July 8 2020  |  Airlines & Airports

IATA survey reveals COVID-19 traveler concerns

By Mary Jane Pittilla

“We are on the right track to restoring confidence in travel. But it will take time” - Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO, IATA

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released public opinion research showing the willingness to travel being tempered by concerns over the risks of catching COVID-19 during air travel. The industry’s restart plans seek to address passengers’ main concerns.

Travelers are taking precautions to protect themselves from COVID-19, with 77% saying that they are washing their hands more frequently, 71% avoiding large meetings and 67% having worn a facemask in public. Some 58% of those surveyed said that they have avoided air travel, with 33% suggesting that they will avoid travel in future as a continued measure to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19.

Travelers identified their top three concerns as follows:

At the airport:

1. Being in a crowded bus/train on the way to the aircraft (59%);
2. Queuing at check-in/security/border control or boarding (42%);
3. Using airport restrooms/toilet facilities (38%).

Onboard aircraft:

1. Sitting next to someone who might be infected (65%);
2. Using restrooms/toilet facilities (42%);
3. Breathing the air on the plane (37%).

When asked to rank the top three measures that would make them feel safer, 37% cited COVID-19 screening at departure airports, 34% agreed with mandatory wearing of facemasks and 33% noted social distancing measures on aircraft.

Passengers themselves displayed a willingness to play a role in keeping flying safe by:

1. Undergoing temperature checks (43%);
2. Wearing a mask during travel (42%);
3. Checking-in online to minimize interactions at the airport (40%);
4. Taking a COVID-19 test prior to travel (39%);
5. Sanitizing their seating area (38%).

Commenting on the survey findings, Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, said: “People are clearly concerned about COVID-19 when traveling. But they are also reassured by the practical measures being introduced by governments and the industry under the Take-off guidance developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These include mask-wearing, the introduction of contactless technology in travel processes and screening measures. This tells us that we are on the right track to restoring confidence in travel. But it will take time. To have maximum effect, it is critical that governments deploy these measures globally.”

The survey also pointed to some key issues in restoring confidence where the industry will need to communicate the facts more effectively.

Travelers’ top onboard concerns include:

Cabin air quality: While 57% of travelers believed that air quality is dangerous, 55% also responded that they understood that it was as clean as the air in a hospital operating theatre. The quality of air in modern aircraft is, in fact, far better than most other enclosed environments, according to IATA. It is exchanged with fresh air every 2-3 minutes, whereas the air in most office buildings is exchanged 2-3 times per hour. Moreover, High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters capture well over 99.999% of germs, including the Coronavirus.

Social distancing: Governments advise wearing a mask or face covering when social distancing is not possible, as is the case with public transport. This aligns with the expert ICAO Take-off guidance. Additionally, while passengers are sitting in close proximity onboard, the cabin air flow is from ceiling to floor. This limits the potential spread of viruses or germs backwards or forwards in the cabin. There are several other natural barriers to the transmission of the virus onboard, including the forward orientation of passengers (limiting face-to-face interaction), seatbacks that limit transmission from row-to-row, and the limited movement of passengers in the cabin, IATA said.

There is no requirement for social distancing measures onboard the aircraft from highly respected aviation authorities such as the US Federal Aviation Administration, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency or ICAO.

de Juniac said: “It is no secret that passengers have concerns about the risk of transmission onboard. They should be reassured by the many built-in antivirus features of the air flow system and forward-facing seating arrangements. On top of this, screening before flight and facial coverings are among the extra layers of protection that are being implemented by industry and governments on the advice of ICAO and the World Health Organization. No environment is risk-free, but few environments are as controlled as the aircraft cabin. And we need to make sure that travelers understand that.”

No quick solution

While nearly half of those surveyed (45%) indicated they would return to travel within a few months of the pandemic subsiding, this is a significant drop from the 61% recorded in the April survey. Overall, the survey results demonstrate that people have not lost their taste for travel, but there are blockers to returning to pre-crisis levels of travel:

-A majority of travelers surveyed plan to return to travel to see family and friends (57%), to vacation (56%) or to do business (55%) as soon as possible after the pandemic subsides.

-But 66% said that they would travel less for leisure and business in the post-pandemic world.

-And 64% indicated that they would postpone travel until economic factors improved (personal and broader).

“This crisis could have a very long shadow,” continued de Juniac. “Passengers are telling us that it will take time before they return to their old travel habits. Many airlines are not planning for demand to return to 2019 levels until 2023 or 2024. Numerous governments have responded with financial lifelines and other relief measures at the height of the crisis. As some parts of the world are starting the long road to recovery, it is critical that governments stay engaged. Continued relief measures like alleviation from use-it-or-lose-it slot rules, reduced taxes or cost reduction measures will be critical for some time to come.”

One of the biggest blockers to industry recovery is quarantine. Some 85% of travelers reported concern for being quarantined while traveling, a similar level of concern to those reporting general concern for catching the virus when traveling (84%). And, among the measures that travelers were willing to take in adapting to travel during or after the pandemic, only 17% reported that they were willing to undergo quarantine.

“Quarantine is a demand killer,” stressed de Juniac. “Keeping borders closed prolongs the pain by causing economic hardship well beyond airlines. If governments want to restart their tourism sectors, alternative risk-based measures are needed. Many are built into the ICAO Take-off guidelines, like health screening before departure to discourage symptomatic people from traveling. Airlines are helping this effort with flexible rebooking policies. In these last days we have seen the UK and the EU announce risk-based calculations for opening their borders. And other countries have chosen testing options. Where there is a will to open up, there are ways to do it responsibly.”

The 11-country survey, which was conducted during the first week of June 2020, assessed traveler concerns during the pandemic and the potential timelines for their return to travel. This is the third wave of the survey, with previous waves conducted at the end of February and the beginning of April. All those surveyed had taken at least one flight since July 2019.

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