A huge hole in airline efforts to reassure passengers and crews that flying is safe was exposed this week during a US Senate hearing on the pandemic.
In testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday, immunologist and White House pandemic advisor Anthony Fauci and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Robert Redfield were each asked how safe it was to fly on airliners and, specifically, for their views on American Airlines’ announcement that it would restore selling flights to full capacity.
The experts’ answers were far from reassuring and could seriously damage attempts by US carriers to at least partially restore their domestic networks in the second half of this year.
Fauci replied: “Obviously that is something that is of concern. I’m not sure what went into that decision making. I think in the confines of an airplane, that becomes even more problematic.”
Redfield was even more damning, telling the senators, “When they announced that the other day, obviously there was substantial disappointment with American Airlines. I can say this is under critical review by us at CDC. We don’t think it’s the right message.”
American’s own pilots had already contradicted their own company, issuing a statement through the Allied Pilots Association when the announcement was made saying they were “shocked” and proposing that the government purchases middle seats.
As a collective, the airline industry has worked to bring about a set of hygiene safety guidelines through ICAO and with the advice and input of health organizations, including the World Health Organization. These “layered approach” measures, that include mask-wearing, sanitization and disinfection, contactless check-in procedures, distancing in the airport and sophisticated, hospital-grade air filter systems onboard, have been promoted by IATA and other airline representatives as trustworthy, science-based steps that significantly reduce transmission risk for passengers and aviation employees.
But, as is too often the case, the industry is talking to itself. The Senate hearing was a messaging disaster for US airlines and those who represent them.
I asked IATA director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac why America’s top virus advisers did not seem to know about airline and airport safety measures or why keeping middle seats free does not promote hygiene safety. He said the problem was twofold. First, there is no 100% consensus on what steps should be taken, even within medical authorities. Second, IATA has requested a single point of contact for each country who is the link between aviation authorities and health authorities. Clearly in the US, that link is failing.
While this pandemic is making it extremely difficult for any industry to get priority attention from its government heads, the US aviation industry did succeed in getting substantial financial aid after a joint campaign by organizations that included Airlines for America (A4A).
Those same organizations must now do much more to elevate the safety messaging to the very top. And airline labor organizations, whose member jobs depend on people feeling safe to fly and being prepared to buy tickets, should support that messaging, not undermine it.
For too long, the air transport industry praised itself on its sustainability efforts and assumed everyone outside the industry was similarly impressed. Last year’s dramatic rise and spread of the flight shaming movement showed the folly of that assumption and, for much of 2019, flight shame was seen with increasing alarm as a real threat to aviation growth.
The flight shame threat has been massively eclipsed by COVID-19. But airlines and those who represent the industry should take this lesson from flight shaming: it’s not just what the industry does, but how it’s communicated and who gets the message.