Confidence building measures or CBMs came into the lexicon during the cold war era. These were steps towards minimizing tensions and building trust between nuclear powers. First implemented in 1975, at the Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe they soon found their way into trade policy as well. When in 1999 there were protests in Seattle in opposition to potential free trade agreements and impact on labour and employment, once again a series of CBMs were announced.  Fast forward to 2020 and the globe finds itself engaged in another war. This time against the Covid-19: an infection spread by 120 nano-meter viruses that has obliterated aviation demand. Fear of travelling and a narrative that airports and airlines pose contagion risk has set in. As such airlines will have to resort to confidence-building measures to get the travelling public to fly again.  

Information and communication aimed towards reducing fear

For the first time in aviation history, an atmosphere of global fear has impacted the demand for travel. Independent estimates indicate that the 4.59 billion airstrips that were undertaken in 2019 may fall by over 70% this year. This collapse currently is driven by lockdowns and fear. But going forward mistrust and lack of information can also continue to hamper any recovery. Much like the cold war era, steps will have to be taken to alleviate this. Communication will be critical.  

Primarily airlines will have to focus on communicating the measures taken to mitigate the risk of being infected the virus during travel; airport authorities will have to communicate measures being taken to ensure the airport does not become an area of contagion; government authorities will have to communicate measures being taken to isolate risks if and when they are detected – and all of these stakeholders will have to exchange information with each other and further disseminate it to consumers. Interestingly this will require not only basic information such as social distancing guidelines and enforcement but also technical details such as air conditioning at airports and airflow circulation on aircraft via high-efficiency particulate air filters. Because at the end of the day the vectors are the passengers themselves and each consumes and assimilates information in a very different manner. And thus, for the first time, it cannot be only a one way exchange. Engagement and interaction will have to be factored in.  

Engagement and interaction towards transparency

Passengers continue to be apprehensive. Partly because the spread of the virus that has been traced back to aviation, and also because if each unplanned interaction can is classified as a random risk, then the overall travel experience aggregates to significant randomized risk. Add to that the fact that airlines have not quite engaged with passengers. As an example, while inquiries and requests for refunds across airlines have skyrocketed, the majority still continue to use pre-written templates to respond to queries. This is not quite a measure that will help. Airlines will be forced to be more transparent with policies and norms.

In looking to the cold war era transparency was driven by simple exercises such as access to facilities, joint exercises and invitations to observe activities. In many instances, these were “unequal” measures which did not explicitly carry the benefit of reciprocity. Such measures may just be required by several stakeholders. Whether it is inviting the travel distributors to witness how exactly processes have procedures have been re-aligned towards the new normal; or joint exercises by airlines and security personnel on planned responses; or even a simple mock-up of an isolation facility which passengers can visually inspect – these will be required to slowly but surely address apprehensions of the travelling public. 

Interaction is also likely to play a key role. Current travel processes have at least ten touchpoints where a customer necessarily interacts with another person. For the most part, these touchpoints have been trained to drive compliance and questions may be answered in a binary form. For instance, “do I have to take off my belt?” for the security check or “is there an elevator that I can take to the concourse?” Yet the new normal is one where the nature of questions will change and training staff to not only answer but assure the travellers will be the need of the day. 

This also spills-over to the management teams. Since the start of the crises, while several challenges have come to the forefront, airline management has simply not been out and centre. Indeed, CEO’s may need to internally hold public briefings similar to the ones undertaken by the New York Governor – which are honest, frank and forthright and put the facts on the table no matter how grim. Over time these can go a long way towards building trust. 

Constraint measures will also have to be highlighted

Finally, constraint measures will also have to be highlighted. These are measures that indicate to parties what is “non-acceptable” behaviour. For airlines this may include constraints on scheduling flights within similar time-banks (this move counter-intuitively also helps airlines financially); or ensuring that the process does not allow someone with symptoms such as a fever to bypass thermal scans by taking an antipyretic, or identifying travellers who have come from or are headed to areas that have been classified as “hotspots”; or even something as simple as sanitizing toilets on aircraft after each use. Constraint measures overall will pose the greatest challenge because they touch many legal, health and safety aspects and require a collaborative effort by aviation stakeholders alike. 

Finally, the contrarian constraint measure that will take a fair bit of focus is one that takes away constraints on time. This will require focused and deliberate effort the focus for airlines has always been on minimizing time. Whether it is the time the airplane stays on the ground; or the time for check-in; or the time taken at immigration and security. In what will be a 180-degree turn now the focus has to be to increase times for each activity towards adequate social distancing measures. Because rushed processes will almost inevitably lead to violation of constraints and these must be guarded against. 

Eerily a cold-war memo by the National Security Council tracing back to 1968 fits the current situation well. The memo stated, “… the whole success of the proposed program hangs ultimately on recognition by this Government… and all free peoples, that the cold war is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake.” Only this time the enemy is a 120-nanometer particle which uses common citizens as vectors and which isn’t even alive in the first place. And the most impacted are airlines.

Overall as airlines get ready to fly again, confidence-building measures will be critical. The old models of communication and “spray and pray” methods simply don’t do. Engagement and large moves, as opposed to incremental moves, towards building trust will be required. Without these, the return to the sky may very well be extremely challenging.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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