Humans need to travel—it is a primal urge. At the same time, we are also a very resilient species. The impact of COVID-19 is unlike some of the crises that we have seen in the past like SARS and 9/11, in the sense that this pandemic is going to change the way we live, and not just the way we travel. I was in San Francisco during 9/11, and the memories from the aftermath of that horrific incident are still fresh in my mind. If we talk about the impact that incident had on the Travel and Hospitality industries, I believe that, it was nothing compared to what we are seeing currently.
The fallout of the current crisis is widespread and is not just limited to the Travel industry. Coming from a B2C e-Commerce world, I can foresee how this crisis is going to change the way we shop. The transition to e-commerce is happening at an accelerated pace. Retailers and product companies that did not have an online channel are building out the capability on a war footing. From a customer perspective, the inertia of sticking to their old shopping habits is changing - they are transitioning from touch-and-feel shopping to view-and-add to cart shopping.
So, is this the end of brick-and-mortar stores? Definitely not. Some consumers need to go out and shop, and that habit won’t change, but some of the market share will shift from offline to online shopping, as more and more customers are forced to adapt to this new normal. When it comes to Travel, there is a difference. You can’t travel online, your physical-self has to travel. Teleportation is still a distant future. As there is no alternative yet (I don’t consider AR/VR/VC as a close alternative), people will continue to travel for sure, be it for leisure, or for business.
When flights resume, there will be a lot of hygiene concerns among passengers, but they will go back to being comfortable and feeling safe, over time. Airlines and hotels are leaving no stone unturned to ensure that proper sanitization measures are in place, before they start welcoming back guests. They will need to ensure that the steps and actions that they’re taking are visible to their customers, so that it will help in regaining the customer’s confidence and reignite their urge to travel.
There is a lot of speculation around the impact of COVID-19 on the Travel industry. Some experts opine that it is likely that an Airline consolidation will happen (like what happened after 9/11). They also suggest that the industry will come together to implement some much-needed changes, to continue serving passengers. Following are some of my thoughts on the changes that we can expect to see:
Ticket prices are going to be cheap
Base cost will be low (initially): Airlines may have to cut prices initially to woo passengers. The challenge is to instill the confidence in passengers to fly again. Once the initial set of travelers start flying, others will follow suit, until the volumes normalize. So, chances are that you may get great deals on flight tickets, if not irresistible deals.
Ancillaries will cost more: Ancillaries like additional check-in baggage, extra legroom, and in-flight meals, are going to be priced higher. Branded fares will be the differentiator in many cases.
Airlines will enhance safety measures
Many new standards will be implemented across the travel industry at various customer touch-points. Few examples:
Deep cleaning: Additional disinfection measures will be taken to clean high-touch points such as arm rests, seat belts, tray tables, overhead buttons, and lavatory door handles. Disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers will be available in the back of each seat. A fogging process will be introduced to disinfect the air and surfaces within the airplane, and the disinfection frequency will also be increased. In addition to all this, we will witness a lot of innovation around disinfection technologies.
Social distancing: The seat layout inside the cabin may change going forward. We can expect to see some innovation in how the limited space inside the flight is optimized, keeping social-distancing measures in mind.
Some airline companies may plan to reduce the seating capacity in their flights, to allow more room for social distancing, which includes blocking of middle seats. Keeping the middle seats empty would be challenging in the long-term and would reduce the maximum seat capacity to below break-even levels. Additionally, wearing masks will be made mandatory for both, passengers and crew members. Sequential boarding process will be mandated, in order to reduce contact between passengers.
Reduced in-cabin facilities: We might see F&B services being reduced to a bare minimum inside aircrafts. Even amenities such as warm towels, blankets, and additional pillows etc. may be suspended, until things get back to normal. There may also be stricter cabin baggage policies.
Touchless check-in and boarding: We will get to see a lot more touchless features being introduced inside airports, starting from the check-in counter, all the way up to the boarding gates. Bluetooth and NFC technologies could be introduced at various passenger touch-points across the airport.
Additional tests at airports: Along with the current security checks at airports, temperature and other health checks will be mandated. This may result in longer queues and higher wait times for passengers.
More pertinently than any of these operational or procedural changes, there will be a behavioral change in people. I suspect social interactions and niceties will be reduced, and conversations will be purely transactional, unlike before. It will be a bumpy road back to the pre-crisis level. Many say that flying will be limited to essential travel only, but I disagree. People can operate remotely only for so long, and they are bound to resume business travel again. People cannot avoid taking vacations for long either, hence leisure travel will also bounce back. But be it corporate or leisure travel, they must happen with some additional checks and balances. We have already seen how China has successfully emerged from this crisis, which means that the rest of the world can do so too. The number of people travelling outside their home cities jumped nearly 50 per cent at the start of the Labour Day weekend, which augurs well for the global travel industry. My view is once things settle down, travel should be back with a bang. What are your thoughts?
Sanjeeb Patel is the Director of Software Engineering, Sabre Travel Network Product Development, GCC, Bengaluru, Sabre Corporation.