Airlines in the Asia-Pacific have convened high-level task forces to deal with the coronavirus crisis and the changes necessary for a resumption of air travel.
While air travel has resumed in several of Asia-Pacific’s domestic markets — namely Australia, South Korea, China, Vietnam, India, and Indonesia — regional and international traffic of any significance has yet to emerge, held back by lockdowns and a bewildering array of travel restrictions. The collapse in demand has forced airlines to review every assumption.
At Singapore Airlines, executive vice president of operations Mak Swee Wah is spearheading a task force that is looking at four areas: a review of the customer journey focused on safety; engagement with policy makers and partners; regulatory issues including aircraft readiness; and working with partners in the broader ecosystem in a search for signs of recovery.
“This is a comprehensive review of everything that the SIA Group needs to do to as we gradually recover from the crippling impact of the Covid-19 virus on our business and resume operations,” says Mak.
“The work groups look into everything from regulatory requirements and safety standards, to the licensing and certification and manpower requirements, the end-to-end journey for our customers, and the readiness of our suppliers to support us. Through this, we are making sure that SIA will be first off the blocks when the recovery comes.”
An SIA passenger survey revealed that there will be new expectations for SIA flight crew. In addition to ensuring that everyone follows safety guidelines during a flight, they also need to be a reassuring presence given that passengers are worried about travel. Moreover, SIA is placing a very strong emphasis on hygiene measures both on the ground and inside aircraft.
“The SIA experience is constantly evolving due to changes in the operating environment and customer expectations. We are also mindful that customers still expect a premium experience when they fly with us,” adds Mak. “The face mask has become a fixture and a symbol of safety for customers and crew. Coupled with the reduced contact, it will be a different onboard experience during this time.”
Korean Air set up a special task force in March, which it says has allowed it to quickly address a rapidly evolving situation both quickly and efficiently. The task force is led by airline president Keehong Woo, with executive vice president of operations Soo-keun Lee also playing a key role. The task force comprises 16 executives, and is backed by a steering committee including President Woo and executive vice presidents.
As with their counterparts at SIA, the Korean Air team is looking at a broad range of issues, not least of which are measures to protect passengers and crew from coronavirus. It is has also looked at social distancing through seat assignments on the aircraft, as well as new boarding and disembarkation procedures.
“We need to maintain close cooperation with other airlines and relevant authorities such as airports, quarantine and immigration authorities to effectively deal with post Covid-19 challenges,” says Korean Air. “We are working to minimise contact in all stages of travel with technologies such as auto gate and self-bag drop, with regular disinfection. Korean Air will continue to communicate actively with passengers about the safety of air travel.”
In addition to the passenger safety element, a common theme that emerges from regional airlines is a focus on costs, supporting staff, and preparing for a new regulatory regime.
Jetstar Asia chief executive Bara Pasupathi contends that coronavirus is the biggest shock the industry has ever faced.
“Like all airlines, we are reviewing what these changes mean for our industry and our business,” says Pasupathi. “Jetstar Asia is built on a culture of resilience and we have implemented a number of measures to reduce costs, preserve cash and protect the business to ensure recovery when demand returns. As international travel restrictions remain in place across the region, our immediate focus is on supporting our people by providing temporary secondary employment opportunities to supplement their income until scheduled flying is resumed.”
Subhas Menon, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, has been speaking to airlines throughout the crisis. He understands that a major focus regionally is resetting operations based on recent ICAO guidelines for airlines’ post-pandemic recovery.
Released in early June, the guidelines suggest restricted access to on-board lavatories, the use of face masks, limits on cabin baggage, separated seating arrangements, and other measures.
Menon adds that airlines are also looking at business continuity plans should a similar crisis occur in the future, and keeping resources such as staff and aircraft ready for when the situation normalises. He has also observed an intense focus on cash conservation.
Menon feels governments are being too conservative about opening up air travel, that any trip involving a quarantine is a non-starter for business and leisure passengers, and that countries where the virus is under control need to be more proactive about restoring flights.
“If you are travelling from one safe environment to another safe environment, then why do you need a quarantine?” he asks. “There is no medical evidence for it. [Quarantines] have to be removed. But the most important thing is to restore trust in travel…a lot of public communication and education is necessary to get people flying again.”