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#PaxEx Podcast Transcribed: Ready to fly; has COVID reset expectations?

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We are pleased to provide a transcript of the #PaxEx Podcast, Episode 74, the audio recording of which was published on 11 March 2021.

Intro music.

Mary Kirby: Welcome to the #PaxEx Podcast, available on Apple and Google Podcasts. This is Episode 74 of the show where we talk about how the airline passenger experience is evolving in a mobile, social, vocal world. I am Mary Kirby and I am joined by my co-host Max Flight. Max, how are you doing?

Max Flight: I am doing well, Mary. One more week until my second COVID vaccination and I have to say it feels like a weight has been lifted and I am increasingly optimistic about the recovery for our industry.

Kirby: Ohh, I am excited to hear that, Max and congratulations on getting your first shot. Waiting for the rollout to speed up a little bit here in good old Pennsylvania for it to become available to my group but I definitely feel like there is a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel right now, eh?

Flight: I hope it’s soon and that leads right into our first PaxEx news story making headlines. The International Air Transport Association, IATA, has announced the findings of its latest poll which suggests that travelers are eager to get back in the air. Some 57% of respondents expect to be traveling within two months of the pandemic being contained. 72% want to travel to see family and friends as soon as possible. I like that one. And 81% believe that they will be more likely to travel once they are vaccinated. Now those numbers are very, very encouraging but I always like to look at the methodology and assumptions implicit in the poll and IATA called this a poll of recent travelers. And I am wondering is that literally what they mean? Wouldn’t recent travelers be predisposed to traveling or do they really mean pre-COVID travelers.

Kirby: Right.

Flight: But I’d also be curious to learn if there are regional differences in the responses. And I kind of suspect that there are. But some additional statistics that came from this poll that I found interesting was that 68% agreed that their quality of life had suffered with travel restrictions. I am almost, I am almost surprised it’s not higher.

Flight: Also, almost half, 49% believe that air travel restrictions have gone too far. That’s interesting. That is a big number. I wonder how many of the respondents are in the travel industry but that is a big number.

Kirby: That is a big number. I have to say, Max, the results of this survey really resonated with me. I mean I am seeing so much pent up demand from the people in my life and in my network. They are so excited about the prospect of finally visiting family and friends or taking that sun holiday at last. You know, they are dusting off their travel bucket lists and many seem eager to fly once they’ve been vaccinated. But in parts of the Northeast we’ve had what I would consider to be kind of an old-fashioned winter. It’s been very cold. It has snowed quite a bit, at least around these parts. So many of us have been largely homebound and coupled with COVID isolation, this harsh winter, the fact that we can’t just jump on a jet without some serious deliberation and consideration has, I think, contributed negatively to some people’s mental health and some of that meshes, as you say, with IATA’s findings. I did find that nearly 40% number to be interesting, of respondents who reported mental stress and missing an important human moment as a result of the travel restrictions to be interesting. Tying mental stress to travel restrictions. Very, very, interesting. If you have lost a loved one to COVID or watched someone suffer through a bad bout you might think this conversation falls into ‘20th century 1st world problem’ category and you might be playing the tiniest little violin for those who haven’t been able to fly and certainly we are aware of that. And perhaps you are correct to a point. But dismissing the mental health fallout of this pandemic doesn’t feel right to me either. I have a newfound appreciation for the importance of having something to look forward to in life, like a trip. And being able to connect with the humans you love and cherish. And for those of us who don’t live in sunshine states or indeed sunshine countries, COVID restrictions plus a hard winter can send a person into a bit of a depression. And that doesn’t even touch on the countless couples who have been separated for the last year due to travel restrictions. So, it is certainly understandable why the travel bug is hitting so many people so hard right now. Max, I do wonder if COVID has reset some of passenger experience expectations a tad. Because in the past we have talked a lot about shrinking seats on aircraft but I get the sense that, at least initially, people will be willing to fly on lawn chairs if it means getting to travel at an affordable price. Do you think your expectations will be tempered a bit when you do finally get back in the air?

Flight: I think that’s an interesting point. I hadn’t really considered that and I think you might be right that the goal right now would be to start traveling again and if it’s not quite up to the comfort levels I would like or remember or fantasize about, that’s okay. I think that just being able to travel is the goal. You know we did see a number of projections about how long it would take the travel industry to recover from this and many of the predictions were out several years. And especially at the end of last year it kind of felt that that would be the case maybe. But on this issue of pent up demand, yeah, I am seeing and feeling so much of it that maybe the recovery will be quicker than some people had originally projected. That would be great.

Kirby: That would be great. Would you think maybe we would get to that recovery point by 2023, Max? Even sooner?

Flight: Oh I am wondering if it isn’t, yeah, even sooner.

Kirby: Wow.

Flight: In 2022 and maybe even not that deep into 2022. So now I am on record I guess for making that prediction, we will just have to see.

Kirby: Well here we go. Lay down the money. $20 right now, Max. But you know for infrequent fliers, of course when it is not a global pandemic, ticket price trumps PaxEx more times than not when we are talking about the infrequent flyer but given that so many people’s pocketbooks are a bit lighter right now, it certainly seems like bargain hunting will be the name of game for the infrequent and even some of the frequent flyers among us. Which of course is good news for the low-cost carriers. But I think that also means that there’s a clearer opportunity for airlines to differentiate their products in the coming years. Those carriers that are perhaps on better financial footing or those carriers that plan a little bit more for the long-term. They might still decide to prove a few points on the product front and I’d be looking at the likes of JetBlue and Delta here in the US and naturally Middle Eastern carries which continue to set a high bar for the onboard experience. Emirates, for example, is rolling out new premium economy seats. It made the announcement in the midst of this pandemic. So PaxEx programs are afoot but of course COVID has had just an absolutely devastating impact on aviation and on jobs and so these are little lights at the end of the tunnel but I think we still have some difficult times ahead. You know, getting people back to work, Max, getting aircraft out of the desert, getting them…you know that is a concern as well, just you know when that aircraft has been sitting for quite some time and little animals have been trying to get in there.

Flight: Finding a home.

Kirby: You know, those issues that need to be worked out. One thing I wanted to mention about IATA, of course, they have had a lot of messaging throughout the pandemic. They’ve really provided really nice granular detail for the entirety of it but they have mentioned that if governments require verified testing or vaccination as a condition of international travel – and some have already indicated that they are planning on going down that route – then IATA actually stands at the ready to assist with what’s called the IATA Travel Pass. And this is a mobile application that helps travelers store and manage the info. We’ve seen several airlines have agreed to trial it already. Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand, ANA just today, Emirates, Etihad, the line, the list is growing. Have you checked this out at all, Max, this IATA Travel Pass to keep all that COVID info straight?

Flight: I have not seen that yet but I think it’s very important that there be an international standard and we, I don’t think we want to see a situation where different countries have different requirements for documentation, let’s say. It really needs to be an international standard and I think, obviously, IATA is the organization to promote that. So I hope there is broad acceptance of the concept.

Kirby: Yeah it will be interesting to see. But it does feel like at least some countries are going to go that route which, you know, creates all sorts of other questions about should those who have not gotten the vaccine be able to fly? That is certainly a topic that is rolling around right now. It could be a potentially contentious topic but that’s where we stand.

Flight: Another potential conflict, contentious topic really is surrounding our next story and this is that Cathay Pacific has confirmed that passengers flying in first or business class are permitted to remove their masks when sleeping in the lie-flat position. Now a Cathay Pacific spokeswoman told Runway Girl Network, “Seats in first and business class are more spacious with partitions and passengers are exempted when lying flat for sleep.” Well, Mary, this news has generated a lot of mixed responses from travelers. What are you seeing?

Kirby: Yeah, let me read for you just a couple of comments, Max, because I put this question out to my following on LinkedIn and it was really interesting. Folks fell into one of two categories. They are either fully supportive of a mask exemption under these very specific circumstances or fully against it. One chap on the pro side said: “With the negative COVID test and the low density cabin I would be comfortable with masks off while flying flat.” And another individual noted: “Air circulation is pulled to floor and renewed at the ceiling which you would think would make this static position safe.” Those who do not believe in mask exemptions called Cathay’s decision “classist” and in fact this is one of the most common criticisms that I observed. I personally can see both sides. On the one hand, the layout of many of these lie-flats, especially the herringbones that have become so hugely popular in the last 10-12 years offer great privacy and a fairly enclosed space, though not entirely enclosed, and Cathay was among the first batch of airlines to adopt these types of seats with its popular Cirrus seat implementation. So one can see Cathay’s argument. They figure they have got the hard product onboard, why not? But on the flip side, some good work has been done, including by Diehl Aviation, exploring how you don’t always necessarily have totally vertical airflow in a cabin because of air rolls which are ultra fine particles which circulate in spaces like aisles and overhead bins. And I’d kind of like to see a study that looks at the air rolls in lie-flat suites. So that might be a consideration but regarding the accusation that this is classist. If you are an economy class passenger and the cabin isn’t full and let’s say technically you’ve got 6ft between you and the next passenger, shouldn’t you be able to remove your mask as well, and then if you do, does that open pandora’s box to a host of other exemptions? So, Max, first I guess, do you believe we will still be wearing masks in-flight once the majority of the population has been vaccinated? Because that will decide if this becomes a bigger issue or not.

Flight: Well 6ft is kind of an arbitrary distance established at the beginning and a lot of people seem to think that’s some magic number and inside 6ft you are not safe and outside 6ft you are safe and that’s just, it’s just simply not true. I am okay with this, although I understand how people in the, or some people in cheap seats will probably be angry. But in general people are on a hair trigger already; this just gives them one more thing to be angry about. But passenger separation in a lie-flat cabin, it’s probably more socially distant than with passengers in the back of the plane. And I am happy with the argument that airplane ventilation and filtration systems provide superior air quality, but I will say if I was in the lie-flat cabin, if I was flying now, I’d sleep with a mask on.

Kirby: You would?

Flight: I would. If you get a good mask, it makes all the difference in the world. I wear glasses and I have some Vietnamese masks and my glasses don’t fog. I’d be perfectly happy to fall asleep wearing a mask. It’s not a, to me it’s not a big deal. It’s something that you can accommodate so I’m good with it but again, I understand how other people may view this differently.

Kirby: Yeah I’ve been wearing the KN95 for a large portion of the pandemic and I confess I am able to handle about 20 minutes inside the grocery store with that on and then I’m the gal tearing it off [outside] just because I, dare I say it, have a hard time breathing, oh lord. But you know, you are right I guess there are other options than that. I suppose that’s possible. I suppose that’s possible. I think the likelihood is that I’ll be flying down back for awhile, Max, so I’ll just accept that reality perhaps. But one of the topics we’ve been tracking amid COVID is the mask exemptions for disabled passengers and many US airlines sought to honor disability rights at the beginning of the pandemic but they changed their tune when people started falsely claiming disability at the gate in order to not wear a mask. Now there has been another reversal after the CDC under President Biden issued guidelines for mask wearing on public transport and included exemptions for those with health conditions precluding mask use. So US operators have, some of them rather quietly, amended their mask policies again and I am sure they don’t appreciate me saying it out loud or on the site but the ADA and the ACAA are there for a reason and we are seeing some disability advocates growing more vocal on this particular issue. So that’s something we’re paying attention to but hey, the mask issue has been very, very contentious this last year. And I know a lot of people who sit on both sides of that argument. Both sides of the fence.

Flight: Yes, for sure and it is difficult when you have on requirement – wear a mask – that applies to everybody or should apply to everybody or you’d like to apply to everybody but everybody’s not the same and it’s just guaranteed to be a difficult kind of a situation. Certainly there have been many conflicts between people over masks, some of them on airplanes that have caused flights to be diverted because of the conflicts. We also see them at the grocery store or other retail establishments, people are very passionate, some of them, many of them about that. And it’s tough because we are talking about the health of people and maybe even creating a life or death situation but I don’t know, I just think we need to be kind of accommodating and hopefully we will get to a point where these kinds of mask mandates will no longer be required and we can kind of remove that obstacle to all of us just getting along.

Kirby: Well this was an interesting point made by an individual who commented on this Cathay piece and he said: “Isn’t a major point of wearing a mask not to protect me per-say but those folks around me who might be more vulnerable and who might contract the virus from me? As I may be asymptomatic. So after I have traveled through town to the airport on the way to my seat and could have contacted the virus along the way.” He felt that then allowing folks to take their mask off then in their premium seat wouldn’t make sense. So it’s interesting, the divide is really quite there but whether we will be wearing them in year from now onboard aircraft, that’ll be interesting as well.

Flight: We’ll have to see and I can imagine also that flight attendants would really love it if everybody wore a mask even in the front of the airplane where distances between passengers are somewhat greater, I would think that the flight attendants would want to see that.

Kirby: And their voice is very important as frontline employees, Max, I agree. It’s interesting.

Rotation

Flight: Alright. But last but not least, aviation seems to be largely in agreement that in post-COVID world it’s eco-credentials must improve. Now many new ideas have been tabled today including new turboprops, blended wing body aircraft, hybrid electric aircraft, plus new turbofans, synthetic fuel, not to mention exploratory studies into even hydrogen-powered aircraft. So I think these things are progressing but I think at a lower rate. Electric aircraft seem to be progressing nicely although mostly at the small end of the size spectrum. We see electric airplanes from Pipistrel that are certified. Honeywell is developing a new turbo generator that will run on biofuel to power a small hybrid electric aircraft and that design integrates an APU power section that they manufacture with a 1 megawatt generator. Eviation aircraft is making strides. Everybody and their little brother says they are developing for Urban Air Mobility. So there is a lot going on in the electric space these days.

Kirby: Yeah there sure is. Actually I think it was December 2019 when the modified de Havilland Beaver flown by Harbour Air took to the skies powered by an electric motor and the company involved in that, it’s a 750 horsepower motor from MagniX, Have you heard of this company, Max? They are also working with Honeywell, yeah they seem to be playing kind of an interesting role in kind of this, and especially in the hybrids that are, the work on hybrids that is afoot. We’ve got Collins Aerospace’s Xplane. We’ve got this Honeywell-MagniX combo working with UK startup Faradair on kind of a funky concept called the bio-electric hybrid aircraft. But one prominent pairing, the Airbus-Rolls Royce E-Fan X project has effectively bowed out of the race with Airbus saying a bolder approach is needed. So last fall Airbus announced a bunch of new bold eco-aviation ideas including a plan to start a 15 year process to get a smaller hydrogen powered aircraft certified and flying. So needless to say we will be paying close attention to that one. There is a little bit of a fear, Max, I suppose because we’ve heard about it for so long, bio-fuel for example, that conversation we’ve been having for quite some time. I remember Richard Branson kind of famously drinking some bio-fuel to celebrate Virgin Atlantic becoming the first to operate a flight, I think it was back in 2008, so there’s been a lot of discussion and a lot of marketing and a lot of written word about it. What do you think might be, do you have any thoughts on what might be the closest to prime time? Do you think these kinds of hybrid electrics will be what we will see in the near-term?

Flight: I think that’s a real possibility. We also see a lot of attention in the hydrogen fuel area but I think that’s a little bit further out. For one thing we don’t really have a distribution infrastructure for hydrogen fuel. The volumetric energy density of compressed hydrogen is low. Liquid hydrogen is much better but that’s a whole different game when it comes to the containment vessels that are required for liquid hydrogen. And one thing, and this applies to the hydrogen fuel arena as well as other alternatives, it takes energy to manufacture hydrogen and I understand that most current hydrogen production comes from fossil fuels so you still have that connection but whether you are talking about hydrogen or talking about electric I don’t always see the analysis including the entire supply chain. The energy required at all the steps. People think that well, electric is non polluting and this is the ultimate of green but you produce the electricity somehow and it’s just important, I think, to understand the total cost and the total impact on the environment of the technology. But aviation kind of has a dilemma, I think. We see this growing demand for action in terms of protecting the environment but it takes time to change technology and these technology changes are only possible with huge investment. So look, we are aviation, we are conservative, we are highly regulated, we don’t want aircraft falling out of the sky. We have to get it right and something new costs a lot of money, that’s one issue and it also takes a long time to go from great idea to certified product and I think the forces that want aviation to become more green don’t really see that issue.

Kirby: Yeah, interesting, would you say that given the amount of aid that has been provided to airlines amid the pandemic gives governments that want to see improvements from aviation on this front, gives them a little bit more clout to push that now maybe, Max? You know, especially in Europe where they seem to have a little bit more powerful message around all of this? I just wonder if it gives governments a little bit more to be able to nudge the airlines in this direction. Now we’re lucky to have a UK-based aviation journalist Kerry Reels who contributes to Runway Girl Network and she has focused heavily on green aviation and has done some great work tracking the latest developments for us and I thought one of her recent pieces was really really interesting. It highlighted an initiative that is underway in Europe to develop electro fuels for airlines using carbon dioxide captured directly from the atmosphere as a feedstock. And she wrote “although in its infancy this type of synthetic kerosene has the potential to significantly reduce the aviation industries carbon footprint.” And KLM recently performed a flight powered partially by sustainably-produced synthetic kerosene. Which is super interesting and I guess it goes back to what is the inhibitor and as you say the cost of producing biofuel has proven to be that. And so I do wonder how you deal with that cost issue because there is no shortage of fantastic ideas.

Flight: Yeah that’s true. I mean biofuels and synthetic fuels should be, I don’t want to say an easy solution but one that doesn’t seem to require as much technology investment as other options and you don’t need to change the aircraft or the engines. They run fine on biofuels. You do have issues like where are these crop-based fuels grown and do they take away land from food stocks that would have been grown otherwise or is the economic return for farmers greater with plant based biofuels so that they are disincentivized to grow crops. I mean those are kind of issues as well. But I am kind of surprised that we haven’t seen more development of biofuels, more infrastructure created to support biofuels. There have been some but it’s just, it hasn’t progressed as far as I thought and hoped a couple of years ago.

Kirby: Max, while we are talking about aviation’s efforts to improve its green credentials of course we are also seeing the hopes that supersonic flying will make a return and it’s interesting to be looking at what is being done on the supersonic level in the context of also aviation working to be more environmentally friendly. Can these two things coexist, Max, in your opinion?

Flight: That’s a dilemma certainly, and when I was in the jet engine business the most frequent question I would get from non-aviation people was something like, when are we going to get faster airplanes? And they didn’t mean supersonics, they meant faster Boeing and Airbus airliners. They assumed that’s what we were working on. Making the planes they were familiar with faster so flights could be shorter. Well no, I explain, we don’t want to go faster, that burns more fuel, we want to burn less fuel and they kind of got it but it’s not the answer they were expecting. So with all the supersonic designs, and there are many of them out there now progressing commercially, NASA, others are doing some great things, but I think those designs need to address these concerns about the environment or they risk failing because of public perception. And I think that the power of public perception is, you don’t want to underestimate it, I think it’s growing. As you mentioned in Europe, I think we’ve seen it growing stronger in Europe than in the United States but I think that just means the views that people hold in Europe concerning the environment are the views that will be coming to the United States eventually. Hopefully sooner, rather than later. My personal opinion but if these supersonic planes don’t address that issue and don’t have answers to the issue of polluting the environment then they’re going to face, I think, a lot of public pressure that could be devastating to that budding segment of the industry.

Kirby: Fascinating. Another one to definitely be watching closely. Well we are rapidly coming to a close. We would like to thank our listeners. 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’d love to have you, especially as you take to the skies again and start sharing what your passenger experience is like as industry and as the world emerges from this global pandemic and as vaccinations pick up a pace and hopefully we can get back to flying again.

Flight: In the meantime be sure to join us again next time when we talk about the passenger experience on the PaxEx podcast.

Kirby: Take care everyone!