After a difficult year for the air-travel industry marked by layoffs, furloughs and planes grounded due to the COVID-19 pandemic, customers are ready to fly.
On Memorial Day weekend, air travel returned to 75% of pre-pandemic levels with 7.1 million people passing through security checkpoints, according to the Transportation Security Administration. That number is expected to rise for Fourth of July weekend, as air-traffic control anticipates pre-pandemic volumes of travel.
While that’s positive news for an industry that laid off or furloughed nearly 400,000 people globally, new challenges are emerging. In the last few weeks, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have come under fire on social media for the cancelation of thousands of flights due to staff shortages, severe weather and capacity limitations.
In economic terms, supply has not met demand, and as a result, a major communications crisis is taking place as customers grow increasingly irritated with the current flying experience.
Whether the airline industry is prepared for a quick return to normal is a matter of debate. But consumers are, so carriers must use every possible channel to establish new expectations, says Dave Duschene, crisis and issues team lead for Golin Chicago.
“Airlines need to communicate as clearly and candidly as they can during this time,” he said via email. “Proactive, candid and factual messaging is a must, and they should honestly say that they will need time to get back up to standards that were set before the pandemic. Airlines should empathetically acknowledge that people are champing at the bit to get back to normal, but just like everything else affected by the pandemic, this will take time.”
Since travel has increased, American Airlines is trying to be transparent about cancelations. The airline is planning to trim its schedule by 1% through mid-July to ease disruptions.
“Our focus as demand has returned, and always, has been on delivering for our customers no matter the circumstance,” says Sarah Jantz, director of communications at American Airlines. “Key to that is being open, proactive and communicative with our customers and our team.”
While cancelation announcements are prompting unpleasant reactions from customers, American is reaching out to them to re-accommodate and place them on new flights.
“A lot of this is expectation setting,” Jantz says. “Our frontline teams are focused on making sure customers know what to expect with resources on our website [such as] pre-departure emails that make it clear what the expectations are around the federal mask mandates or what you can expect while you're flying with us during this time.”
American is also hiring customer service representatives after approximately a quarter of its reps took voluntary leaves of absence or buyouts.
Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines is braving the storm with what it calls “Southwest Hospitality,” increasing overtime pay for cargo agents, flight attendants and ground operations agents from July 1-7 in preparation for the Independence Day weekend
After technological snags and severe weather at Southwest’s busiest airports interrupted operations, the airline is maintaining communication with employees about how leadership is handling the situation.
In an internal memo obtained by PRWeek, Alan Kasher, EVP of daily operations at Southwest Airlines, told employees that the airline is “prepared for this increase in travel demand with the aircraft and staffing planned for the summer” and that the “increase is welcome news after [the] business suffered last year.”
“Irregular operations created by weather disrupt even the best plans and can make it difficult to recover the operation quickly. Our load factors are at an all-time high, which impacts our recovery options,” the memo continued.
Customers, however, seem to disagree.
United Airlines and Delta Air Lines are head-to-head in efforts to capitalize on the demand.
On Tuesday, United said it purchased 270 Boeing and Airbus aircraft, the largest purchase by any carrier in the last decade. It plans to increase the total number of domestic seats by nearly 30% per departure and expects 4% to 6% international growth over the next few years, according to Axios.
It will also add up to 25,000 jobs across its domestic network. Internally, United has conveyed to employees it is prepared for the demand, according to an internal memo obtained by PRWeek.
“Over the last several days, you’ve likely seen media reports that detail the operational challenges faced by some of our competitors and the disruptive schedule changes they’ve implemented to compensate for them,” wrote Jon Roitman, COO, in the memo. “The truth is that our situation is different primarily because we have been planning for this moment for more than a year, and that planning has given us a big advantage in running our business and caring for our customers.”
According to the memo, United established an integrated working group across all departments to plan “how the airline could execute against a sudden surge in travel demand, with an emphasis on resource readiness and aircraft availability.” The mandate for that task force includes working with vendor partners to maximize flexibility and plan with airport officials to minimize issues such as TSA screening congestion.
United is expecting to add more than 900 daily flights in June and July.
Delta is in talks to buy a fleet of used A350 and 737 aircraft. While Delta declined requests for an interview, a spokesperson told PRWeek the airline “isn’t seeing what some competitors are reportedly seeing due to staffing pressures.”
“There is no impact to our schedule or operations for our customers and our people are working hard to get our customers to their destinations safely, reliably and enjoyably as they return to travel this summer,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
Yet communications has to extend beyond just talking about delays or cancelations, says Virginia Sheridan, managing partner at Finn Partners’ travel and lifestyle division in North America.
“The CDC has laid out clear guidelines for airlines on COVID-19 protocols, with mask wearing at the top of this list. Yet, passengers are confused because airlines can make their own decisions about capacity, including middle seat blocking, a short-term practice that most airlines have stopped,” she said in an email. “Since protocols are changing, and not the same with every airline, carriers should use apps, multi-language and accessible for the visually impaired websites and text messaging to inform and remind passengers about their protocols and vaccination requirements at least 24 hours before a flight. Airport conditions can also be included in these communiques and clear protocols should be easily found on an airline’s website landing page.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the International Air Transport Association has developed multimedia assets including videos and infographics to restore travel confidence. The visuals, which are copyright-free, address issues such as aircraft filtration concerns, mask policies when traveling and other ways to prepare for travel by air.
The organization is also working with other air travel agencies and organizations to disseminate information to the public about why air travel poses less of a risk for COVID-19 than other indoor locations, says Perry Flint, head of corporate communications at IATA USA.
There is also the challenge of unruly customers unwilling to follow guidelines. After increased violence and unruly behavior on flights, including an assault of a flight attendant on a Southwest flight, American and Southwest paused alcohol sales on-board through September 13.
The airlines have been communicating their intolerance for unruly behavior, an action Barbara Laidlaw, partner of global reputation risk and public affairs at Allison + Partners says can restore order and trust in flying.
“Overall, policies may not be liked, but if communicated well, there’s often more compliance,” Laidlaw says. “Airlines should anchor to a leading source when possible, and above all help customers understand the safety of all is of the utmost importance to the airline.”
This story first appeared on PRWeek US.