Elderly hand holding airplane seat.

Podcast 071 Transcribed: Coronavirus and MAX level one-two punch

SmartSky - Finally WifI that Wows

PaxEx Podcast logo with blue text and black backgroundMary Kirby: Welcome to the #PaxEx Podcast available on Apple and Google podcasts. This is episode 71 of the show where we talk about how the airline passenger experience is evolving in a mobile, social, vocal world. I’m Mary Kirby and I’m joined by my co-host Max Flight. Max, how are you doing?

Max Flight: Doing well, Mary. Staying healthy as far as I know.

Kirby: Very good.

Flight: Hopefully we can keep it that way with all of the virus news going on but we’ll talk about that.

Kirby: Yeah fingers crossed, Max and I am hoping that I might finally get to meet you here this weekend in Lancaster Pennsylvania.

Flight: That’s right. I don’t know how long it’s been since I think you were originally a guest on Airplane Geeks but it was probably eight years. Something like that. Could it have been that long?

Kirby: I was a young lass back then.

Flight: We were both younger. Alright, well let’s take a look at some of the PaxEx news stories that are making headlines. First, the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 which of course surfaced in Wuhan, China but it has quickly crossed the borders. Now it has been detected in 60 locations internationally, according to the CDC. Global infections are an estimated 90,000 and coronavirus-related deaths are being reported around the globe. Now the fallout has been swift. The transportation industry is taking a material hit, as airlines slash services, including to places like China and they are offering change fee waivers. Also cruise bookings are down which is not surprising given the close quarters found on cruise ships and their isolation at sea. Now the CDC has issued Level 3 warnings for Italy, South Korea, Iran and China, which means it is recommending that travelers outright avoid all non-essential travel to those areas. It has also issued the coronavirus-related Level 2 warning for Japan, meaning it is urging at-risk travelers, and that includes the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions to take special precautions to protect themselves, including avoiding contact with sick people, which isn’t always easy to do for frontline employees and engage in vigorous hand washing or hand sanitizing. Mary, given that this is a rapidly evolving situation what else should passengers be thinking about right now?

Kirby: Well Max, anyone scheduled to travel in the near-term should obviously check the travel warnings from the CDC or their local country’s travel advisories as well as their chosen airline to understand their options because the situation is very fluid right now and changes are happening regularly. So, for instance in Italy, the latest coronavirus count puts confirmed infections at over 2,500 which is the most cases of any country outside of Asia and as a result we have got American Airlines cancelling all flights to Milan through late April. Delta has suspended its New York-Milan service while its flights from JFK and Atlanta to Rome continue for now. We are seeing British Airways and Ryanair cancel hundreds of flights due to the coronavirus but again any guidance from airlines could be updated at a moment’s notice so check in and regularly if you are planning to travel in the near-term. Now, as you mentioned, Max, a number of carriers are telling travelers that they may be eligible for fee-free trip changes or cancellations if they are slated to fly to China, Italy or South Korea or indeed elsewhere. And to its credit, American Airlines announced a couple of days ago that it will waive change fees for up to fourteen days prior to travel for customers who purchased travel through March 16. And the offer is available for any of American’s published fares. So brava to American. It really set the standard there because Delta Air Lines then followed suit to a degree and it announced it waived change fees for all flights booked between March 1 and 31 to any international destination the airline serves. And of course we are also seeing other carriers like Alaska and JetBlue waiving change fees for specific durations of time. So Max, by the time this podcast recording publishes, it’s entirely possible and likely that other airlines have updated their messaging. But of course it is a very concerning situation to say the least, and travelers need to be vigilant on every account.

Flight: Yes for sure and this really is hammering the airlines. Certainly we have seen a number of them announce that they will not meet their revenue projections for the quarter or even beyond that in some cases. We see United Airlines, which has really been hit because so much of their international travel is across the pacific. We’ve seen reported that, besides shutting down all flights to China, they have seen the demand for tickets to other transpacific flights, other meaning not to China, down by 75%. So suddenly it’s a big issue and United is offering pilots to take the month off and earn something more than they would have if they had normally just taken the time off on their own. So there is a lot of pressure there. Now international airlines of course, they are not just sitting on their hands and we’ve seen that IATA, the International Air Transport Association, has issued a statement and they are saying that they have been contacting aviation regulators worldwide to request the rules governing the use of airport slots be suspended immediately and for the 2020 season because of the impact of the coronavirus. Now that may need a little primer on slots. Airports that are congested don’t have unlimited capacity for landings and takeoffs obviously and they manage this capacity through the use of a fixed number of slots which are allocated to airlines by independent slot coordinators based on IATA guidelines. They call those guidelines the Worldwide Slot Guidelines or WSG. Now these rules, they need to be harmonized across the globe so that airlines can plan their network and then their schedules but slots also have economic value. So airlines will trade or sell slots as circumstances change but it is possible for an airline to lose slots and that’s the issue here. Now the guidelines state that currently if an airline doesn’t operate at least 80% of their slot allocation it can lose their slots for the next equivalent season. IATA calls this grandfather rights. You get to, keep what you have instead of having to rebuild all the slot allocations for each flying season, so with all of these flights being cancelled due to travel prohibitions or otherwise cancelled because of decreased demand, airlines could lose slots under the slot guidelines, the IATA slot guidelines. So IATA is asking aviation regulators to suspend the slot rules for the time being. Now they are able to do this in exceptional circumstances and I think that this would certainly qualify as a time of exceptional circumstances and so I think it’s really important that regulators worldwide kind of respond to IATA’s request in a positive way.

Kirby: I mean it is good to see that IATA is being so proactive on this front and advocating for its members in this way, Max. I’ve got to say when the press release passed my inbox here yesterday, I thought goodness, you know, I hadn’t even thought of that.

Flight: Right.

Kirby: Wow, yes and so essential that that be sorted out very, very quickly. Of course the airlines’ two largest trade groups, IATA being number one and the Airline Passenger Experience Association, which is now the second largest, they are each staying in contact with the World Health Organization and they are urging travelers to follow the WHO recommendations and the latest messaging on that front is pretty telling. So the WHO says the epidemics in Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan are its greatest concern and in a statement on March 2 it said there are almost nine times more coronavirus cases reported outside of China then inside in the prior 24 hours. Now among the key recommendations for travelers, it suggests that of course any travelers who are sick for any reason should avoid travel to affected areas and engage in frequent hand hygiene but it even outlines cough etiquette as keeping a distance of at least 1 meter from persons showing symptoms and you can imagine that anyone traveling with a cough right now even if it is just from a basic cold or just a basic dry cough – tis the season – is going to get the old hairy eyeball from fellow travelers, Max. And in fact we are seeing a lot of comments of people who need to fly or want to fly but have that ragged cough of the season and are afraid that travelers are going to assume they have coronavirus. So that’s another issue in terms of it’s giving some travelers pause even though of course they don’t have it but they don’t want to have that scrutiny from their fellow traveler. Interestingly, the WHO says there is no evidence that wearing a mask of any type protects people but this is another issue that’s very much up for debate online. And we’re seeing a lot of back and forth on this online but whether they assist or not they are certainly being worn as I saw recently when flying in and out of LAX. There were a lot of folks that had masks on. And given that fact the WHO is providing guidance on appropriate disposal. Now Max, unsurprisingly coronavirus is expected to negatively impact not just the airlines but also the PaxEx industry and the suppliers and of course they have already been suffering due to the protracted grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX that we we have of course talked a lot about and so our industry is really facing a one-two punch here with the MAX grounding and the coronavirus. Now as discussed in the past, airlines are holding off on retrofitting their aircraft due to the capacity crunch of the MAX grounding. So that’s affecting suppliers on that front, but coronovirus could add another compilation. A consultant in the industry told RGN contributor Marisa Garcia recently, he said “we could see the same effect as SARS, maybe a bit larger if coronavirus goes beyond April or May” and he suggested that airlines are going to hold off for a while before they start to make significant changes in retrofit plans or start cancelling or deferring orders but if it does go on, you know, well into the springtime those might become considerations, Max. So time will tell but it is obviously very difficult times to say the very least.

Flight: Yes I would think that a lot of the airlines and other companies would be planning for the worst but maybe holding off on taking any specific action to see what happens, how it develops. The duration of this is of course sort of a key question and if it’s more than a little bit, the worry is that this will affect not only the airlines and the travel industry and then percolate through the economy many other ways as well and precipitate a significant downturn. We have seen the stock market react. As we record it has kind of started to move back in the upward positive direction a little bit but we could be in for some real economic shocks if this continues. I don’t know maybe the airlines should be used to big swings like this but it’s been so long that maybe, Mary, maybe they are a little out of practice with how to respond to these kinds of things.

Kirby: Yeah good point, they may be just a little. They’ve enjoyed some years, some happy years should we say. At least on this side of the pond. It’s not to say there haven’t been those that have struggled in Europe because we did see last year of course a number of smaller, kind of low-fares carriers, some of them were hurting and some did not make it, Max, but generally it’s been relatively positive times for the airline industry so this is, it really is a one-two punch. And one of the things that is always on the table when these sorts of things happen and the airlines have to get a little more conservative with their spend, they get more conservative with their marketing spend and they get more conservative with their passenger experience upgrades. It’s just a fact and so you have to be prepared and be insulated to a certain degree to be able to manage that through the downtimes. So yeah it’s rough, it’s rough out there.

Flight: Challenges ahead for sure. Alright let’s talk about something a little bit different. Maybe a little bit more fun at least for me and this is an announcement from Air New Zealand. It’s exploring a bunk bed-style option for long-haul economy class travel. Now the concept is called Economy Skynest and it would offer six bunk beds in sort of a capsule monument in the economy class cabin. Now each bed would measure over 22 inches at the shoulders. There would be amenities such as a pillow, sheets, a blanket, a privacy curtain, ear plugs and special lighting to help in the sleep. Now having looked at the Air New Zealand video where you can get a really good idea of what this looks like, like I would say this is not for claustrophobs and it’s pretty small, probably not for those who have maybe mile high club aspirations. This is pretty tight and I didn’t see how you climb up to the top bunk in the video but I am sure that’s an easy issue to deal with but I’ll tell you, Mary, I would be really happy with a bunk in a nest. I love sleeping. I relish opportunities to sleep when flying long-haul and that’s what I like to do. I often doze off with a smile on my face while road warrior drones around me peck away at their computers trying to keep up with their email and I’d rather sleep. So I like this idea but I do have one question. Do I book a bunk instead of a seat? Or do I book a seat as usual and have to arm wrestle other passengers for bunk space.

Kirby: Yeah, so you are going to have to book your normal seat because you are going to need to be seated in an upright position for take off and landing, Max, but then you would be booking this as presumably an upgrade. That’s how effectively, like an add-on upgrade to your economy class fare. That’s effectively how Air New Zealand handled the Skycouch which is that kind of additional real estate on the the economy class seat that it began offering several years ago, but Max, I am fascinated to hear that this is right up your alley. Now question. Would you prefer a bunk bed down back or a business class seat up front?

Flight: A bunk bed in the back.

Kirby: You would, and therein lies an issue because if you make this too appealing then you are carving into your revenue upfront so that’s one of the issues that needs to be addressed but I am right there with you because the Skynest does look like it has that type of real estate that would allow you to have that better sleep. I have a difficult time – and this won’t come as a surprise to our listeners – I have a difficult time in coffin class. High density business. Yes I do, sir. Yes I do. The herringbones and reverse herringbones, it just to me – and I have said it before -I would take a seat that doesn’t have full aisle access in order to get a wider flatter bed-like arrangement. So when Skynest was announced a few days ago I was very very excited but that is one of the big issues. How do you merchandise it? How do you sell it and then how do make sure that it doesn’t encroach on what you are trying to do in premium classes. Now sleeping births are not a brand new idea in aviation, Max. I mean this is, we can go back, gosh what is it, 80-some years, 90 years. And Business Insider has an excellent piece about the Boeing model 314 Clipper flying boat with couches that turned into bunk beds and I believe the Jetliner Cabins – which is the bible for aircraft interiors – also has details on some of the sleeping births of old. But this Business Insider report has some really great and fun images so I will include a link to that. But of course airline crew have been sleeping in crew rests with not dissimilar accommodations for many decades so there is a lot to draw on when these airlines do, if they do really look at it seriously, as Air New Zealand says it is. They will be able to draw on some of the prior art of crew rests. I have been personally keeping half an eye on this space for long time after I interviewed a designer who proposed totally reimagining the cabin to accommodate full stacked sleepers back in 2009 but inflight bunk beds, Max, are really clearly having a moment right now and I think this pod concept from Air New Zealand actually looks doable and viable but there are other concepts being floated around including one from a Dutch consultancy called ADSE. But one of the challenges you are going to find with most of these ideas – and you’ve kind of touched upon it earlier – is that the top bunks of any of the designs are mainly for passengers who are mobile. So if you are a passenger with reduced mobility you are not going to be climbing steps or stairs. So can airlines figure a way to ensure that the passengers with reduced mobility are offered the bottom bunk? It shouldn’t be insurmountable but it does add complexity to the booking process. So, there’s kind of many merchandising questions to be answered on that front but brava to these initiatives. It is nice to see more blue sky thinking.

Flight: Yes it is. I wonder also about the overall efficiency of the aircraft if there’s a significant amount of these kind of bunk beds because as long as we have the requirement to be seated and buckled for takeoff and landing, that means that a person, a passenger needs both spaces and in total that might be a lot of space. If a bunk pod/nest with six bunks like we see in the Air New Zealand video are replacing six seats then there might be kind of an equal use of space but if you need six seats in addition to the six bunks then that’s a lot of territory inside the airplane it seems like.

Kirby: It sure is and there is a weight penalty there. Now one idea that has been floated around for quite some time and this is including when Airbus and I believe it was Safran Cabin joined forces to come up with an idea for bringing bunks and beds and whatnot into the cargo hold of certain aircraft types. That was an idea floated a few years ago and with that idea came the notion that maybe you could rent the bed for a few hours or for a certain allocated amount of time and that, that would be the way to do it rather than commit an entire bed for an entire flight. And that way more passengers also get to experience the product and they get to time their passenger experience and plan for that and plan to get a few hours sleep and lay their head down. So it is interesting. Could it be rented by the hour? It’s a very…another publication wrote and they are absolutely right, it’s a Yodel-like experience, what we are seeing here from Air New Zealand. I am excited. I am ready to climb on that Skynest and lay my head down. No bother at all.

Rotation
Flight: I like it. I like it too. Well you know Boeing has shown a Blended Wing Body aircraft before for many years and Airbus is floating a similar kind of design currently. I wonder if that layout lends itself more to this type of arrangement. I mean one of the issues with a Blended Wing Body airplane is you don’t get any windows and you know how do you deal with that, but if it’s an arrangement of nests in there, maybe it’s, maybe it works well in that type of a aircraft. I don’t know. I will have to think about that I guess.

Kirby: You are absolutely right, Max, and in fact I am trying to think…there is a University in Hamburg that is looking at that very thing right now. But do you ever find with our industry kind of what’s old is new again? Some of this stuff does cycle around. Like 10 years ago we were talking bunks, it never happened. And Blended Wing Body, as you say, it’s been…that concept has been around for decades and here we are again. So separating kind of the real from the marketing remains a challenge but again this Air New Zealand concept, specifically, does look viable at least from this vantage point.

Flight: It is. I like it.

Kirby: I do too.

Flight: Well Mary, you mentioned Hamburg and of course we have the big Aircraft Interiors Expo coming up really quickly. It’s scheduled for March 31 through April 2 this year. And Mary I can’t go this year because I will be at the Sun n’ Fun aerospace expo in Florida but maybe some year in the future I can make the Hamburg show. But some people have predicted that the show will be cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. But as we record this the show, it is still scheduled to go on as planned. Now one of the highlights of course is the Crystal Cabin Awards ceremony that’s at the Aircraft Interiors Expo every year and it honors, of course, PaxEx innovation. Now this year the Crystal Cabin Awards or CCA judges had their work cut out for them because they had a record-setting number of ideas submitted for the contest. There were 24 finalists and some of these concepts are really kind of impressive. Now, as for which ideas inspired me, well is it too late to start a write-in campaign for the Air New Zealand Skynest? We do have the Delft University of Technology collapsible beds concept that they turn into seats for takeoff and landing so that kind of addresses that problem, but they don’t look as comfortable as Air New Zealand’s seats but great idea. On the green front, and this is not a real exciting kind of idea but I like the greywater reuse unit from Diehl Aviation.

Kirby: Diehl Aviation.

Flight: This is the system that uses water from the hand basin to flush the lavatory and so that saves drinking water which saves weight, which reduces CO2. So that’s more of a benefit to all of us than many of the other ideas that benefit our experience. And there are a couple others that are interesting to me. The nextgen connectivity Mobile OnAir 4G hardware from Sitaonair. It does some good things for the onboard network and they say in the future it will support 5G connectivity in the air, which I think that’s very interesting. 5G connectivity on the ground is sort of smoke and mirrors I think. Largely because the range of 5G is very, very short. So you need many, many more towers if you are going to provide the same sometimes crappy coverage that you get with 4G. But enclosed in a small area like on an airplane, yeah 5G that makes a lot of sense there to me.

Kirby: It sure does. And I’m intrigued that those two ideas are the ones you are highlighting because they are really interesting, Max, I agree with you.

Flight: Really?

Kirby: Yeah we are on the same page. Bravo, but I need to be very cautious about what I say because I am judge for the CCAs and the final judging round happens when we land in Hamburg and that’s the opportunity for all the finalists to make their final pitch effectively and explain their designs and answer questions. So that is a pivotal time but in terms of general themes heading into the larger Aircraft Interiors Expo, obviously as we have discussed you can be certain that coronoavirus and the MAX grounding will be top of mind to these suppliers and the impact is going to be assessed. So those questions are going to be asked of course. For me getting an idea of whether these stacked sleepers will be realistic is also key on my agenda. Is this pie in the sky or can we sleep together, Max? I mean I’d like that question answered. Also on the inflight connectivity front, yes inflight 5G and mobile connectivity in general could be back in the fray a little bit. Of course in the United States they have taken a very rigid approach to inflight mobile because they don’t want people making voice calls but I’d like to underscore that you can use mobile connectivity systems for data-only. There is a switch that can disable voice. So technology doesn’t need to be impeded based on standards of etiquette during any particular period of time. Just wanted to note that. But on the inflight connectivity front, a number of satellite constellation build-outs in non geostationary orbit are happening. So you know, I am personally eager to understand how and when these NGSO constellations will change the game for inflight connectivity and bringing passengers close to an at-home experience in the sky because Low Earth Orbit and Mid Earth Orbit constellations mean lower latency, Max, and ergo a better experience if you don’t have to talk so far. So one area also that is really interesting to me and that we started seeing last year was seatmakers adding back a bit of comfort options to their slimline seats. So I sometimes wonder if we went a little too far down the slimline route to a certain degree. To a point where you see some installations that nearly look like lawn chairs and are some seatmakers rethinking a little bit in terms of adding a bit of comfort? We saw implementations of that. We saw examples of that last year and I suspect we are going to see some more of that and addressing passenger nesting, which is the idea of providing cubbies and bands and spaces to put your glasses or your pen or your personal electronic device. So nesting is a big thing right now, Max, and how do you kind of make that seatback accommodate the passenger and their experience a little bit better and even something as basic as like a rubber band, a thick band that allows you to slide your glasses right in front of you. You know? It’s like simple but logical improvements to the experience particularly in economy class. That’s a big one,

Flight: I like the word nesting though. It feels so cozy and comfortable you know? I like nesting.

Kirby: Yes, whether you are nesting in your upright economy class seat or nesting on your Skynest, it is, it is a wonderfully cozy word and just finally on the entertainment front, app-free wireless IFE is gaining a lot of momentum as passengers just want to get on board the aircraft and have the wireless system work without downloading an app in advance. So stakeholders are kind of duking it out on that front in terms of there being so many wireless IFE providers in the space it’s actually very ripe for consolidation but again Max, the one-two punch of MAX and coronavirus will likely dominate to a certain degree this show. Which is tough in its own right because there are a lot of great innovations and a lot of things that certainly we want to highlight without taking away from the seriousness of the situation that is ahead.

Flight: Well I look forward to your reports and impressions from the show, Mary.

Kirby: Thank you, I look forward to reporting it. Well we are rapidly coming to a close. I want to thank our listeners and remember you can find us online at Runwaygirlnetwork.com and on Apple and Google podcasts. Be sure to follow all the Runway Girl Network activity on Twitter at @runwaygirl and remember to use the PaxEx hashtag when tweeting about the passenger experience. Join in the conversation. We would absolutely love to have you.

Flight: And please join us again next time as we talk about the passenger experience on the PaxEx Podcast.

Kirby: Take care everyone.