The Critical Points: Science isn't impacting travel demand — perception is
Each week in his column “The Critical Points,” TPG Loyalty and Engagement Editor Richard Kerr presents his opinion on a loyalty program, card product or recent news that he believes is overlooked, unsung or the result of groupthink taking mass opinion in a direction with which he doesn’t agree. His goal is not necessarily to convince you to agree with his position but rather to induce critical thought for each of the topics and positions he covers.
Would-be travelers are starting to dip their toes back into the booking process and are (understandably) looking for confidence they'll be safe on their next trip. Airlines and hotels, in turn, are taking great efforts to create as safe a travel experience as possible, taking science into account but also customer perceptions. Before committing to hit the road again, a traveler must perceive a given product as a relatively safe environment.
Nowhere is this need for perceived safety more obvious than with the daily retweets and social media shares of crowded planes with little to no social distancing:
Airlines and hotels know that passengers need to feel safe, so they've enacted all kinds of policies to try and persuade potential customers that every precaution is being taken. The problems start when these policies have to be clarified and, from a business standpoint, are not sustainable. The policies fail further when they aren't based on science or are nonsensical.
The middle seat policies
At boarding gates and on jet bridges, you'll find markings to ensure that passengers stand six feet apart as they wait their turn to stop on the aircraft, only to then sit 18 inches apart from someone — if the middle seat is blocked, that is. In some cases, a flight can be completely full, and you'll leave your six feet of space on the jet bridge to then be within inches of a fellow passenger. Blocking a middle seat gives the perception of a safer space, but doesn't meet CDC social-distancing guidelines.
Of all the airlines, Delta knows this best and is actually blocking the middle seat from being sold or assigned. The carrier even considers a flight "sold out" when bookings reach 60% of available seats. It's adding 100 flights in June to make sure there are enough flights to maintain the 60% capacity standard.
Delta knows passengers won't meet social-distancing guidelines in a cramped economy cabin, but it are leading the way in giving passengers the perception of a safe experience. As Delta CEO Ed Bastian stated in the April earnings call, "The truth is, our recovery will be dictated by our customers feeling safe — both physically and financially — to begin to travel at scale."
Masks required (sort of)
There's plenty of science stating masks prevent an infected person from spreading the virus, and airline and hotel policies requiring customers and staff to wear masks is a smart move. That is, until we found out that masks aren't necessarily required by some airlines and the policy is once again made for perception purposes, instead of scientific ones. A Southwest airlines memo says "we will not deny boarding solely based on customer's refusal to wear a face covering."
The big-three U.S. airlines said they may deny boarding if there isn't a face mask, but it's not a hard-and-fast requirement. Then, once on the plane, it's not the crew's job to enforce the policies.
This is perfectly summed up in a message that American Airlines sent to its pilots last week:
"Once on board and off the gate, the face covering policy becomes more lenient. The flight attendant’s role is informational, not enforcement, with respect to the face covering policy. Bottom line to the pilots: a passenger on board your aircraft who is being compliant with the exception of wearing a face covering is NOT considered disruptive enough to trigger a Threat Level 1 response."
Now, it's worth noting that this is probably the right move from a business perspective, as a strict, mask-compliance diversion policy would mean an absurd number of diversions per day, disrupting operations and causing even further financial harm. It would also result in an even higher number of mask confrontations — situations that I'm sure will come with greater frequency in the near future.
Masks policies have good intentions, but they exist primarily for the purposes of perception.
Additional perception policies
There are other moves that fit a similar profile, but upon further examination appear to be much more for perception purposes more than scientific ones:
- Temperature checks are great but do nothing for asymptomatic carriers.
- Plexiglass shields and dividers are great except most people can't communicate through them with a mask on. From my experience over the last two weeks, most people lean around the sides to talk anyway.
- Wiping down kiosks and surfaces every 30 minutes is a good step, but dozens of people can use these in that time frame.
- Floor markers for distancing are great, but that relies on people having the situational awareness to use them. Based on my personal experiences over the last few weeks, this is something with which many of my fellow southerns struggle.
Does that mean these things shouldn't be done? Not at all. Every move should be made to minimize the risk of infection. That being said, it's important you don't take these policies at face value. Dig deeper into them to see how they will be enacted and how (or if) they'll be enforced.
We're at the point where perception may be more important than science when it comes to hitting the road again. Travel is never going to be a zero-risk venture in a COVID-19 world, and it's the job of the airlines and hotels to create the perception of safety to ignite demand. While the above "perception policies" have a foundation in science, they're being adjusted to make them practical and profitable within the travel industry.
That isn't immoral or wrong — in my opinion — but it does require you as the consumer to look at everything with an independent lens. Decide for yourself what the policy is actually doing (or not doing) and if it gives you the confidence to once again hit the road.