How to convince travellers to fly again by addressing the 5 key deterrents
Using science, good practices and inspirations from other industries to bring back passengers despite the pandemic
The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has hit few sectors harder than the aviation sector. Airlines and airports are desperately trying to convince people that air travel is safe. Current communication strategies focus on creation of perception of safety and on high-quality services. However, the results of a survey on attitudes towards aviation show that the scepticism towards air travel is on the rise. Few in the industry have been brave enough to communicate the risks involved, instead, most of the players keep on promising a “safe environment”. Whereas using a mechanism to build trust, known from other industries, airlines and airports have to step into their customers’ shoes to identify and address any doubts that customers may have. Honest communication providing reliable information increases the customers’ perception of being in control. This would hold true and would drive the willingness to travel even if the risk was relatively high (which is not).
Our research shows that there are 5 basic types of risk that customers take into account when deciding on whether or not to travel by air. Below we’ve listed those risks along with good aviation industry practices, but have we also included examples of strategies from other industries, which may serve as an inspiration. In the second part of the article, we share some simple techniques, which can improve risk-related communication, backed by behavioural science.
1. The risk of losing or freezing money for the plane tickets
From the customers’ perspective, one of the key worries when deciding on whether to book a plane ticket is the perspective of losing money. In the first months of the pandemic, the Internet was flooded with horror stories of airlines suspending refunds and on lengthy refund processes. To a prospective customer, making a booking may feel like a gamble.
This can be addressed without further straining airlines’ fragile cash positions. One of many possible ways to do it is to adapt a system inspired by couriers, which update customers on the status of their parcel every step of the way. Even an automated system allowing customers to check the status of their case, makes customers feel informed and taken care of. Even if the process by itself can take a lot of time.
2. The risk of catching the virus at the airport or on a plane.
Many companies in the aviation industry already communicate how they minimize the risk of catching the virus during the trip. This includes transparency on new procedures, staff training, explanation of how technological solutions work. One great example of such campaign is #askaustrain campaign, where Austrian Airlines staff answers burning questions on COVID-19 response e.g. staff training, procedures, communication.
Another approach is testing passengers before the flights and boarding only those with a negative result. United Airlines has just launched a pilot, free, rapid COVID-19 tests for transatlantic travel. Rapid pre-departure testing facilities have also been opened at London Heathrow, and although the tests are not provided for free, they are offered to passengers of several airlines. In both cases, the idea is to provide passengers — those taking the tests and all the others on the same flights — with another layer of assurance. And even if rapid tests are less precise than the “gold standard” PCR-based tests, they can help to remove a significant part of the risk. Especially the antigen tests do so by allowing to identify the passengers who might be contagious at the moment of the flight.
Having said that, even if all the passengers test as negative, the level of risk is not zero and should be transparently and precisely communicated as such. But that is already a level of risk passengers can live with — introducing mandatory testing today would be similar to introducing incremental security procedures after 9/11 attacks, which procedures are now widely accepted. These procedures were fundamental in driving the pre-pandemic demand for air travel to record levels, even if the risk of terrorist attacks has never been reduced to zero.
3. The risk of sudden holiday cancellation due to regulatory change
Many customers fear being unable to travel, especially abroad due to rapid changes in the legal landscape. Wizzair has been very proactive in keeping customers up to date with changes in COVID restrictions across Europe. Their extensive list of country-specific restrictions is accompanied by a user-friendly map, which colour codes country-specific restrictions. The map gives access to official airport websites and the database is updated daily.
The consequences of this risk are also mitigated by now widespread flexible re-booking policies, provided that they allow finding a different destination within the same, often long-awaited time window, at no extra cost. “Ifs” in such policies, e.g. “if the booking class is still available”, significantly reduce the positive impact of theoretical flexible re-booking by reducing customers’ trust.
4. The risk of being put on a mandatory quarantine
Many people fear that their precious sunny holiday may turn into a two-week involuntary stay at an isolation ward. This can be addressed by facilitating an officially recognized test before the flight. Many airlines have already introduced various types of such a service. A good example is the testing service offered by Hawaiian Airlines, which, in partnership with several companies offers pre-travel PCR testing within a guaranteed timeframe of 72 hours before departure. The timeframe corresponds with the current travel requirements issued by the State of Hawaii. The service, however, to reduce travel-related anxiety has to be reliable and to be compliant with evolving legislation.
5. The risk of high medical emergency costs abroad
While many families have a certain holiday budget set aside, few can afford medical care abroad in case of an emergency, unless they can benefit from mutualisation of healthcare coverage, which is the case of EU citizens in other EU countries. To take the financial pressure off customers’ shoulders, some airlines offer medical insurance together with a ticket. Air Canada offers a complimentary COVID-19 specific insurance for a travel duration of up to 21 days. The insurance covers up to CAD 200 000 in case of a positive result at the destination. It also covers up to CAD 150 a day in case of quarantine expenses after a COVID-19 positive test result, denied entry or contact tracing at the destination.
Crafting communication backed by behavioural science
Being clear about the extent of uncertainty may build a sense of safety among users. Communication focused on transparency of the risk involved might attract customers. We have to remember that people do not perceive risk accurately and that there are differences between individuals. Some messages might provoke an excessive response, others insufficient — any new strategy should be tested with intended audiences. We can however design the risk-related communication taking into account some known effects. To name a few:
- risks are overestimated when they have more emotional impact,
- fear tends to increase the perceived risk, while anger can reduce it,
- people trust numbers more than they trust qualitative descriptions and most (but not all) people prefer numeric values.
Using other industries as inspiration
There is still plenty of space for action in the way airports and airlines address the epidemic-related risks in their communication and activities. Banking and insurance industries are a good inspiration for how to help customers understand and manage risk on a daily basis. Our experience in working with the banking sector has shown that it is possible to break down the risks into manageable chunks, eliminate some of them and mitigate the consequences when the risks materialize to alleviate product fear (e.g. the fear of being trapped in a debt spiral due to using credit cards). Communication and activities we designed in such a way have lowered the adverse impact of risk and have attracted more customers.