Declan Hughes, Director of FlyCruiseStay.com, offers some thoughts on how Ireland’s, and the world’s, travel and tourism industry can “get back on track”.
The travel and tourism industry may be in the gutter right now, as I write this on Monday 4th May 2020, but I have no doubt that there are those who work in this wonderful industry who are looking at the stars. It is of great importance that a co-ordinated approach is implemented in order to, in the lyrics of Bob Marley’s song Exodus, to “get movement of jah people”.
This article attempts to contribute in some small way and to find solutions and make predictions on how the industry will get back on track. A timeline of events will need to happen in order to get people again visiting the world’s beaches, attractions, landmarks and events.
This is public enemy number one, so let’s deal with you first and foremost. We need a vaccine, that is clear. Scientists and immunologists are working around the clock trying hard to develop one. It will come, and when it does I hope those who are sceptical about taking vaccines will trust that it is safe and inoculate themselves to prevent and protect their loved ones from contacting Covid-19. In the meantime, until a reliable vaccine is developed and mass produced, we must carry on and work out a way to safely and securely get the travel and tourism industry back in business, while protecting at all costs our mutual clients, passengers, guests and tourists.
Airports and Airlines
Policies, processes and procedures will be paramount when it comes to dealing with groups of people on the move. Sensible and safe measures will be required to facilitate those in transit. Let’s look at airports and airlines first, which I deem to be key enablers of the recovery. It is imperative that we get the airlines back in the air as soon as it is safe to do so, because the longer they remain grounded the more chance they will cease to exist and fewer airlines will mean less competition, which in turn will result in monopolies on some routes, leading to much higher fares.
Airlines did not have such a good 2019 to begin with due to the horrific Boeing 737-MAX crashes. They have been looking forward to replacing older aircraft with more modern fuel-efficient aircraft such as the B737-MAX. Until that particular aircraft receives air certification, they are left with no choice but to fly older models that consume more fuel – which can be up to 40% of the operational cost of an airline!
The Ryanair model, like most airline models, is all about bums on seats, otherwise known as the load factor – the percentage of seats sold on a particular flight. The more seats sold, the more profitable the flight – that’s basic economics. While the notion of having an empty middle seat in each row may sound fantastic for passengers who like a window seat and consider it a bonus if the middle seat remains free, it is not so good for the airline. Can you imagine if every middle seat on every flight remained empty? The airline would have no choice but to raise fares and the fare increase would simply be passed on to the passenger, so we would all end up paying a good bit extra for the nice but unnecessary creature comfort. More importantly, the environmental impact would be extreme – to have aircraft flying around with lots of empty seats is very bad for our planet.
What would have to change is the turnaround time of low-cost flights due to the need for a more thorough deep cleaning of the aircraft. It would be practically impossible to safely clean a Ryanair B737-800 at the current 20-minute turnaround time. Everything will have to be hygienically cleaned, but I would also be concerned about what type of cleaning products are used – are they cancerogenic, or bad for the environment? Some germs are actually good for you and help to protect your immune system, so let’s not sanitise ourselves off the face of the planet.
The wearing of masks inflight will not achieve much in terms of protection. With such a shortage of masks around the world, we really should leave the masks for the medical professionals and other frontline staff. The laws of economics will dictate huge price inflation on masks should we all begin to wear them and will only lead to another shortage in the global supply chain. When you decide to eat or drink food, the masks will have to be removed anyway.
Plastic gloves are just as bad and will only add to the mountain of waste generated by humankind. It is a crying shame to see used plastic gloves discarded in supermarket trollies and I predict that the same careless practice will be seen in airports and ports once they re-open. Airports, ports, stations, hotels, conference venues, airlines, cruise lines, trains, buses, and private hire vehicles will all need to upgrade their cleaning standards and employ additional cleaning staff to help instil confidence in their customers that it is indeed safe to travel.
Looking at the flight boarding procedure, current airport design cannot accommodate social / physical distancing – particularly flights that require you to board a bus to take you to a remotely parked aircraft. Applying social distancing to passengers checking in for a wide-body flight would require a queue one kilometre long. Will only passengers be allowed into airport terminals? What if you must take an elevator in the airport? That too is not ideal. Apart from the introduction of hand sanitiser stations, there is not much airports can do. Even thermal screening and thermometer checks are of limited use. Security screening, while absolutely necessary (except perhaps for the 100ml liquid rule – the bane of many travellers!), may need to incorporate an additional measure to check for symptomatic passengers prior to getting airside access. Perhaps, even before the passenger gains access to an area where there is a congregation of large numbers of people, a separate station may be required. The current flow for those travelling by air is as follows: A. Enter Terminal, B. Check-in Desk or Baggage Drop (if checked in online), C. Security Screening, D. Gate Passport / Boarding Card Inspection, E. Aircraft Boarding Card Inspection, and on arrival, F. Border Control (passport), and G. Customs Control (luggage).
We may need to look at boarding anyone over the age of 65 first, then those requiring special assistance and families, followed by business class passengers, and finally economy class passengers, based on seat zones – or even rows.
Warren Buffet, one of the world’s most astute investors, has sold all of Berkshire Hathaway’s airline shares, citing that the world has (at least for now) changed. Indeed the world has, and always will continue to change, but maybe not at a pace that Warren is comfortable with.
The idea of hotels leaving alternate rooms empty would be a total waste of effort because it will achieve very little. Hotels, as we know, cannot operate a profitable business solely on room sales, as auxillary services such as food and beverage, spa, etc are crucial and have to be fully operational in order to achieve a healthy profit margin. They will need to be a lot cleverer with interior design and how to best achieve optimum floor layout and uninterrupted flow models for visiting paying guests. Hospitality is, and will always be, a personal experience with people at the forefront. Going too high-tech driven and automated will not bode well for high ranking hotels whose discerning guests expect the personal touch and have paid for the privilege. In this industry it will always be about exceeding clients’ expectations by over delivering and never over promising.
Cruise lines have also been hard hit from Covid-19, due in part to the number of guests being infected while onboard. What did not help the cruise industry was the average passenger age was higher and they were more susceptible to picking up Covid-19 due to a weaker genetic immune system. I have always found cleanliness levels onboard cruise lines to be top notch and they operate to high standards. I was saddened to read that some ports refused cruise ships entry in order to allow guests disembark. Cruise lines should not forget those ports who were there for them during those crucial moments when they needed emergency assistance the most and, more importantly, remember those ports who turned them away.
We do not need a traveller health certificate because there is a lot we still do not know about Covid-19. If you become infected and recover, can you get it again? You might obtain a traveller health certificate from your doctor a few days before travelling, but what’s stopping you from picking up Covid-19 before you fly? You could be asymptomatic and would not know you even had it and could pass it on to others unknowingly.
I intend to continue to travel, but will evaluate any risk in doing so based on the following quick analysis: What restrictions / requirements are needed prior to visiting a particular destination? Can I obtain travel insurance, and if so, how much will it cost? What restrictions / requirements are expected on returning back home from a particular destination? What undue and possibly extreme measures will I experience while in transit to a particular destination (bearing in mind that I will no doubt comply with these under respect for the authorities)? What can I do when I get there in terms of what tourist attractions are open to the public? How much will it cost to travel to a particular destination? I am sure you, the reader, will have many additional questions.
Licensing and Bonding
What has been of interest is that, yet again, Covid-19 has proven that our licensing and bonding system is not fit for purpose. Similarly with the crash of Thomas Cook and LowCostHolidays, ATOL requires a complete overhaul. A trust fund should be set up, with a small percentage incorporated into the cost of every holiday / flight / hotel / cruise, that will: A. provide funds in the event of a supplier default or repatriation cost, B. Protect against supplier default, and C. Insure you unconditionally from Covid-19, Ebola, Zika, or similar (apart from deliberate negligence). No monies (commissions payable) from the fund should be withdrawn until the consumer returns from their trip.
We operate a similar model, known as the consumed booking model, at Fly Cruise Stay (Fly High Pay Low) and by doing so, have weathered the Covid-19 storm better than our competitors. Traditional agents have been left short by suppliers, particularly airlines, to whom they have passed on clients’ monies, but are under immense pressure and are still finding it difficult to obtain the refund from the airline in order to pass it on to their client base. The same agents, who were screaming at the airlines for cash refunds, are now requesting that the same method applies to booked holidays and are requesting that their clients accept credit notes instead of cash refunds, especially at a time when their clients may need the money due to either losing their job or being on reduced hours. It is an embarrassing mess – where is the client’s money? One cent of any money obtained from clients should not be spent until the client returns, and only then should the fare be distributed to suppliers on an agreed basis.
I will cover travel insurance in another article because it is far too elaborate and detailed and there is quite a lot of ground to cover – ground, I might add, that is similar to a minefield. Suffice to say, travel insurance companies have been finding the going extremely tough of late – so much so that most of them have recently declined to offer Covid-19 protection, trip cancellation or curtailment.
To end on a positive note, while travel and tourism has slowed down to a virtual standstill, Mother Earth is catching a much needed rest and will look resplendent in all her glory for visitors to enjoy responsibly. There have been great strides to combat the negative effects that travel has on the environment, including discontinuing the bad habit of providing single use plastics, as well as the preservation and protection of areas of outstanding natural beauty, along with introduction of greener, cleaner aircraft and cruise ships.
Revenue generated by the travel and tourism industry is of upmost importance for destinations that rely heavily on tourism. It is vital that a recovery is achieved in order to sustain local employment and provide a living wage for those who have been hardest hit by the severe downturn caused by Covid-19.
Travel will return, but in the words of Mr Spock: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.”
(Even though what he actually said was: “No life as we know it.”) So, taking from the same vein, travel as we once knew it may not be the same – for now, at least.
May our ‘new normal’ come quickly!