Covid-19 changing the landscape of aviation

Adiel Mambara:Aviation expert

THE new operational reality post-Covid-19 presents unique communication challenges for airlines as they adjust to the new operating and public policy environment. When a crisis occurs, it usually arrives as a barrage of urgent, unexpected, and unpleasant events, allowing little time to organise or plan appropriate responses.

An extraordinary crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic arguably means that there is not just a little time for response organisation and planning, but also that traditional response strategies are insufficient (Wenzel et al. 2020). But a crisis can also be an opportunity in this ‘new world’.

Communication and information are critical elements in the ‘new world’ that present an opportunity to reconfigure future transport communication policy and practice for the benefit of the global environment and individual citizens alike. In times of public health emergencies, governments, public health practioners and organisations must also be effective risk communicators.

A lack of information or misunderstanding can lead to unproductive panic about a public health threat or underestimation of the threat, which can thwart efforts to limit the pandemic and limit people from flying.

In these crisis situations, the public can easily be confused about the nature of the contagion and what steps to avoid.

People seek credible voices from trusted public health officials, governments and other stakeholders to provide accurate information.

We have already been provided by clear directives and communications by governments; to go home, stay at home, socially distance, wash your hands, only travel if absolutely necessary, avoid other people, use hand sanitiser, wear a face mask, volunteer to help vulnerable others, be a good citizen, and do your civic duty to reinforce this message. This is all well and good; however airlines need to adapt their risk communication messages accordingly and strike the right tone when communicating the message.

Before Covid-19, much of the emphasis in transport risk communication policy was on demand management, ‘smart’ technological interventions and sustainable mobility. The public health crisis has necessitated an urgent reconsideration of airlines risk communication strategy and its contribution to post-Covid-19 economic recovery.

Previous studies on airline risk communication strategies post-Covid have suffered from several conceptual and methodological weaknesses. This is because of the evolving nature of the Covid-19 pandemic and also the controversies and problems encountered in the unsuccessful attempts of government and industry to communicate risk-related information to affected stakeholders and the general public.

There is also presently a lack of trust in government, absence of genuinely inclusive participation in which all parties (stakeholders) can present their views and contribute to decision-making, and problems in understanding stemming from, for example, poorly designed risk communicative contributions.

There is a growing body of literature that recognises the importance of airlines having a good and effective risk communication strategy post-Covid-19.
Research and Markets.com has commissioned a report entitled “The Airline Brands & the Pandemic: Benchmarking Covid-19 Policies & Communications”, that evaluates 66 major airline brands and their responses to Covid-19. The report focuses on two primary areas of an airline brand’s response to the pandemic: its health and safety policy, and the effectiveness of its corporate communications during the crisis.

To help airlines construct an effective risk communication strategy post-Covid, I propose the use of a conceptual theoretical framework — Risk Communication Theory (Boholm and Corvellec 2011). Risk communication sits at the intersection of hazard and outrage. Hazard is the physical risk as understood by scientists and experts; outrage is the public’s perception of that risk.

Outrage in the Risk Communication Model can impede the customers from hearing risk messages clearly. High outrage reduces objectivity and motivates action.

Airline websites and social media can be used as a dissemination tool for news that enables the public to consume the news quickly and provide more clarity.

Risk communication is often controversial. The theoretical and practical field of risk communication research was originally, and still is, motivated by the controversies and problems encountered in the unsuccessful attempts of government and industry to communicate risk-related information to affected stakeholders and the general public.

In risk communication, it is critical to manage the hazard and address the outrage. People often overestimate risk while ignoring the physical hazard. In the context of a viral pandemic, public outrage will be greater when the illness is unfamiliar and when there is some memorability of past pandemic illnesses. It will also be greater when there is substantial dread associated with the illness, when illness spreads quickly or deaths occur frequently, and when uncertainty surrounds the illness.

To address these shortcomings, several strategies and recommendations can be developed to improve risk communication and counteract conflictual communication.

Recommended Risk Theory Strategies within the Risk Communication Model that can be used by airlines include; creating confidence, generating awareness and enhancing understanding.

As customers begin to resume flying, airlines will need to reassess the end to end experience to accommodate shifts in customer high expectations.

The strategy of creating confidence would be to build trust by continuing current practices of relationship building with customers; involve all concerned stakeholders and treat them as full partners, be honest, open and transparent with information and communicative intent; avoid technical and bureaucratic language, and instead use simple, graphic and concrete material and attend to the information needs and actual concerns of the audience.

Considering how complex airline operations are, it will be helpful for airlines to develop better skills towards an assertive and respectful style of risk communication, which will significantly reduce the negative effect of miscommunication.

Airlines need to communicate the actions being taken to protect health, safety and wellness of customers and employees including but not limited to measures related to aircraft hygiene, the installation of enhanced hospital-grade HEPA filters that remove 99.999% of all airborne particles, cleaning processes on aircraft, and workspaces with disinfectants that are effective against viruses, making changes to food and beverage service protocols and increasing passenger education.

Airlines can enhance understanding by providing information prescriptions on social media and putting static banners on prominent positions on airline website home pages.

The Covid-19 pandemic is changing the landscape of aviation. The government-induced halt of cross-border travel in the spring of 2020 has led all airlines to engage in massive measures.

With its unfolding prolongation and widespread realisation that a return to pre-Covid airline operations will be months, if not years, away. Yet, even extraordinary crises only last for a limited timespan; exceptional measures will not prevail forever. At some point, societies will resume, maybe in the frequently cited “new normal”, whatever this might look like.

Airlines will need to provide consistent and clear external risk communication strategies that can help maintain a level of business continuity and demonstrate a commitment to all stakeholders.

Zimbabwe-born Mambara has demonstrated history of working in the airlines/aviation industry is currently the Country Manager (UK and Ireland) for Royal Brunei Airlines. In addition, Mr. Mambara is a Board Member for the Board of Airlines Representatives UK (BARUK).

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