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#PaxEx Podcast Transcribed: Build confidence with masks on, fees off

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PaxEx Podcast logo with blue text and black backgroundWe are pleased to provide a transcript of the #PaxEx Podcast, Episode 73, the audio recording of which was published on 2 September.

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Mary Kirby: Welcome to the PaxEx Podcast, available on Apple and Google Podcasts. This is episode 73 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 am joined by my co-host Max Flight. Max, how are you doing?

Max Flight: I am doing well, Mary. It’s been quite a while since our last episode. It’s been kind of a rollercoaster summer. A lot of things have transpired in the meantime.

Kirby: Yeah, I feel a little bit like kind of headless chicken these days, Max, you know. Everyday brings some fresh bad news and I guess I confess I am deeply saddened also of course to see so many people in our industry grappling with job losses and furloughs. The impact of COVID-19 on aviation, it has truly been breathtaking in scope. And so, trying to stay positive has been a little bit of a challenge but we push forward and, as always, hope the introduction of a good vaccine is not too far off in the distance.

Flight: Yes, hopefully that will change things a little bit. But yes our industry has been hammered as have several others and people in general, but we’ll find a way through it. Alright, well let’s take a look at some of the PaxEx news stories that are making headlines. First, global airline trade group IATA, the International Air Transport Association, is appealing to all travelers to wear a face covering during the travel journey for the safety of the passengers and crew during the COVID-19 crisis. It says that it is emphasizing the need for passengers to comply with the recommendation following recent reports of travelers refusing to wear masks in-flight, resulting in costly and inconvenient diversions to offload those passengers. And, indeed we have seen a number of diversions this summer. On July 23, a Delta flight set to depart from Detroit Metropolitan Airport returned to the gate to remove two passengers who refused to wear masks. Also in July, a WestJet flight from Vancouver to Toronto was forced to divert when an unruly passenger refused to wear his mask, and also he lit up a cigarette. On August 11, Alaska Airlines deplaned and delayed a flight out of Spokane because several passengers refused to wear their masks. Now, US airlines in particular have had to strengthen their mandatory mask policies. CNN reports that Delta has already banned roughly 240 people from flying because of their refusal to wear masks. Well, Mary, I don’t know, we listen to experts really in all facets of life and sometimes the experts all agree, sometimes they don’t. So we consider all the factors and make our decisions but one factor when it comes to wearing masks is the effect you have on the health of other people. So, common sense tells me to wear a mask around others. Common courtesy tells me to wear a mask around others as well and just the other day I think Lady Gaga put it pretty well. She said, “It’s a sign of respect to wear a mask” and that’s where I am coming from on this. When you are on a flight, when you are at the airport, you are around people, I think it is just common courtesy, common sense to wear a mask.

Kirby: Well, yes Max, of course I agree with you there. But of course, also hindsight being 2020, I think kind of broadly it’s really unfortunate that the messaging around masks was unclear from the very beginning. You know, we recorded the podcast in March shortly after COVID-19 was named a pandemic and at that time the World Health Organization was saying there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest that wearing a mask protects people. It was a bit blurry, Max, shall we say. And we were kind of given to understand that masks should be worn by healthcare workers and people with underlying health conditions. And then later, as new research became available, the WHO’s messaging seemed to evolve. But by that time, many people were entrenched on the issue and they took umbrage when they were told to wear masks in public, and when social distancing isn’t possible. And whilst I appreciate what you are saying – the message that masks protect others from you not you from others sounds like just common courtesy – it clearly didn’t resonate with many people including many Americans. And perhaps if they had heard ‘protect yourself and others by wearing a mask’ they would have been motivated by self interest? I mean in a capitalist country like the United States, many people are motivated by self interest. There is this survivalist mentality here in the US by nature of the way our system is structured. So I wonder if mask adoption would have been greater with a different messaging approach, appreciating again that hindsight is 2020. But very specific to the airlines, they were placed in an absolutely untenable position because in the US alone, with no federal mandate in place to require passengers to wear masks, airlines have had to, as you say, enact their own policies and each one is in fact a little bit different. For instance, some airlines allow face shields, some of them do not. And we have a list of every major US airline’s mask requirements on the website but I would urge anyone to be sure to check with their individual airline before traveling because we have seen that these rules are somewhat fluid and they are being strengthened regularly. So what may be good today may not be good tomorrow. Now, in the early months of the pandemic, airlines sought to honor disability rights and provide waivers to those with genuine medical conditions precluding them from wearing masks, but unfortunately too many passengers abused this leeway and falsely claimed a disability, not unlike how passengers abused rules around traveling with emotional support animals. So really, really, really unfortunate that this happened because the problem got so bad that the Department of Justice had to issue a warning that it’s seal was being used inappropriately by passengers claiming protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Of course the Air Carrier Access Act is what governs access to air travel with persons with disability but it hardly mattered to the individuals who were trying to skirt airlines’ mask requirements and they were throwing this false paperwork in the faces of airline employees. Really just crazy stuff. So this deception on the part of a minority of passengers naturally hurts people who are truly disabled and it’s really rather despicable when you think about. And then of course when passengers refuse to wear masks, it opens up all sorts of concerns about liability, particularly for the airlines amid the pandemic. So, as you say, now the airlines are cracking down in a big way because they have to. And flights are being diverted and passengers are being banned from flying for not wearing a mask. If you show up at the gate without a mask you won’t be flying on most US carriers, period, or you will need to get clearance from a doctor and that’s certainly the case with Delta passengers. They need to complete a ‘clearance to fly’ examination at the airport that can take up to an hour or more. So Max, do you think that the administration should have issued a federal mandate, that all passengers must wear masks, or do you think that the onus should have been on the airlines? They don’t like regulation after all, but they seem to be regulating themselves here pretty well.

Flight: Yeah, it’s a really interesting question I think Mary, and they – airlines – have had the authority to mandate whatever they want to. I mean, practically, when you purchase a ticket you are entering into a contract with the airline, you are accepting, you are agreeing to the airlines’ terms and conditions of carriage. So, if the airline has a policy, it has a mandate that masks are to be worn, they have the authority I think to enforce it. But, if there was, overlaying that, a federal mandate for masks then it makes life a lot easier I think or, would make life a lot easier for the airlines when it comes to policing the requirements. Now we see passengers arguing with the airline, with the cabin crew over the requirement to wear a mask. For example, if the argument from the crew is ‘well this is a federal requirement’ it kind of takes them off the hook and it makes it easier for them perhaps to try to enforce it. To try to police it. So I don’t know, I am not optimistic that we would see a mandate at the federal level for masks, at least maybe not until January.

Kirby: Okay interesting. You know the mask issue kind of hit home for me personally as I have dealt with some health issues amid the pandemic. So the last time we chatted was at the end of April and at that time I felt fit as a fiddle, Max, I thought to myself ‘well hopefully I’m healthy enough to weather any COVID storm that comes my way’, but life happens and within about two weeks of our podcast I was facing some unexpected health issues and it was a very humbling experience. I went from feeling immuno-strong to immunocompromised and it was a good reminder of how life can change on dime and if I am to do a bit of self-analysis, I became shall we say a little less eager to test the herd immunity theory then I may have been at the start of the pandemic. When we were discussing that. So that has been kind of an education for me and oftentimes something has to hit in your own backyard for you to fully appreciate these types of issues. But it certainly has been humbling and educational amid the pandemic.

Flight: Yes, I think we have all learned a lot about ourselves and about each other.

Kirby: Yes, absolutely, absolutely.

Flight: Alright, moving on next in what’s being called a major announcement, United Airlines is permanently getting rid of change fees on all standard economy and premium cabin tickets for travel within the US and that’s effective immediately. Also starting January 1st 2021, United customers can fly standby for free on flights departing the day of their travel regardless of the type of ticket or class of service. Now Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines of course, has explained this decision as being a response to customer wishes. He said ‘when we hear from customers about where we can improve, getting rid of this fee is often the top request’ but he also called United’s approach to crisis this time as completely different, putting the customer first or, as he said, ‘looking at new ways to serve our customers better.’ Now, we also see that MileagePlus members get some new benefits as well. Redeposit fees are waived on award travel for flights changed or canceled more than 30 days prior to departure. Also, free seat confirmation on a different flight within the same departure and arrival cities as the original ticket, for example. So Mary, the overall United strategy here seems to be to present the airline as customer friendly, hoping that this will help fliers return. You think that is going to be effective?

Kirby: Well, I think it’s wow, an amazing announcement and they are saying it is permanent. So forever is a very long time, Max. And I am kind of curious if that is indeed going to be the case. But of course not long after United made this announcement, American Airlines and then Delta Air Lines followed suit. So it’s been quite a dizzying 24-48 hours in aviation to see all of these change fees fall away. Those of us who have flown Southwest Airlines for many years have known the joys of the change fee-free reality and it is a big reason why so many of us are fans of this carrier, including myself. Southwest doesn’t always have the cheapest fares, but when bags fly free and there are no change fees – rather when the cost of these benefits are effectively baked into the ticket – it brings a consistency to the equation that really speaks to me on a personal level. Even when we are not in the middle of a pandemic. So, I personally am very excited to learn that United, Delta and American are going in this direction. Now, the airlines have been waiving change fees amid the pandemic and through the end of the year but with traffic at historic lows they need to do more to inspire people to feel confident to book and as is so often the case, the dominos start falling. When one major airline announces, then the others often follow suit. That’s what’s happened here with United being first on the draw. But I do wonder if United played its hand right in being the first mover. So when it announced its decision on August 30th, it won some serious PR accolades especially on social media. But when Delta and American followed up, we saw that some started arguing that they had some better propositions. So, the One Mile At a Time blog gives a great breakdown – and we will include a link to it on the website – but it notes that not only are select international destinations included in American’s policy, for instance, but most importantly you get the residual value of your ticket if you rebook on a cheaper flight, something that United isn’t offering. So it’s a nice benefit from American, but it’s clear there are subtle but important differences in each airline’s announcement. And there are differences, of course, to the service they are offering during this crisis. Among these three big legacy carriers, Delta has been actively capping capacity on board its aircraft. So one might argue that in dropping change fees and blocking middle seats, Delta kind of continues to set the standard for air travel during the pandemic among the legacies. I think a fair argument could be made there. The capping of capacity has been a big one. It has been lauded by passengers on social media. Southwest and JetBlue have also been capping capacity. And so when my daughter recently flew BWI-LAX, there was nobody in the middle seat beside her, Max, and that gave me great confidence to let her fly. And some say, well that is just perception and it doesn’t enhance her safety, but oftentimes perception is very meaningful when we are talking about passenger experience. Max, airlines have decades ago announced things would be permanent and they turned out not to be. Do you think that this elimination of change fees will be permanent?

Flight: I would have to say, Mary, probably not, just because the word permanent brings with it a level of risk that historically has proven that nothing is permanent. It’s interesting, I mean, these fees are a big source of revenue. Will Horton writing in Forbes has some illuminating numbers. He said that in 2019, United earned $625 million dollars in change and cancellation fees. And while that’s only a small percentage – 1.6 percent of their total passenger revenue for United – it is, as Horton points out, almost pure profit. So tossing that away is no small thing. But will we never see the return of these kinds of fees? Never is a long time.

Kirby: It is. There is so much uncertainty right now, you know, for people when they are thinking about booking. We are facing uncertainty around travel restrictions that are changing regularly, scheduling changes of course, and the requirement to quarantine for 14 days on return from a trip, particularly if you have been at what is deemed a hot spot, Max. So these are all major considerations, not to mention the fact that you don’t want to show up at an airport with any kind of sniffles, or cold or flu or anything these days. Whereas perhaps in the past you might have taken the chance and flown, now you don’t want to do that, you don’t want to be that person who’s coughing in the corner. And candidly in some countries, you won’t be allowed to get on board the aircraft if you are. So there’s so many considerations, including on the day of travel, are you fit to fly. And the ability to be able to make a change, say for example if you wake up with a temperature, and say, okay can I, you know, see this through, find out what’s going on here and change my flight without facing these fees is pretty essential I think to get air travel back and rolling again. Maybe it’s just out of pure necessity given the situation. I do wonder if the smaller carriers are now going to follow suit. JetBlue, Alaska.

Flight: I think that’s an excellent observation, I hadn’t really even considered that, Mary. You really do want people to have the flexibility to change their flights, to cancel, to postpone if their health dictates it and yeah you’d hate to see people getting on board a plane because they don’t feel so well but they want to avoid a $200 charge. That’s a really good point.  So yeah, I think the others will follow suit. We were chatting a little bit before we started recording, Mary, saying we were both kind of missing air travel and that whole experience and I am wondering if the personal criteria for safety doesn’t evolve over time. In other words, the longer we go without being in the air tends to sort of lessen our concerns to the point where we just say, I just have to go do it. I don’t know and I don’t know if that will happen to other people as well or if that’s just folks like you and me.

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Kirby: Ah, that pent up demand for sure, for sure. I mean I am itching to get back on the road as it were. You know six months grounded, well actually longer because I think it was January was my last flight. So it just feels so very strange. But again, if you suddenly find yourself dealing with a health issue then you are not in a position to fly now, and so these are all considerations. And it’s kind of like, my daughter is heading back to school this week and we’ve been told that if a child shows up with even a runny nose and is not feeling well they will be sent home immediately. You have to get your child to the doctor and then they need to get sunk into the virtual learning until they are well enough to go back to school. So in some ways it is almost like the airlines are giving people a backstop with the fee issue here. Not unlike what schools and other facilities are having to do in light of these kind of really strange, unique, extreme circumstances.

Flight: Well one more topic we have this episode is that like the broader aviation industry, the inflight connectivity stakeholders have suffered greatly during the COVID-19 crisis. Why is that? Well revenue from paid wifi sessions has pretty much dried up. Some carriers have even shut off their systems for a period of time. But we see major change afoot perhaps in this part of the industry. Some believe that when aviation recovers, IFC will become more important than ever. Now, Mary, you are probably the preeminent connectivity, inflight connectivity expert around, certainly I don’t anybody who knows more about it than you and you have been tracking this since the inception of the industry. So what do you think is happening now and what do you think this might mean for the passenger experience?

Kirby: Ah, it is fascinating Max, you know inflight connectivity and entertainment providers have had a really tough go of it amid the pandemic and, as you say, revenues have all but dried up. On the entertainment front alone many carriers, for example, are not even refreshing their IFE content. So if you fly today you might still be accessing Christmas movies which might feel like you are in an episode of the Twilight Zone. But the COVID-19 crisis has shone the spotlight on the importance of inflight Internet especially because of course many people have been accustomed to working from home over the last six months and they are used to using true broadband links to stay connected to their office. And logically they will expect the same type of broadband service on board aircraft when they fly again. Traditionally, only a few carriers have really provided that sort of experience consistently. So we are hearing from inflight connectivity providers that they are now looking to provide a “work-from-home” experience in the skies which is kind of a little bit of a twist on the prior goal. And what does that look like? Well, that means you are going to need a lot of satellite capacity if you are supporting a satellite connectivity solution on board aircraft. That means you are going to need better uplink capability. And so the cost of satellite capacity will be in the spotlight, Max, and in this context the announcement made this week that Gogo is selling its commercial aviation business to satellite operator Intelsat is very, very interesting. Now Gogo of course provides satellite-based connectivity to Delta Air Lines, Air Canada, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Aeromexico, the list is rather long, it is a major player in inflight connectivity. So for it to be selling its commercial unit to Intelsat creates a vertically integrated organization that in theory should be able to better compete with the likes of Viasat and Inmarsat. These are two satellite operators which have really focused on inflight connectivity in recent years and so the landscape is becoming hotly competitive with major satellite operators kind of taking the lead. And it’s great to see some consolidation finally happening in the industry, Max, we have talked about it in the past. It has been predicted for years because major stakeholders have been losing money for years because passengers want to be connected but as ever they do not want to pay for the connection. And it’s difficult to see that changing in the future. So when you say “what does this mean for passenger experience?” – well people are obviously going to be watching their pocketbooks more closely after the pandemic. A lot of folks are not going to have that kind of discretionary spend so they will be looking for connectivity to be offered for free on board the aircraft. Viasat, mentioned earlier, has pursued a free wifi model and Inmarsat is working to support the same in Europe. There is a really interesting program right now in Europe running for Lufthansa customers who are also T-Mobile subscribers on the ground. They are getting a free inflight wifi benefit as part of their mobile plan, Max, which is a really cool way to offer it and also offset the cost of it. So I would say the pressure will now be on Intelsat and its new Gogo unit when this deal is closed the beginning of next year to kind of go in the direction of free Internet, and Delta which is Gogo’s preeminent airline customer has said that it wants to offer free browsing to passengers. So presumably it will be looking to Gogo and Intelsat for aid in doing that in the coming years. There is also a lot of discussion that it will go multi-source and tap Viasat as well. So, just to be a journalist covering inflight connectivity has been really interesting to say the very least, Max, but I do think that we are moving towards a free browsing model with many airlines realizing that that is increasingly the cost of doing business. That’s the expectation that passengers are going to have. Now, where do you stand on this issue Max when it comes to being connected? Would you say that you will expect it even more after the pandemic?

Flight: Well I think Mary, I have always taken the position that ultimately the carriers need to consider that they need to improve the service ultimately to make it like an ‘at home’ experience. Because I think it is just what people are used to and to walk into this environment in the airplane where the experience is so much less is not great, they don’t like that. Does anyone employ a tiered model with maybe basic free level of wifi and then a premium level that offers higher speeds or other benefits? I know the hotel industry does that sometimes. Hilton does that right, you can get your free wifi but you can also purchase a premium level or if you are high enough in their infinity program you get that for free, but there is an option for a faster speed. Do any airlines do that?

Kirby: Yes they do, and many of them have started out by offering free messaging. So just for example, Southwest airlines, you can access connectivity to message people in your network but not for actual free browsing on Southwest, not yet, it’s $8 on Southwest right now. But yes, airlines around the world have been experimenting with that. But Delta, I believe it was a year-and-a-half ago, Ed Bastian said that he wanted to offer free internet browsing. That kicks it up a notch. That kicks the tier – what would have been like the baseline tier of free messaging – it kicks it up a notch to actually, I want to be able to offer free browsing as baseline. That then requires a lot more capacity because when you go to a free model for internet browsing, your percentage of passengers that are using the service skyrockets. So you go from anywhere from 8-10 percent on a paid session model to over 60 percent or more on a free model and so you can imagine what that will mean in terms of cost and that’s where this kind of vertically integrated model of the satellite operator being in more control of that might be able to be better positioned to price things right for the airlines. Because right now just using again Gogo as an example, it would have reached agreements with Intelsat, with SES, with all these global satellite operators for a certain amount of capacity to be able to support its airline customers but when you bring those parties closer together and you have a bit more control over the pricing than theoretically things should be able to be supported in a better way. At least that is the great hope. But I do think that we have gotten a taste of being connected all the time now at home and needing to work and I don’t see that changing when we get on board an aircraft. You are still going to have the expectation of getting your work done. That makes the inflight connectivity all the more important. I’ve used inflight connectivity, Max, to get work done on board aircraft really since its inception. That’s been my main use for it, because I love to be able to arrive at a city with the decks cleared and the inbox cleared out so that I might be able to enjoy a little bit of time and have a nice dinner at the destination and not be scrambling to get work done. That has always been a big one for me. But yeah, so getting work done, I think there is a new focus on that. One thing I wanted to just touch upon, you know, of course the business aviation sector, which we cover to a certain extent at Runway Girl, particularly from the passenger experience technology side of the equation, it’s starting to show signs of recovery first and even Gogo has said that they are starting to see some momentum behind the sale of their systems for the business aviation community because there is kind of an expectation that these kind of corporate jet flyers will come back first. Max, are you hearing anything on that front in terms of the business aviation perhaps benefiting from recovery before the commercial sector?

Flight: Yes, in fact Mary I have been hearing that and it’s interesting because it seems that business aviation is often the last to recover after an economic downturn but in this case business aviation, BizAv, it’s being seen as a viable alternative to commercial flights. You have reduced interactions with others at the terminal, you have reduced interactions with others in-flight so that gives the impression of maybe a safer travel experience for some people. Of course, you have also got a smoother and faster departure and arrival process. That’s always been the case with BizAv. But also increased point to point flight options and I think this may be a big one because as airlines have been scaling back some of their routes some of those point to point options are not available with commercial flights but with BizAv you have that. And I think not only is all that appealing to business flyers but also other flyers who have the means to take advantage of these kinds of flights are also seeing this thinking wow you know what, when you compare the costs, when you compare the perceived safety difference and the convenience difference, it becomes very attractive, so I think these things are kind of conspiring to make business aviation attractive to many folks.

Kirby: Yeah certainly good news for the business aviation side of the equation, they have had as you say difficulties in the past, but of course we are hopeful for recovery all the way around. I don’t know that we will ever get back to the the 2019 levels, I think that most people are in agreement that maybe that was the heyday. 2019. What do you think Max, in terms of do you think we will ever get back there?

Flight: Yes I do I think we will get back there. I think it could take three or four years, maybe, but I think that’s the state that people prefer and if we get through the pandemic – and we have had pandemics in the past and not to minimize this one, because forget the economic part of it, but the personal result of this has been tragic, the number of people that have lost their lives and have been affected medically and in other ways as well that’s terrible – but we have had pandemics in the past. Some of them pretty dramatic, if you go back 100 years and the human species finds a way to recover from that. Obviously, as you mentioned earlier, a vaccine is a big part of that, but there are other ways people find to accommodate the difficulties and I think people will return to what I call their preferred state which includes a lot of travel, includes a lot of social and personal interaction with other people. I think we will get there. It will take a while and the travel industry I hope can weather the storm between now and then.

Kirby: Gosh, I hope so. I like your positive attitude there, Max. That is inspiring. Well, we are rapidly coming to a close. We 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 activity on twitter at @RunwayGirl and Remember to use the PaxEx hashtag when tweeting about the passenger experience. Join in the conversation we would love to have you.

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

Kirby: Take care everyone.

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