Communicating Travel Safety in Times of COVID-19: Six Points to Consider

All over the globe COVID-19 has sent airlines to intensive care. Now, carriers want to get out of the sick bay and their fleets back to where they belong: up in the air and filled with passengers. Time is of the essence as there is not only business at stake but millions of jobs. No wonder there have been intensive communication efforts in the past few days to get travellers back on board. Comparing cabin air quality with that in an OR and pointing out that there are no proven cases of any transmissions on board sometimes suggest that the risk to contract that virus that has become the plague of aviation is zero to none. But as we can learn from history, this kind of over-reassurance can back-fire and is actually unnecessary.


Patrick Meschenmoser (Vienna)

When a long chain of events led to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in March 2011 only some experts had been aware of the risk. For years and years Japan’s nuclear industry had fostered the impression of absolute safety and created what later became known as the “anzen shinwa”, the safety myth. This narrative was one reason why the operator’s crisis communication was given little to no credibility in the days and months following the accident. This safety myth was a result of an over-reassurance to fight any doubts in the safety of nuclear power. Ironically, it led to the exact opposite: the complete loss of trust in the industry in many parts of the world after the accident had unmasked the myth.


Obviously, everything human beings do can be risky. Even if you fearfully spend your whole life at home, there is a good chance that you die in a household accident. In the US 2.5 times more people die from accidental poisoning and unintentional falls each year than in a car crash. No one would ever claim that there is no risk of ever having an accident at all. But over-reassurance sets a safety standard that can’t possibly be met. As a side effect it obfuscates the view on real fact-based figures that would support the safety case more effectively than a myth narrative ever could. Actually, nuclear power is, even including the accidents of Fukushima and Chernobyl, by far the safest form of energy with the lowest mortality rate per terawatt hour of energy produced. But yes, accidents can happen.


So, is it really necessary to use a narrative that suggests that there might not be a real risk because there has been no proven transmission of the coronavirus in flight so far? Those who follow that approach might be lucky and will claim afterwards that it was the right strategy. Fair enough. But one proven case of an infection or even just the speculation about it could be enough to substantially harm the credibility of the airline or even the industry. Journalists and media will have a field day and one can only imagine the memes that would spread via social media instantly.


So what could airlines do instead – and there are already great examples - to promote their product and maintain the trust of customers that want to get back up in the air to travel? Here are six suggestions:


1.     Trust your customers’ intelligence:

People know that there is no such thing as absolute safety. There is no reason not to admit that there is always a certain risk of getting infected during the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter what you do. But as far as we know, the risk of contracting the virus "in flight" is not higher than for any other comparable activity. Don’t say that there is no proof of a transmission on board an air craft, as people will only hear “There is no proof, YET!” COVID-19 has surprised us more than once, already.


2.     Use good arguments wisely and put them in context

Air quality and air flow on board an aircraft for sure is an asset compared to the situation in other transportation means. Aircraft are equipped with highly effective air filters that indeed meet the standards of those in an OR and the air in the cabin is completely exchanged every three minutes or so. This doesn’t mean that there is no infection risk at all. Passengers might still touch contaminated surfaces for example. But air quality is an argument when airlines get asked why middle seats are still sold. It’s a strong argument if it is put in the right context an if you don’t implicitly suggest that there is no risk at all by saying that cabin air is “virus free”. Make no mistake, this will be the claim the host will throw at you when you have to “stand trial” at a talk show once there is a proven case of transmission.


3.     Remember that travelling is a people’s business

Inflight experience and the safe conduction of air travel is as much a matter of skilled and well trained staff as it is one of great technology. It is the right thing to feature the high tech that makes the flight safe and enjoyable. However, it is your staff that creates that certain feeling of being safe on board. It is your staff that makes people trust the airline. Make their dedication a story, too. Show your customers how your staff is prepared to take good care of them. One great example of an airline following this approach is Austrian and its charming campaign to promote its restart.

4.     Use your biggest asset: aviation’s safety culture

Air travel is considered to be safe, although fatal accidents still occur every year. That’s because people don’t trust in safety myths, they trust in the safety culture of those airlines that have proven to take this culture seriously. Tell your customers how you apply your safety culture and experience to adapt to this challenging situation. This is a unique asset. Tell them about layered approaches, sophisticated hygiene protocols, like Virgin Atlantic does in some very effective videos, and show your customers how you train your staff to tackle this difficult time, how you qualify them, how you are tailoring your procedures to that one very goal: to keep everyone on board as safe as possible in that pandemic.

5.     Get some third party endorsement

When I did some research for this article I found that there was actually not that much research done yet on the potential spreading of germs on board an aircraft and the studies that have been conducted didn’t specifically target the SARS-CoV-2 virus, yet. However if you want to bring forward research to support your case, choose some independent third party endorsement. As much as I value IATA’s great work, it is still an association and scientists that work for IATA have not the same credibility as independent researchers.


6.     Be careful, over-reassurance goes both ways

Some airlines have decided to leave their middle seats empty “for your safety” and to use the blocked seat as a marketing tool. Fair enough. However, there also seems to be no scientific proof yet that an empty middle seat will make a big difference with regards to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Airlines playing this card are promising a safety level that might actually be absolutely unnecessary or non-existing. That’s over-reassurance the other way round. Whereas this is an easy sales approach when utilization is low and might convince some customers, it will get tricky when air travel regains momentum and all these empty seats could very well be sold. In case the virus is still an issue then, there is no way to abandon the blocked middle seat without damaging your credibility. That’s why it also doesn’t help much to limit the offer until a certain date. Or does safety have a “best before” date? Not until there is vaccine at least.


Bottom line: there is always a certain risk to get infected during a pandemic. People don’t expect absolute safety. The few ones that do will most likely not book a flight anyway. Your passengers expect what they always do: that you make their safety a priority, that you don’t make promises you can’t possibly keep, and that they can trust you, your product, your staff and your communication. So don’t imply something, tell travellers and staff how you keep them as safe as reasonably possible.