How can airlines navigate the COVID-19 holiday season and other pandemic headwinds?

by | Nov 23, 2020 | Airlines, News

Travel and Transportation industry leader Greg Land on why many airlines are still in crisis mode and how to get moving.

As COVID-19 continues to affect the travel industry, harnessing the right data streams is more essential than ever. From safer check-ins to evolving travel trends,  Greg LandDistinguished Industry Leader for Travel and Transportation at IBM, explains his views on how carriers are approaching a post-pandemic landscape.

2020 has obviously been full of unprecedented change. What do you think the industry has learned in this past year?

Most of the data models that airlines use are based on historical trends. But now you can’t assume that traveler behavior is going to be the same this year. Moving forward, it’ll be completely different. Companies will have to recapture data on customer behavior, because it affects how they’ll model revenue management, campaign management and more.

A lot of companies have stayed in crisis-mode too long. The ones that will survive and thrive will restore traveler trust and start stimulating demand. That’s where reimagining comes into play.

Speaking of, you did a lot of reimagining in the recent study you co-authored, Navigating travel in the wake of COVID-19. What would you say is the first step for travel companies looking to recover and reinvent?

In the study we lay out a straightforward methodology for how travel providers need to focus on things like rethinking business models, retooling processes and innovating with new technologies for resilience across the industry going forward.

One thing we’re seeing that’s especially important is how travelers are coming back in phases. A phase one traveler is typically people who are loyal to a travel brand and already trusted its product and service. They’re the risk takers. Then later come the people who are more risk averse, which we’re seeing as phase two and phase three travelers.

And all of these different types of travelers are going to behave differently, shop differently and buy differently. Airlines, and other travel providers, need to be very agile, so they can continuously adapt to these evolving traveler behaviors.

Rapid testing has helped airlines, but they could take bolder steps to make passengers comfortable.

Is that why major air carriers started to announce they’re dropping rebooking fees? Would that be an example of stimulating demand to get to a phase two or phase three traveler?

I think it’s a first step, because people were still hesitant to book, with so much uncertainty. Eliminating fees has helped in that regard.

And what about restoring trust? What comes to mind there?

We’ve got to look at how we can design a process around COVID-19 testing, to mitigate the 14-day quarantine rule. The industry is exploring quick tests at the airport before your flight, for instance. Now that needs to be designed into a sustainable process.

That’s where a tool like IBM Digital Health Pass comes into play. It’s a way to connect health data sourced from labs, medical and healthcare providers with all of the different verifiers in your daily life, including airlines. Measures like these can help give not only travelers but also public officials more confidence that public health is being protected when people travel.

Not all travelers are the same—15% surveyed by IBM said they would travel more this year than last.

The study notes that airplanes deliver 10 to 12 air changes per hour. Whereas in a hospital room, the minimum target is 6 to 12 air changes per hour. Why’s that such an important distinction?

Our main point is that the airplane itself is arguably lower risk than most places we go. The air quality is actually better than what you’re probably breathing most of the day—like at the grocery store or maybe even in your own home. The air quality on an airplane is on par with a hospital room thanks to the filtration systems.

As we enter the holiday season, what are the new trends you and your team are seeing?

There is always seasonality in travel, with peak times, off-peak times and shoulder seasons in between. But now, with the virtual workplace and remote classrooms, individuals and families have more flexibility to travel. Instead of going somewhere for a week this holiday season, families might book the whole month of December.

In a new IBM holiday survey, about 15% of respondents who typically travel during the holidays said they plan to travel more this season than they did in 2019.  So for at least some travelers, COVID has given them more travel options to move around then we typically might do.

However, health and safety are more top-of-mind than ever before when planning and booking travel, the survey found. It’s yet another reminder of how important addressing health concerns will be for carriers as anything else they do in the near term.