Some airlines cut back on inflight service to combat coronavirus. Will those changes stick?

Feb 26, 2020

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Airlines have been front and center as the coronavirus outbreak has forced widespread changes for travelers around the globe. Carriers have slashed thousands of flights, especially in China and Southeast Asia.

Now, an increasing number of airlines are adjusting their inflight service as part of the effort to combat the disease, also known as COVID-19.

Many of the carriers making changes are either based in Asia or have a strong presence in the region. Among those is Singapore Airlines, which on Monday emailed its frequent-flyer members with an update about changes to inflight service on that carrier.

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More: Everything you need to know about the coronavirus

“During this period, you may also notice that there have been changes to our in-flight services. These include the replacement of the hot towel service with pre-set wet towelettes, cessation of the after take-off drink service, removal of reading materials from seat-back pockets, and suspension of in-flight sales,” the airline said in the memo.

Related: Singapore Airlines cancels hundreds of flights amid coronavirus outbreak.

Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research, said that Chinese and Taiwanese carriers have taken similar precautionary steps based on government guidance, including removing pillows and blankets on some flights.

“They’re changing their cabin service procedures, so the passengers will notice this,” Harteveldt said, but he added, “the passengers will accept them because they’re being done in the interest of health and wellness.”

Brett Snyder, who runs the Cranky Flier blog and Cranky Concierge service, agreed.

“I’m sure some of this is a good and well-thought out precaution, but I imagine more of it is really about reassuring customers,” he said. Customers will probably respond well to the airlines’ measures overall, he added, “as long as they don’t go too far and scare the hell out of people.”

Related: How points and miles can help you if your travel plans are disrupted by coronavirus.

Both Snyder and Harteveldt agreed that the measures are likely to last only as long as the coronavirus threat is imminent for travelers. Snyder said such measures will likely be in place “until the threat is very clearly eliminated.”

Harteveldt and Snyder added that passengers will likely respond better to some of the precautionary service changes than others.

“No one is complaining about the removal of the inflight magazine, no one is going to shed a tear over that,” Harteveldt said. “If you are flying on a 5-, 6-, 7-hour flight and you’re in business class or first class and the airline has dramatically cut back on the amenities that are offered to you on the plane, including possibly removing pillows and blankets, you’re going to be unhappy, there’s no question about that,” he added.

For airlines, Harteveldt suggested, it’s more important to be transparent with passengers about the changes, and set expectations early if their flight may be different than previous journeys with the carrier. He also said it’s important for airlines to take stock of their cleaning procedures, to make sure that aircraft are properly disinfected between every flight.

In-depth: What does the coronavirus outbreak mean for travelers?

In the end, Harteveldt acknowledged, changes to inflight service might be a small annoyance for passengers, but he said it’s important to keep things in perspective.

“As adults, we have to be logical and rational when we experience these inconveniences,” Harteveldt said. “This isn’t cost-cutting, this isn’t random,” he added, “this is in the best interest of public health.”

Featured photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy.

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