If every airline in the United States joined together in advertising that the average person has only about a 0.013% chance of getting (not dying from, just getting) Covid-19 from traveling aboard a commercial airliner in which every seat is filled, would that be enough to get you to fly again?
After all, the reverse of that number translates into a 99.987% chance that you won’t catch Covid-19 on such a flight?
Compared with a lot of other risky and not-so-risky things people do all the time, catching Covid-19 from flying on a full plane today is not very likely at all. In fact, statistically speaking, it’s only a tiny bit less likely than the average person being killed by commercial fireworks, or by a falling meteorite. And neither of those come close to qualifying as a common cause of death.
Indeed, the average person’s chances of being killed – not just involved in, but actually dying from – a car crash are much, much higher; about 1-in-103 every time you get in one. Yet few people give a second thought to getting into a vehicle to drive or ride somewhere. And it’s likely safer to fly now than doing a lot of things in public that many Americans are doing regularly once again, like shopping in food stores, eating in restaurants, going into their offices to work, and gathering in groups of 10 or more.
Yet, neither individual airlines nor their Washington lobby group, Airlines For America, are paying to advertise that message. If they’re trying to place well-argued pieces on the op-ed pages of the nation’s biggest and most influential newspapers – and there’s no evidence that they are – they’re being remarkably unsuccessful, especially for a group that can normally get an op-ed in the New York Times by calling up and telling the editor that the piece already is his or her inbox. And with only a couple of modest exceptions they’re not even getting their CEOs on the big national radio, TV and cable talk shows, when such programs perpetually are begging to host big-name corporate leaders. Perhaps most startingly, the industry is not even making the minimum expected effort, which would be to enlist a friendly third-party expert or former government officials to write an op-ed in support of carriers’ efforts to keep their planes disease free.
Instead, the leaders of most U.S. carriers seem content to let Americans’ understandable but emotionally-driven and often exaggerated fears of a serious disease go unchecked. Changing minds on such matters isn’t easy, of course. But it’s not impossible. Yet it will never happen if they don’t at least start trying.
Yes, the airlines will have to be careful and smart about what and how they communicate now with the public. Thanks to the use of mathematical formulas and their application to the statistical probabilities that few people really understand, it’s not hard to make folks look, and feel silly when it comes to what risks they fret over vs. the risks they ignore. So, any communications that come off as belittling of consumers will backfire on the carriers. But there are ways to get the message out that flying and traveling is not nearly as dangerous as most people currently “feel” that it is.
Data, used appropriately, can convince some – though not all – consumers that not every activity they’re avoiding right now like – well, the plague – actually is an activity that needs to be avoided. And in the case of Covid-19, that’s especially true if people follow the widely promulgated hygiene practices aimed at limiting the spread of Covid-19 (wearing a mask, frequent washing of hands with soap or the use of disinfectant gels, social distancing and more). Carriers also need to show sensitivity by communicating effectively that while flying is much more safe than most people now believe, for those at elevated levels of risk because of their age and/or underlying health issues it’s still a good idea not to fly – yet.
In fact, they can and should communicate that if all air travelers follow the recommended hygiene practices (and that U.S. airlines actually do as thorough a job of cleaning and disinfecting their planes as they now claim they do) there would be an even smaller chance that the average person would contract the disease on a commercial flight. At least statistically speaking.
Now, travelers may catch Covid-19 in the taxi or Uber car on the way to the airport, standing in the security screening line, from the checkout counter at the airport coffee shop, from stale air in the jet bridge, from the handle of their own suitcase in the baggage claim, in their rental car, or from their hotel room. Airlines can’t guarantee what they can’t control. Still, chances are quite high that consumers who follow the hygiene rules and take all proper precautions won’t get Covid-19 on a plane.
Yet, that’s a story that airlines today, who all are starving for revenue and still racking up daily losses of $25 million to $60 million, aren’t doing much to tell. You’d think that such companies would be filling every commercial break on television with ads, plastering the side of city buses and freeway billboards with ads, flooding folks’ inboxes with digital messages, and appearing on every cable news talk show in America trying to get out the message. But they aren’t.
“Well, I actually think Delta is a doing a fairly good job of telling people how they clean their planes,” says Ken Luce, founder and managing partner of boutique LDWW Group, a boutique marketing and public relations firm in Dallas. “If I were going to travel – and I’m not right now – I’d be comforted by that.
“But there are other pieces to the story, like the air filtration systems that change out 100% the cabin’s air every two or three minutes, and other practices that (carriers) could be telling consumers about. They could be talking about their vital role in the economy. But for some reason or another none of them are,” added Luce. Previously, as a senior executive at two of the nation’s largest public relations firms he advised several of the nation’s largest carriers.
“The biggest question” for consumers now, he says, is “do I trust who I’m flying with? But the carriers are being all-but silent. They’re communicating digitally with their frequent fliers, or at least their higher mileage frequent fliers. But I don’t know that they’re doing even that very effectively. This is not a time to lose your voice. But they have.”
Why is that?
Could it be that the top leaders at America’s big airlines know, deep in their hearts, that their own customers, including some of their very best and most loyal customers, don’t trust them; and that many don’t even like them?
For the better part of two decades now U.S. airlines have been taking things away from their customers. They took away hot meals in flight for the vast majority of customers, and gave some (but not all) of them stale, bland sandwiches instead. Then they started making those customers pay for those stale, bland sandwiches – at well above street level prices, mind you. They took away free checked bags for most ordinary travelers and made even their best customers pay if they wanted to check a second bag. They changed their frequent flier program rules to award many travelers fewer mileage points for their travel than others, or to require more mileage points to claim that free trip they were promised when they signed up – or both. Some began charging to book a flight online. Others charged a fee if the flight wasn’t booked online. And when people stopped buying those stale, bland sandwiches, they just took away the sandwiches altogether.
They also took away two, three, sometimes even four or more inches of leg room in order to put a couple more rows of seats. Thus, consumers’ got the clear message that their comfort was a lot less important than the airline’s ability to put a whopping 12 more seats on the narrow body planes used on most domestic flights. And the airlines made sure to tell their customers that they should be happy about it because that’s how they were able to keep fare prices down (even as they reached a new era of unprecedented profitability).
When travelers complained about old and poor quality selections of programs on carriers’ seatback entertainment systems, some carriers solved that problem by taking away the seatback entertainment systems. And when some carriers decided they need still more space to add another row or two of seats, they took much of the padding out of their narrow and too-close seats to come up with a “slim line” design for seating, both in the cabin and in the lavatories. One carrier actually argued that people should be happy with a 24-inch wide restroom because they did tests and most people can actually do what needs to be done in there (this in a nation where the average man weighs about 200 pounds and wears a size 42 suit coat).
So, sadly, this predicament is not the unexpected result of Covid-19’s recent arrival. It is the result of several decades of purposeful management decisions across the industry that made customers and customer service appear to be low priorities.
Indeed, Luce worries that unlike cruise lines, which while shut down entirely now know that their very loyal, hardcore cruising fans will be right back on board as soon as the ships get government permission to set sail again, airlines’ passenger traffic recovery will be slower than the recovery of other parts of the economy. Certainly there will be some initial signs of pent up demand for air travel, but he says consumers already peeved at the airlines for the way they’ve been treated over the last 20 years may be slow to return to their former frequent flying ways.
Luce says that U.S. carriers, having for so long now made their disdain for their customers abundantly clear, no longer have any standing with the public. There is no well of consumer good will from which U.S. carriers can draw in order to convince even their very best customers to fly with again with same vigor and frequency as before.
“Ultimately it goes back to a leadership problem, not just now, but for a number of years across most of the industry,” Luce said. In pursuit of other goals like market share, survival in the bad times, getting through bankruptcy and mergers, and in recent years raking in record profits “they have lost sight of who their customers are and how to talk to them. As a result their customers don’t trust them anymore.”
Still, that’s no excuse for not even trying to communicate a complex, nuanced and important message that customers need to be hearing right now and that, even moreso, airlines need to be preaching.