Over the past
month, I’ve been evaluating the Covid-19 policies and corporate communications
of 66 airlines.
As someone with a geeky love of both air travel and digital branding, I’ve been curious about how the airlines are responding to the ongoing pandemic.
The airline industry’s revenue and profitability have been devastated by Covid-19, with airlines projected to lose $419 billion in passenger revenue in 2020 compared to 2019.
quickly adapted to low demand, risk-averse customers, and closed international
But is any airline
actually inspiring confidence that flying is safe as the pandemic continues
indefinitely? Which airlines are leading? Which ones are changing strategy? And
which brands simply won’t survive?
I decided to find
I compiled a data
set of 66 airline brands, which included the airlines of oneworld, SkyTeam, and
Star Alliance, in addition to 11 non-alliance airlines operating amid the
The data told a
story which was too good not to share. The key findings are below.
How do you measure a brand’s Covid-19 response?
I began by collecting and quantifying each airline’s Covid-19 policy, usually found on its web site. Some airlines scatter this information (why?), requiring investigative work: scouring press releases, social media posts, and credible news articles about each airline’s transformed operations. Once I had the info from every airline, I used IBM Watson Discovery for text analytics.
I discovered that a successful Covid-19 response comes down to four key metrics:
- Policy: does the airline have new protocols for health, safety, and cancellation? This includes things like cabin disinfection procedures and face mask requirements.
- Communications: does the airline communicate its policy effectively? This includes things like a Covid-19 information centre on its website and the brand’s social media responsiveness.
- Credibility: is the airline seen as credible to operate during a pandemic? This includes things like partnerships with medical institutions and accreditation of disinfection practices.
- Citizenship: does the airline act with integrity towards employees, customers, and the community? This includes things like employee safety and humanitarian flight initiatives.
each airline was scored, ranked, and clustered on each metric.
The Policy and Communications metrics were the most important. Here’s how a selection of airlines benchmarked in these two areas:
Policy … and the Great Social Distancing Debate
assessed – and I suspect every passenger airline globally – has defined a Covid-19
health and safety policy. Some policies are comprehensive and concrete, while
others appear superficial and cursory.
encompass the elements mentioned above: disinfection protocols on-board and at
the airport; face covering requirements for passengers and employees;
cancellation flexibility; and social distancing.
Of all these
areas, it’s onboard social distancing that is most controversial.
While many airlines blocked seats between passengers immediately following the onset of Covid19, most have stopped this practice. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) now discourages blocking seats, as doing so would be devastating to airline profitability long term. Instead, IATA encourages airlines to require all passengers wear face coverings.
Some airline executives have publicly stated that blocking middle seats is merely a PR strategy and has no tangible safety benefit.
This has bifurcated
the industry: only 14% of the airlines evaluated continue to block seats to
maximize distance between passengers.
Yet while most experts acknowledge that true social distancing on an aircraft is not possible, a working study by MIT Stern professor Arnold Barnett finds that the likelihood of Covid-19 transmission goes down by nearly 50% if there is an empty seat between passengers.
This says that the 14% of airlines continuing to block seats are doing so meaningfully and protecting their customers’ health.
Communications: Real > Polished
Perhaps more than
in any other crisis, digital communications competency is separating leaders
From launching and
updating a COVID-19 web site hub, to rapidly responding to thousands of
customer worries on social media — airlines that are digitally savvy
communicators are leaping ahead of those that are not.
And while airlines
are known for beautifully lit and edited photos and videos, in the current
times, it’s real and candid visuals that skeptical travellers crave. Airlines
showing electrostatic sprayers cleaning aircraft cabins, plexiglass dividers
installed on check-in counters, and PPE-wearing flight attendants are
connecting with customers in meaningful ways. I found that airlines with less
polished, more frequently posted social-media style photos received more
positive, empathetic responses to their communications on average.
Related, airlines with outdated, clumsy web sites struggled to convey their COVID-19 policies effectively, even if the policy itself was concrete and comprehensive.
Credibility … By Association
Airline brands are
not perceived as experts operating during a pandemic.
To address this,
airlines have struck partnerships with either medical institutions (e.g.,
Cleveland Clinic, University of Washington Medical School) or disinfectant
brands (e.g., Purell, Clorox). A table listing partnerships for the airlines
evaluated is shown above.
One buzzworthy partnership: Emirates’ alliance with NEXtCARE Health offering free health insurance coverage to passengers incurring any COVID-19 medical and quarantine expenses (up to €150,000) while traveling.
Airlines have also
hired or appointed medical officers or medical advisors to act as spokespeople,
and at least one airline (American Airlines) is pursuing accreditation of its
Each of these
public associations validates an airline brand’s COVID-19 readiness, raising
I predict that more airlines will pursue credibility partnerships in the coming months — becoming increasingly creative and niche — to differentiate their brand and assure customers it is safe to travel.
Prior to COVID-19,
corporate citizenship was already a hot topic.
In August 2019, a group of prominent CEOs called the Business Roundtable published a statement to redefine a corporation’s purpose, abandoning the notion that shareholders always come first. The group, which includes the CEOs of American Airlines, Delta, and United, outlined five new priorities, including commitments to employees, suppliers, and the communities where they operate.
devastating impact on financial performance is a true test of whether airlines
are serious about this new definition of corporate citizenship.
For airline employees,
some layoffs and furloughs are inevitable. But being generous and creative in
times of crisis gets noticed. Delta has offered employees buyouts and early
retirement to reduce its ongoing costs, adding new health care benefits and
free flights to the separation packages, which were not part of its retirement
customers, 82% of airlines have extended frequent flyer elite status in some
way, with most doing so through the end of 2021. 9% of airlines have reduced
elite qualifying requirements (e.g., British Airways, Emirates). And another 9%
of airlines award members bonus points to compensate for lost months of travel
(e.g., Cathay Pacific, Etihad).
And what about
society at large? Airlines have a unique role to play during a global public
health crisis. From connecting healthcare workers to in-need communities, to
helping citizens return home from abroad, to moving medical supplies around the
world, airlines are a key part of the global response.
61% of airlines shared news about humanitarian, rescue, or medical shuttle flights within their own country. JetBlue and Qatar Airways each committed to giving away 100,000 complimentary roundtrip flights to frontline healthcare workers. American, Delta, Southwest, and United have all donated substantial amounts of unused food from lounges and inflight meals to out-of-work and in-need individuals.
Brand Trust FTW
In July, Burger King ran a campaign on Twitch, the live streaming platform for gamers. Twitch’s engagement has grown exponentially during the pandemic as people stay at home.
Burger King’s ad
agency intentionally exploited Twitch’s donation feature: donate a certain
amount to a Twitch user during their livestream and an Alexa-like voice will
read your message out loud to the entire livestream audience, often eliciting funny
reactions. Burger King programmed bots to donate $5 to Twitch users and
announce its $5 value meal; it paid nothing to Twitch for advertising aside
from the donations. It was a creative and disruptive idea. And it failed
The gamer community was outraged. Streamers accused Burger King of taking advantage of their work engaging audiences. Burger King was banned from several streamers’ channels and the blowback continues today.
The days of
“there’s no such thing as bad publicity” are over.
Trust is what
dark times, brands are expected to be beacons of trust.
Brand Trust has become the new currency, outpacing traditional metrics like awareness and favourability. It’s likely to remain this way in a post-Covid world.
Recent Edelman research found 70% of consumers say trusting a brand is more important today than in the past. For airlines, 34% of travellers surveyed by PwC ranked trust in the brand, including confidence in the safety and cleanliness of the aircraft, as the most important purchase factor above price, cancellation policy, schedule, and loyalty programme.
The airlines taking leadership positions in their COVID-19 responses are foregoing revenue in the name of safety. People are noticing.
Put another way,
airline brands are being repositioned right now by their responses to the
pandemic. Airlines that are decisive in growing brand trust are poised to
increase market share and profitability in the decade post-Covid.
While it’s too
early to prove this — airlines’ current financial results remain bleak for now
— we plan to monitor the EBIT and market share of the evaluated airlines to see
if there’s a correlation.
If you’ve made it
this far and would like a copy of the complete airline research, let
I hope all is well
in your corner of the world, and that it isn’t too long before we all fly
• About the author: Mario Jobbe is an entrepreneur and technology executive based in Chicago, US.
• Featured image credit: Alfieri/Getty Images