.

“Health is the new safety, or will be the new safety, for air travel”, Atmosphere Research president Henry Harteveldt told TPG this week.

U.S. airlines, for one, have indicated they do not expect Americans to return to the skies in significant numbers by summer. United Airlines plans to fly about 10% of its planned capacity in June, typically the first month of the peak summer travel season. Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith expects 20% of capacity to be restored by June.

On Wednesday, Delta Air Lines said it plans to fly just 15% of the capacity it operated last year during the three months ending in June.

“A recovery will be dictated by our customers feeling safe, both physically and financially”, the Atlanta-based carrier’s CEO Ed Bastian said during a quarterly earnings call on Wednesday. That recovery, however, will be slow with the expectation being that Delta will be a smaller airline for at least three years, he added.

In China and Australia, two countries where the virus is seen as largely under control, air travel demand has yet to return to anywhere near normal levels, according to IATA. Business flyers have returned to some degree in China, but leisure travellers are still staying at home or at least not boarding flights. Australia has seen almost no recovery in domestic demand and airlines continue to fly greatly reduced schedules.

“The virus transmission there is largely seen to be under control, but we have not seen a return of air travel”, said IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac referring to both Australia and China on April 21. “Indictors from the U.S. domestic market — the world’s largest — align with this”.

The situation is so bad in Australia that its second-largest airline, Virgin Australia, has entered voluntary administration.

Many expect a slow recovery for the airline industry with safety from the virus top of mind for travellers. Delta CEO Bastian has even warned employees that confidence may not fully return until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, something that at best is a year away.

Related: Virgin Australia goes bust, becomes largest airline coronavirus casualty

Featured image by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images.

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