Ben has over 35 years of experience in the airline industry. From 2005 - 16 he was CEO of Spirit Airlines and is known for defining the ultra low cost carrier model after transforming the business to become the 7th largest airline in the US. Ben was previously SVP at both American Airlines and Continental Airlines and also led the restructuring of Avianca Holdings. He now consults with the largest US airlines and is an Adjunct Professor of Economics at George Mason University.Read moreView Profile Page
That’s a question that most of the industry should be thinking about and, I think, probably are thinking about. Just this week, in the United States, for example, JetBlue announced that all passengers would have to wear facial coverings, as of 4th May. The rest of the US industry has largely matched that. Pre-Covid, I was flying fairly regularly, with Emirates, because I do some work in India and I just got an email from Emirates about what their on-board was going to be like and how you’d have to wear facial covering for the entire flight. That’s a long time to wear facial covering, for some of their flights. They’re not going to allow carriers to carry big bags on, because they say that putting the bags up and then deplaning, that’s when most of the people are pushing up against each other. They say, if nobody has to get their bags, they can stay more distanced with boarding and getting off the airplane.
What’s happening is, every airline is thinking about what the new normal is going to be and what is going to make customers comfortable. Clearly, you can’t social distance on an airplane the way you can in some other environments. Some people have talked about not filling middle seats, but that’s just silly. You’re still far less than six feet or two meters away from the person across the aisle or in front or behind you. So the empty middle seat might make you more comfortable, but it doesn’t do anything to protect you in the way that distancing would protect you.
The airlines have to come up with a way to make you comfortable, without distancing. That’s going to be a combination of facial coverings, of cleaning, of, maybe, the ability to keep the space you are in as clean as possible, with wipes and things. Maybe the airports help by having testing stations or temperature-taking stations. It’s not as if any one of those things solves the problem. But collectively, if customers can feel as if they understand this risk and, compared to everything else they do, this risk is in balance, that’s when they’re going to be comfortable.
I’ll tell you something I’m using, which I think makes sense is, I’m going to be comfortable being on an airplane again, when I’m comfortable going to a restaurant. The reason I say it like that is, restaurants are crowded spaces and if you and I are at different tables in a restaurant and I cough, the restaurant’s air stream, brings my cough to you, essentially, because it’s horizontal. If we’re on an airplane together and you’re two rows in front or behind me and I cough, the air stream on the airplane is vertical, so it’s pointing the air downwards. It’s not as if you can’t be affected by my cough, on an airplane, but at least the air in the plane isn’t delivering my cough to you, as it is in the restaurant. There are also many, many more surfaces that could infect you, in a restaurant. You walk in the door, you touch the utensils, you touch the chair, you touch the knife, the plate, all these kind of things. On an airplane, you board and you don’t have to touch much. You can wipe down your tray table or your arm rest, the little knobs to open the air and you’ve pretty much covered what you’re going to touch, in an airplane.
Maybe you need to be more careful when you go to the restroom and maybe you wear gloves for that or maybe part of the airline’s solution will be, as you walk to the restroom, they hand you a disinfectant wipe and you wipe stuff down or when you leave, they wipe it down. I think it’s a combination of all those things and it’s the balancing of this. It’s not that you’re going to get to zero risk on an airplane, just like you’re not going to get to zero risk being in a restaurant or zero risk in anything you do. But do I feel as if it’s not an undue risk anymore? That’s the key for the industry. As I like to say, the airline’s business plan, right now, is re-instill confidence.