By mid-April, I had to find a more permanent home for my suitcase. Up until the start of 2020, my role as Global Aviation Lead meant that I spent much of my time in the skies, and often I wasn’t in one place long enough to warrant unpacking. But, as we all retreated to our homes, my loyal travel companion also went into lockdown in the cupboard under the stairs.
Six months on, borders have started to reopen but with a complex and ever-changing mix of restrictions, quarantines and testing rules. Concern about the pandemic has fallen (Accenture’s Consumer Pulse research shows that concern about the pandemic has fallen globally from 7.7 to 6.85 on a scale from one to 10), but consumers are still wary about re-entering society.
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Our research shows that of the 55,000 people interviewed from across 23 different markets, 43% are still cautious about re-entering society.
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My suitcase remains in lockdown.
Almost overnight, international air travel became synonymous with risk and entirely dependent on people’s perception of it and willingness to accept it.
The recovery of the aviation industry will be down in some parts to finding a way to mitigate this risk and get people flying again.
Governments find themselves in a sticky situation. They’ve invested heavily to bail out economies, support health systems, and flatten the curve. Can they risk air travel being the catalyst for second or third waves?
At the same time, air travel is the driver of a huge amount of economic activity and growth through both tourism and trade. Governments must find a way of balancing these competing interests.
Airlines and airports are no better off. With IATA projecting that air passenger traffic or RPKs (revenue passenger kilometers) won’t return to pre-pandemic levels before 2024, they desperately need passengers to return sooner rather than later.
For the “Triple A” of the travel ecosystem as I like to call them – (government) authorities, airlines, and airports – the only way out of this Catch-22 is to find a way to restart international air travel while securing the health and safety of travelers, employees, and citizens.
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Consumers remain cautious
Whilst our research has shown that consumers are nervous about traveling again, it has also provided us with some direction on the kind of initiatives that would make them more comfortable about going into public places. 57% highlighted cleaning and hygiene practices followed by 27% who pointed to social distancing.
But, mitigating risk is also about rebuilding trust, and when asked about how they rate the response of travel companies to the pandemic, they answered that it’s been relatively poor and inconsistent; well behind other sectors like retail and government. Clear communication around readiness to travel would go a long way to restoring travelers’ confidence.
The three elements of a successful solution
It’s clear from the conversations that I’ve been having with clients and industry bodies over the past few months that this is a hugely complex problem. A successful response must consider all the factors mentioned above if it’s going to achieve widespread take-up.
The ideal solution will help travelers and airlines stay up-to-date and comply with the latest travel health restrictions. It will allow governments the confidence to adopt more risk-based solutions that enable travel while still controlling disease spread. And it’ll provide airports with technologies that allow them to protect passengers from infection without incurring huge costs or creating unsustainable bottlenecks.
Wishful thinking? Not in my opinion. There are however three closely interrelated elements which are key to any success in this area:
- First, innovation. Blanket travel bans and 14-day quarantines are not sustainable: they’re blunt tools that deter people from traveling and create huge uncertainty for the industry. So, let’s use technology to do something more nuanced and finely calibrated. Think digital health credentials and touchless journeys through airports powered by privacy-preserving digital identity technology.
- Second, collaboration. The travel ecosystem is large, complex, and – with COVID-19 – continuing to expand, encompassing governments, airlines, airports, technology providers, healthcare providers, standards agencies, and more. Each of these participants will achieve little by working alone in a silo. We’ll only be able to rebuild consumer confidence and pave the way for sustainable recovery if the whole ecosystem works together.
- Third, flexibility. Getting international travel moving again is a long-term challenge. But inevitably the rules governing it can and will keep changing as the science, the disease, and public policy continues to develop. Any solution must be flexible enough to adapt and proactive in the face of any developments.
If the world has learned anything over the past six months, it’s the power of technology and the importance of collective responsibility.
Just as technology was key to ensuring that the wheels kept turning as people shifted to work from home and virtually connected with their family and friends, I am convinced it will play a key role in the post-pandemic recovery, by allowing governments to proactively keep borders open and the aviation industry to manage seamless flows of people and safer transit of low-risk travelers.
As we all move forward to embrace life after lockdown, continued collaboration across different entities, borders, companies, and industry bodies will become paramount to ensuring that consumers are given the reassurance that they require to take to the skies once more.
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