Only Airlines with Strictest Virus Measures Will Survive, Expert Says
As they prepare to resume flights to Israel and other countries in coming weeks, carriers’ reputations and customer base are at stake
As some airlines begin to tentatively set dates to resume international flights to Israel – which appears to have effectively contained the coronavirus for now – their survival might depend on how strictly they enforce coronavirus safety measures.
In addition, public perception of these companies’ regulations could determine how quickly air travel takes off again, a travel industry expert believes.
Prof. Yaniv Poria is the chair of Ben-Gurion University’s Hotel and Tourism Management Department and academic director of its Eilat Campus.
In the post-pandemic world, he says, airlines will need to implement several costly precautions in order to encourage travelers to return – or face the possibility of being grounded forever.
“It’s not enough to be good; they will have to be excellent,” he told The Media Line. “Instead of [focusing on] how polite their staff members are, service will now mean strictness with regards to coronavirus regulations.”
Poria argued that even before the start of the pandemic travelers were afraid of catching the flu or other airborne illnesses while flying. For this reason, many will opt to fly only with airlines that they judge as being more stringent in maintaining the health and safety of their crews and passengers.
Several carriers are already requiring passengers to wear masks, including Delta, United and American Airlines. Air Canada will be going one step further and will take passengers’ temperature before they are allowed to board. Southwest meanwhile announced that its planes would undergo “multiple layers of stringent cleaning and disinfecting,” while Japan Airlines has reportedly blocked all of its aircraft’s middle seats until June 30 in a bid to enforce social distancing.
“These measures will be highly expensive to begin with and airlines will have to learn how to deal with this,” Poria affirmed. “I believe that customers will expect this kind of service.”
The demand for air travel is also expected to pick up very slowly, at least initially. An added hurdle for travelers will be restrictions that they could face once they arrive at their destinations, such as the need to go into isolation for 14 days.
“Currently, in most cases only those people who have two passports can fly,” Poria explained, warning that “in the short-term, many companies will go bankrupt.”
Airplanes around the world have for the most part been grounded since the pandemic began.
According to Flightradar24, a Swedish internet-based service that tracks commercial aircraft in real-time, COVID-19 led to a historic drop in air traffic in March and April. In fact, commercial flights were down 73.7% in April, compared to the same month last year. In numbers, this translates to 29,439 flights per day on average, in comparison to 111,799 flights daily in 2019.
“Those companies that are big enough, strong enough and efficient enough can survive, as well as those where the management and the employees understand the complexity of the situation,” Poria said, adding that even though carriers will suffer financially from restrictions and lower demand in the short-term, resuming flights will pay off in the long run.
Until the skies clear up in the commercial sector, airlines could temporarily shift to transporting cargo.
Still, whispers are beginning to swirl of some international flights restarting in Israel.
Many carriers – such as Wizz Air, British Airways, Delta and Air Canada – have flights to Tel Aviv available on their websites starting in mid- to late May, but it is unclear if they will ever be able to take off.
At the moment, only permanent residents and Israeli citizens are permitted to enter the country, as all foreign nationals have been banned until at least May 16.
British Airways’ website currently lists a May 31 flight from Boston to Tel Aviv for $358. The company’s flights from London to Israel are meanwhile scheduled to reboot on June 1 at roughly $263.
“This is a fast-moving situation, and we recommend all customers check for the latest on their flight on ba.com,” a spokesperson for the airline conveyed to The Media Line in an email, adding that the company has updated its policies to allow for more flexibility in terms of cancellations and flight changes. The British carrier is also offering vouchers that can be used as payment for future bookings and that are valid up until the end of April 2022.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for El Al Israel Airlines told The Media Line that the company has not yet decided when to renew its commercial service. At the moment, it is only using planes to transport emergency COVID-19-related humanitarian cargo from Wuhan, China to European countries.
“For now we have extended our pause on commercial flights up until May 16. But what will be decided after May 16, we don’t yet know,” the spokesperson said.
When asked about whether the ban on foreign nationals will be extended and what new policies would be put in place for international travel, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry told The Media Line that “so far, no proper discussion has taken place on this issue.”
But the situation is rapidly evolving.
In a press briefing on Israel’s coronavirus exit strategy on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hailed the country’s successful containment of the virus and announced an easing of social distancing restrictions, which have been in place since March. Israel’s rate of infection has declined dramatically in recent days as the number of recoveries has overtaken the number of new daily cases.
Netanyahu said that civil aviation will be gradually restored if the positive trend continues.
“Regarding aviation: We want to connect Israel to the world, but not to [coronavirus] hotspots,” the prime minister said.
Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Israel has joined a new initiative spearheaded by Austria that will see a small number of countries open their borders between each other in the near future to boost tourism. The countries involved would reportedly only be those that have successfully managed to contain the spread of COVID-19 and would include Greece, New Zealand, Australia, Austria, Israel, Denmark and the Czech Republic. According to the report, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is leading the push to create these so-called “travel bubbles”, which would be subject to certain safety restrictions and strict guidelines.