Believe it or not, Americans are now trudging into the eighth month of this pandemic. At times it feels impossible that we’ve been in this crisis for this long and yet simultaneously it also feels as if lifetimes (plural) have passed. However, as our new pandemic lives stretch on, some of us have felt more confident that we can safely navigate this new reality, and slowly Americans have started venturing outside the bubbles they call home. A large part of this is due to the shared human experience of COVID fatigue, but much more important driving forces are the new safety practices and procedures businesses have had to implement to make their customers feel safe.
One of the key industries that still has headway to make in convincing Americans it is safe enough to travel again is the airline industry. Although they have adopted new safety procedures such as allowing for social distancing at boarding gates, electrostatic cleaning of air cabins, HEPA air filtration and strict mask policies, only 1-in-5 American travelers have traveled by commercial airline since the start of the pandemic in March. Another safety practice airlines have implemented is limiting the number of passengers onboard by leaving middle seats empty. But come December 1st, Alaska, Delta, and Hawaiian will be the only airlines to continue this policy.
As one might expect, Americans are largely disapproving of this change. In fact, half of American travelers who expect to take a trip on a commercial plane sometime between now and 2022 disagree with airlines’ decision to no longer limit the number of passengers onboard (50.0%). In contrast, just over a quarter agree with this policy change (28.5%). Interestingly, Millennials were divided on this issue (38.4% agree, 38.8% disagree), while Boomers were overwhelmingly against it (16.2% agree, and 62.4% disagree).
The prospect of having a stranger sitting in the seat next to you while traveling on an airplane largely makes us uncomfortable. In fact, two-fifths expressed discomfort with this scenario (39.4%), and another one-fifth said it would be an absolute deal breaker (20.7%). Although it’s tough to say definitely how this will impact Americans’ likelihood to book air travel in the future, it does appear that at least some may hold out on booking those tickets until other changes (in either safety procedures or the prevalence of the virus) take place.
We can’t fault airlines for reversing their empty middle seat policies. Like the rest of us, their business has been severely impacted by the pandemic and they are doing what they can to keep their heads above water. So are there other means to get travelers to feel safe enough to fly again? In our Coronavirus Travel Sentiment Index Study fielded October 24th-26th, we asked if a commercial airline required all passengers to take and pass a COVID-19 test prior to boarding, how comfortable would that make travelers to take a flight? Half (50.7%) said it would make them comfortable or very comfortable.
So it does appear that a required COVID test could significantly increase travelers’ comfortability with flying, which in turn could translate into increased passenger loads. Increasing travelers’ safety perceptions around all elements of the travel journey, especially ones where they have to be in confined spaces with strangers, will be paramount to the industry’s recovery and with such a complex and long-lasting issue like COVID, we can not rest on our laurels. Our industry will no doubt rise to the challenge and one day (hopefully in the near future) this will all be a distant memory and an important lesson we all toast to on a full flight to our long awaited paradise vacation.