The Route Back From the Pandemic

Airlines Getting Ready for More Unrestricted Travel

  • 05:04 PM, 27 Sep, 2021

Like many travel related industries airlines have been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. They are now ready to bounce back and are looking forward to the opening of travel as the world adjusts to the new realities, writes Floyd Cowan.

(September 27, 2021, Singapore) Asian Journeys contacted four airlines that serve Singapore and the region to understand the challenges they’ve faced, and what you can expect when you eventually get on board.

The Singapore Airlines Group, Scoot and Singapore Airlines (SIA), support the government’s restriction while Cebu Pacific Air (CEB), while it fully adheres to all laws and regulations, believes that government regulations are what is preventing the opening of travel.

Singapore Airline inflight staff geared up to great passengers

A spokesperson for  SIA stated: “The growing pace of the global vaccination programmes, as well as robust testing regimes, will be key to borders reopening and increasing travel confidence. This provides hope for further recovery in international air travel demand as vaccination rates rise and borders re-open to travel. However, the risk of new variants and fresh waves of Covid-19 infections in key markets remain a concern. We support the [Singapore] government in its efforts to open our borders in a safe and calibrated way. We will continue with a calibrated expansion of our network, and be nimble and flexible to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.”

Singapore’s low-cost carrier echoed its older and larger sibling, “Scoot supports measures by governments to reopen borders in a safe and measured manner, and we will continue to adapt in planning our network to better match demand,” stated Calvin Chan, Chief Commercial Officer of Scoot. Mr Chan agrees that “Robust testing regimes and high vaccination rates across the world will be key to borders reopening and increasing travel confidence. However, as we have seen, the risk of new variants and fresh waves of Covid-19 infections in key markets remain a concern.”

Sanitary measures at Paris-CDG  

The Air France-KLM Group says, “Hopefully soon, with more people fully vaccinated, travel will become easier so travellers will face fewer restrictions.”  

The airlines are putting in procedures to help hassle-free boarding. “Air France and KLM are ready for travellers to return to the sky and have launched various digital platforms, which allows the check and validation of health documents before travelling. For example, upload @ home launched by KLM is available on selected flights and allows KLM to check in advance. For now, customers will receive an invite from KLM close to the departure date when the service is offered on their flight. This service will minimize the COVID-19 checks at the departure airport to reduce waiting times.” 

Candice Iyog, VP Vice President - Marketing and Customer Experience, Cebu Pacific Air agrees that government regulations are a challenge; “Operating amidst this fluid environment continues to be a challenge due to varying travel requirements implemented by each destination, both local and abroad, coupled with prolonged lockdowns, and numerous evolving COVID-19 variants.”   

While government regulations have kept the brakes on air travel there are many people still reluctant to get on board. The four airlines feel it will be health safety measures that will be key to getting passengers confident in flying again. “Our industry-leading digital initiatives,” stated Mr Chan, “and comprehensive health and safety measures will provide a safe, seamless, and comfortable journey for all customers. Scoot is the first low-cost carrier to be awarded the top Diamond status in the APEX Health Safety powered by Simplifying program and five stars in the SKYTRAX COVID-19 Safety Rating.

“As the COVID-19 situation remains fluid,” he continued, “it has been our priority to ensure our passengers have all the latest and relevant travel advisories / vaccination requirements. This can be confusing at times given the multiple/differing requirements by countries.”

When COVID-19 emerged the Air France-KLM Group implemented never-before-seen measures to guarantee the health and safety of customers and staff. “At each stage of the customer journey, we guarantee the strictest health conditions.” 

Both Air France and KLM achieved top ratings in the Skytrax ‘Covid 19 Airline Safety Rating’. The rating agency evaluated the cleaning and disinfection procedures at airports and on-board aircraft, recycling of the cabin air, special signage and floor markings to ensure physical distancing, the compulsory wearing of masks, provision of hand sanitizer and an adapted service in the lounges and on-board aircraft.

VP Candice Iyog says CEB is focused on health and safety: “We continue to implement a multi-layered approach to safety, which includes – Safety and Sanitation, track and trace, and testing.” But adds, “There is also a need to simplify requirements for travellers, both local and foreign, and one of them may be through green lanes for vaccinated travellers. We continue to comply with guidelines on air travel, and abide with the decisions that governments make.  We know if all stakeholders work together, the public’s trust and confidence in air travel will be restored.”    

SIA has always recognised that health and safety is a key priority for its customers and resulted in it achieving the highest ranking in the two leading industry metrics for health and safety measures - the Diamond award in the APEX SimpliFlying rating and Five-star rating in the Skytrax Covid-19 Airline Safety audit. “Robust health and safety measures are an important part of our premium position and brand promise. In the early stages of the pandemic, we undertook a comprehensive review of the customer journey, and did a deep dive into around 100 checkpoints.

SIA's first flights with pilots and cabin crew fully vaccinated

“We reinforced existing procedures, enhanced some of them, introduced new measures to supplement them, and used digital technologies to help ensure a seamless travel experience. We believe the initiatives will help protect our customers’ well-being, bring them greater peace of mind, and give them the confidence to travel again.”

With so much down time should passengers be concerned about the level of service when they return to the skies? 

“We have worked hard to retain and prepare our talented people to continue delivering the world-class service that SIA is renowned for,” the spokesperson noted. “This includes launching new training programmes to help them develop the skills needed to overcome current challenges and be ready for future opportunities. Regular engagement sessions with staff continue to keep the SIA spirit strong and rally the staff.”

Candice Iyog stated: “We don’t see any staffing problems since the organization was designed to be fit for purpose, after thorough reviews were made last year.  While it is evident that we are still facing enormous challenges as a business due to the pandemic, our focus continues to be how to be stronger as an organization.”

Scoot notes, “It has always been our ambition to hire the best and retain talent for succession planning, and in this case, to prepare ourselves for opportunities. Our HR team uses progressive practices to balance hiring and retention needs that include, but not exhaustive, total rewards system, an annual employee well-being check, learning & development and cross department, cross group, career opportunities.

“Our cabin crew and pilots are enrolled in a series of training programmes for upskilling and career development as well as regular engagement sessions with staff to keep the “Scootitude” spirit strong. We have a flat culture, responsible and serious in pursuing our targets. We recognize the importance of maintaining morale in keeping employees informed on how Scoot and different teams are actively working towards recovery, and celebrating the significant contributions the company and our staff and crew are making towards overcoming the fight against COVID-19.”

“Scoot plans ahead for its manpower requirements in line with projected changes to our capacity. We continue to make the necessary investments in our people and the business to ensure we can emerge stronger and fitter as international travel recovers.”

We have been told to expect a “New Normal’ but exactly what that will look like is unclear and is different to different people. To SIA, “The recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to remain patchy, given the new waves of infections around the world. In the near-term, we have to live with tests – both pre-departure and on-arrival. Test protocols are now more robust, and results can be obtained fairly quickly.

Vaccinations are key to opening up borders and increasing travel confidence. Digital health certificates with customers’ Covid test results or vaccination status will be the norm. Customers are slowly becoming more confident about air travel, given the health and safety measures that have been put in place.

“At the same time, some things will not change. Customers will still want world-class products and service. We will continue to invest in and provide both in the coming years.”         

To CEB, “The new normal entails a multi-layered approach to safety, in accordance with global aviation standards. These include daily extensive cleaning and disinfection protocols for all aircraft and facilities, antigen testing before duty for all frontliners and crew members, and contactless flight procedures. Jet aircraft are equipped with hospital-grade HEPA air filters to keep viruses at bay.  We are on the road to complete employee inoculation by October this year,” says Candice Iyog.  “Born out of this pandemic are CEB’s contactless flight guidelines which include self-bag tagging capabilities, along with enhancements in its online platforms which empower passengers to do self-service.”  

Has the pandemic altered the services airlines offer?

“We have tried to maintain our Air France and KLM network as far as possible during the pandemic. In fact, in this part of the world, South East Asia, we created a mini hub in Bangkok and in Singapore.  

“Flying does require more preparation than before as entry rules change daily. We have been offering flexible rebooking and cancellation options.  We offer new services such as TravelDoc where customers can learn more about the requirements for their journey. (e.g. Covid-19 tests, vaccine and quarantine regulations).” 

Scoot has taken a similar tact, “Since the start of the pandemic, we made it a priority to address customers’ need for more flexibility in the form of refunds either in cash or vouchers, one free date change for all news bookings. This is to help mitigate travel uncertainties and give passengers greater confidence and reassurance to fly with Scoot.

Innovation is a key pillar for Scoot and has played a big role in helping us develop an almost contactless end-to-end journey. Some key measures include enhanced Scootsurance coverage to include COVID-19 coverage at no extra charge. This covers pandemic-related overseas medical expenses, quarantine and hospitalisation allowance, and other costs arising from COVID-19 infection.

“We introduced ScootHub in December 2020, an award-winning inflight portal accessible by passengers’ own mobile devices that is aimed at replacing frequently touched seatback menus, magazines and catalogues, thereby helping to reduce surface transmissions. On ScootHub, passengers can order food and beverages and duty-free items at their own convenience.”

The SIA spokesman stated: “We have implemented more sustainable operations and initiatives to ensure the long-term viability of our business and reduce the impact to our planet and the communities we serve. There has been an acceleration in the use of digital technology, both on the ground and in the air, to reduce risks and support the customer experience.

“Innovation has played a big role in helping us provide a contactless end-to-end journey for customers. SIA has introduced a series of smart travel features at the airport and on board the flight. This includes the mobile boarding pass at check-in, digital menu at the lounge, and remotely controlling the in-flight entertainment via customers’ personal mobile devices.

“The pandemic has resulted in greater restrictions that affect the way we are able to serve our customers, for example, safe distancing measures. Despite this, we remain committed to providing our customers with a world-class experience. Digital initiatives enable us to continue delivering exceptional service to our customers, as well as ensure their well-being through robust health and safety measures.”

For CEB it has changed aspects of the service especially around changing needs of customers and stakeholders. “We have been evaluating our business to continue identifying opportunities to innovate amidst the pandemic,” says VP Iyog. “The airline showed its agility exploring alternative revenue streams to boost its cargo operations. We expect cargo operations to continue growing as we reprioritize and use our existing aircraft fleet to respond to the increased demand. We are happy to continue to transport COVID 19 vaccines across our domestic network. 

Ninoy Aquino International Airport 

“CEB offers an array of add-ons that are beneficial for passengers. This includes its new and improved CEB Flexi product—a flight add-on that now allows everyone to voluntarily cancel their flights for free, up to two hours before departure, and store the value of the booking in a Travel Fund. Said amount may be used to book new flights or purchase other add-ons such as seat selection or travel insurance. We’ve improved our Travelsure product to include Covid protection coverage for our Filipino passengers.  

“We have seen the potential of going beyond flight related products such as non-travel insurance plans for Filipinos.  CEB Health Protect provides coverage for cancer, stroke, and heart attack, on top of other critical conditions.  We have partnered with health laboratories in the Philippines for affordable testing for everyone.  

“CEB believes that flexibility is critical to boost travel confidence, that is why the carrier has removed change fees permanently, which means passengers may now rebook their flights as many times as needed. We recently launched the CEB Super Pass, a first-of-its-kind travel voucher that allows travellers to buy all they can for a limited time, and fly to and from anywhere in the Philippines when they can. The CEB Super Pass aims to provide much-needed flexibility as travel dates and destination need not to be final yet – these details will only be needed once guest decides to redeem his/her pass.  

“This pandemic gave way for us to fortify digitalization across all functions. We have launched contactless flight and digital front-line procedures, including digital check-in via self-service which uses a digital boarding pass, as well as self-bag-tagging kiosks in Manila. We have also improved self-service care channels, including Charlie the chatbot, and on-the-spot, online flight disruption management. These address the health and safety concerns of our passengers.”   

Has anything good coming from the pandemic?

“The pandemic has allowed us to improve business capabilities amidst a less active network,” the Scoot spokesperson replied. “We used this time to leverage digital technology to increase our business capabilities and operational efficiencies. This will allow Scoot to seize the recovery fully when it arrives.

A321neo interior

“We have boosted our fleet capabilities by inducting a new aircraft type to our fleet – the A321neo. With the A321neo, Scoot gains the flexibility to deploy different aircraft types to better match capacity to demand. The advantages of the LCC business model puts Scoot in a good position to regain lost ground when time is ripe for recovery.”

For Air France and KLM the pandemic has given them the opportunity to move forward on sustainability issues. “We have been working for many years to reduce our environmental impact and because of the pandemic we are accelerating our sustainability initiatives. We have set ourselves the goal of making Air France KLM a European leader in more sustainable air travel. We hope businesses and individuals will collaborate with us so they can lower their carbon footprint for business or leisure travel.”

“The pandemic allowed us to let our values shine through,” said CEB’s spokesperson, “as we continue to listen to our customers, adapt to change and be agile to respond to their needs. We considered this an opportunity to change for the better. Aligned with our sustainability commitment and business philosophy, we continue to take all necessary steps to ensure we stay formidable and true to our commitment to provide safe, reliable, and affordable air transport services.  

“As what has been mentioned by our president and CEO, Mr. Lance Gokongwei, we believe the COVID passport is an absolute necessity for the tourism and travel industry to recover as these will show peoples' inoculation and infection history, thus countries can trust when we say that a passenger would not be infectious to anyone.  We do think that this is essential to refer to a single, global COVID passport that each country respects to simplify processes. Since this is still not implemented in the Philippines, we will comply should this rolls out.” 

“It is often said that crisis brings out the best in SIA and its people, and Covid-19 has proved this. Across the organisation our people have spontaneously stepped up to help each other,” the spokesperson noted. “For example, when the contact centre was overwhelmed, many pilots, cabin crew and ground staff came forward at short notice and tirelessly helped attend to our customers.

“Given the surge in manpower requirements in sectors such as healthcare and transportation, we rolled out measures to facilitate staff volunteers who wished to contribute to the national efforts to combat the Covid-19 outbreak. Despite the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic brought to SIA, our employees showed tremendous strength and resilience, demonstrating the true spirit of SIA.

“Since April 2020, more than 2,000 employees volunteered as ambassadors in hospitals, transport hubs, social service offices as well as contact tracing. The crisis has taught us many lessons, including the need to be ultra-nimble and flexible as the situation changes rapidly and abruptly. Even more importantly, it has further deepened our commitment to the SIA family and strengthened our bond with one another.”

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