Why the airlines must get it right

Supersonic flight, cleaner burning engines, biofuels and electric propulsion: These are among the exciting advances in aviation whose timing and perhaps fruition depend on airlines earning the trust of customers in the coming new reality.

Inside the U.S. industry, we often hear about thought leaders and subject matter experts, but the coronavirus pandemic reminds us that it’s the actions of consumers that drive and define progress.

Listening to health experts, it sounds like we’re headed for a future in which the current pandemic subsides but the danger from the virus persists. What happens then will be largely determined by our collective behaviors. For air travelers, those new behaviors are likely to extend beyond this pandemic. It no longer seems like a healthy choice to pack oneself onto a crowded plane.

Airlines should be working now to prepare for this new reality, and I mean with more than social distancing measures in boarding lines and hand sanitizer and bottled water on planes, as important as those are.

The first days of the outbreak offer a tough lesson about planning ahead. Airline executives at the March 5 Aviation Summit 2020 in Washington, D.C., like many of us, were slow to grasp the seriousness of the threat. “It’s a gut punch right now, but hopefully it will be short-lived,” said Gary Kelly, the CEO of Southwest Airlines.

No one could have predicted the future with certainty, but by the date of the summit, CDC officials had publicly warned that this could be bad. Just days later, on March 9, CNN declared the virus to be a pandemic, and two days later the World Health Organization did the same. There was ample cause by early March to prepare for the worst.

If airlines were slow to react, they now have a chance to get it right. Winning the trust of the public will almost surely require physical changes to passenger cabins. Customers in the cheap seats, for one, are going to need more personal space. We can’t have the person next to us dozing off onto our tray tables, mask or no mask. This will be true even after the pandemic.

Aside from the ethics of the situation, health can’t be bought by well-heeled travelers. Even with today’s special clubs inside airports, we all cross paths at some point. Maybe a snafu made the first-class baggage come out late, or we see each other at a restroom sink or in line at a coffee shop.

The virus is a community problem, and it’s going to require a community-minded response from the airlines. The broader aerospace industry is counting on airlines to succeed, and this mindset will help.

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About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

Why the airlines must get it right