Coping with Covid-19
I don’t know about you, but I did not have most of the things that happened this year on my 2020 Bingo card. I mean, I’m still waiting for Bingo card events from last year to happen. I think it’s safe to say that none of us really expected a year like 2020.
Of course most of us have lived through other major virus outbreaks, but they have never virtually shut the world down like Covid-19 has. It’s never stopped us – for this long – from one of the things we love to do most, whether for business or leisure, and that’s travel. But, welp, here we are.
So, while I’ve never been one to tempt fate, I do think it’s important for us to take stock of the situation as we’re getting into Fall 2020. How are we coping with Covid-19? What ideas are out there for restoring travel, so we can all get back to business, holidays, and life as we know it? Let’s take a look.
Covid-19 and continuing trouble for travel
First, the bad news. Without politicizing the issue, the fact is there’s been extreme inconsistency in how different areas and people around the world have responded to the pandemic. That’s led to the recurrence of outbreaks in various regions around the U.S. and the world. This virus isn’t contained.
It is hopeful that there are many companies working as hard as they can to create a vaccine. But science and manufacturing take time. Distributing the vaccine worldwide and with enough saturation to make a difference will take even more time.
Hotels aren’t faring well during this crisis. A survey conducted by American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) in September 2020 found that:
· 68% currently have fewer than half of their typical, pre-crisis staff working full time.
· Half of hotel owners said they are in danger of foreclosure by their real estate debt lenders because of Covid-19.
· 74% of respondents said they would be forced into further layoffs without additional governmental assistance.
· More than 67% of hotels report they will only be able to last six more months at current projected revenue and occupancy levels without further relief.
Airlines are also struggling. We’re all well aware of the industry’s layoffs and furloughs. And, when restrictions from the U.S. government’s first assistance package expire October 1, there may be thousands of additional layoffs unless a last-minute arrangement is made.
Getting creative, Flights to Nowhere are now a thing for some carriers (primarily in Southeast Asia.) But despite their popularity – “sky tours” post as sold out almost immediately – these flights are unlikely to help the airlines’ bottom lines. Add to that the outcry from environmentalists over the unnecessary carbon emissions, and it’s difficult to see these becoming part of their longer-term survival strategy.
Coping with Covid-19: Strategies
Now for some better news: Medicine and technology are rapidly advancing. Improvements in accuracy and innovations in testing are offering new options, however imperfect, to both fight and mitigate the advancement of this coronavirus. And some creative thinking is also helping us out. The latest ideas range from technical to hilarious, and all offer much needed optimism as well as actual long-term possibilities for success.
Travel corridors, also called “travel bubbles” or “air bridges,” was an idea proposed in May 2020. Unfortunately, rising Covid-19 cases in Australia and New Zealand have put that proposed travel bubble on hold. On September 20, Greg Foran, Air New Zealand’s CEO, told the Sydney Morning Herald it may not happen until 2021, “I certainly do not believe we will see anything across the Tasman this calendar year. It’s hard to believe it would be before March next year and could well be longer.”
While it’s been an unfortunate setback, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, more recently (on September 28) stated they may still be able to create this travel corridor soon, as Australia moves into a “hotspot” approach to managing the virus caseload. This scheme would restrict movement only in areas where the rate of new infections warrants, allowing for more free travel for less impacted areas. So, there is promise in the travel corridor idea, especially as global conditions are changing so rapidly.
Another travel corridor, between the UK and the rest of Europe, is ever changing due to spikes in cases. The UK’s list of countries that are exempt from the 14-day self-quarantine on arrival home is updated regularly. It isn’t the most convenient way to travel, but it is helpful for travelers who need to get around the continent. It is aiding the continued movement of business.
The London business community is now pushing for an air bridge to New York, with some hoping Los Angeles and San Francisco will also be included. Although cases of Covid-19 are present in New York and still higher than anyone would like them to be, businesses need to keep moving if they’re to remain solvent.
Corneel Koster, Chief Customer and Operating Officer at Virgin Atlantic, was recently quoted by TTG Media: “If you look at somewhere like New York [that] has lower Covid ratios, it’s something we’re lobbying both countries’ governments on because it will be a while before travel can be completely unrestricted and free. And in the meantime, we strongly believe there is a need to get travel going. Getting a travel corridor between New York and the U.K. would be very important to Virgin Atlantic but also other transatlantic players.”
AIRPORT TESTING INSTEAD OF QUARANTINES
In response to the belief that mandatory quarantines of as much as 14 days for arriving travelers are exacerbating the decline of travel, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), along with many global airlines, are pushing for more testing with quick results at airports. And it may be possible, with new, more affordable testing that doesn’t require a medical team to administer.
“The key to restoring the freedom of mobility across borders is systematic Covid-19 testing of all travelers before departure. This will give governments the confidence to open their borders without complicated risk models that see constant changes in the rules imposed on travel. Testing all passengers will give people back their freedom to travel with confidence. And that will put millions of people back to work,” said IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac.
With business travel down – about 95% for American Airlines as reported in early September – some of the airlines, including United and JetBlue, are focusing more on leisure travel to sun-filled destinations. United has announced a pilot program for rapid airport testing for travelers flying San Francisco to Hawaii to start the same day Hawaii is somewhat loosening its rules. As of October 15, travelers who can show they’ve had a negative Covid-19 test will be able to bypass the 14-day quarantine that’s been required the last few months.
At the same time, Hawaiian Airlines is offering drive-through testing in labs near Los Angeles and San Francisco airports. Partnering with Worksite Labs for PCR testing, travelers can get results either in 36 hours or with same-day express service (with different prices for each) and avoid the 14-day quarantine with a negative result. Hawaiian adds that additional cities will have drive-through testing available “soon.”
American Airlines is also offering pre-flight testing: from Dallas/Ft. Worth for passengers to Maui (OGG) or Honolulu (HNL), and from Miami to Jamaica and the Bahamas. It is also working with the broader Caribbean community to expand the program. American’s press release doesn’t state details on testing in Miami, but it is offering three types of testing options at DFW. Travelers will be able to request either at-home tests (administered with a clinician on video chat,) in-person testing at specific urgent care clinics, or on-site testing at the airport via CareNow urgent care.
In another effort, JetBlue announced its partnership with Vault Health on September 28 to provide at-home Covid-19 tests to passengers before travel. Travelers will request the test online using their confirmation code ad administer the saliva-based PCR test with the help of a video connection to a test supervisor at Vault Health. Results are returned in 72 hours or less, which should enable travelers to avoid quarantines in states and countries that accept testing. JetBlue says travelers are not required to use its testing, but wants to offer travelers the option to get tested.
Alaska Airlines is also partnering with a lab, Carbon Health, to offer rapid Covid-19 tests. With tests beginning in Seattle on October 12 and results available in two hours, Carbon Health will prioritize Alaska Airlines passengers Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It will start with a focus on Hawaii passengers as Alaska restarts twice-daily flights from Seattle. Carbon Health will open more pop-up clinics down the west coast as more nonstop flights are resumed on November 1 from Portland, Oregon, and San Jose and San Diego in California.
It’s probably good to note here that none of the airlines are offering testing for free. Pricing ranges by location, type of test and whether results are provided within a few days or a few minutes. Travelers would be wise to look up the options and costs in advance so they aren’t caught off guard.
MORE CREATIVE SOLUTIONS
In what is possibly my favorite and definitely the cutest potential solution, Finland is working with dogs that have been trained to sniff out the coronavirus on arriving passengers. The dogs reportedly need only 10 seconds to identify the virus during completely voluntary tests happening now in Helsinki’s airport. Passengers swipe sweat from their necks onto a cloth that’s brought to a separate area. Trained dogs are presented with the sample alongside various other scents to see if they respond to the passenger’s sample.
The entire process takes about a minute and they are apparently quite effective. It’s been found that the dogs were able to detect the virus at earlier stages than a PCR test. Researchers in Germany found the dogs have a 94% success rate. Dogs are already used to detect other diseases like malaria and cancer, so this move seems quite reasonable. As well, it involves no discomfort to the traveler, even if they are not fans of dogs, since there is no direct interaction with them. It seems like the only barriers to this solution are having enough dogs trained for all of our airports and having enough snacks to reward them.
See one of the dogs identifying the virus by smell, below (source: The Washington Post.)
Denver International Airport is offering its own type of assistance to help travelers feel more confident. Its new mobile app called VeriFLY, currently available for iOS, allows travelers to reserve a 15-minute window during which they can use specially marked TSA screening lanes for either standard or Pre-Check boarding. After getting through security quickly, the passenger can then board a reserved train car with a limited number of other passengers to get to the concourse.
VeriFLY users must go through a health and temperature screening at the airport before they’re given access to the TSA lanes via a QR code. And of course, face masks are mandatory. The airport hopes to help travelers get back to travel by offering a nearly touchless and less congested travel experience.
And finally, my personal winner of the (totally imaginary) “Most Creative Solution” award: Sweden’s Gotland island, in the Baltic Sea, is using costumed knights to remind visitors about social distancing and safety protocols. Gotland is reportedly one of the least affected areas of Sweden, but the local administration is concerned that its healthcare system could be easily overwhelmed if visitors brought a spike in Covid-19 cases.
The medieval reenactment group rides horses in various places on the island, including beaches and in its medieval town, to help enforce social distancing among visitors. But don’t worry – there are no challenges of jousting matches or threats of jail. The knights carry banners with messages on them and talk with visitors to help reinforce the rules.
How Deem is helping business travel
We know that despite the risk there is still some travel happening, especially when the work is considered essential. To help our business partners and travelers, Deem has taken a number of steps to help empower people with vital information when it is most needed – at the time of booking.
Recently partnering with industry leader GeoSure and incorporating additional information from ATPCO, Deem has released SafetyCheck, a feature that provides detailed and up-to-date health and safety information. During the booking process, travelers can now see location-specific data on Covid-19 cases, neighborhood safety scores for different groups, airline cleanliness and more.
Travel managers will also find our Automatic Ticket Exchange and Dynamic Messaging features especially helpful. The Automatic Ticket Exchange (ATE) feature is already available on Deem. This automated solution makes rebooking, rescheduling or refunds of cancelled tickets streamlined and efficient. ATE reduces processing time and removes human data entry errors as it automatically recalculates complex fares, taxes and penalties for domestic and international flights.
As the airlines increase their flexibility with ticketing rules, changing unused tickets can be handled automatically through the platform. “Your unused ticket funds get applied [to a new booking] without anyone having to think about it,” said Brenda Semrow, Deem’s senior travel domain expert. “Any unused ticket that applies will be automatically attached as a form of payment without any additional input needed from the user.”
Dynamic messaging is another way to keep in touch with your travelers. Triggered by rules you create, messaging will appear in the platform for travelers based on what you’ve noted for them. Links can also be added, for instance, to the CDC, to provide added information travelers don’t have to go searching for. Additionally, messaging can be sent out on the fly by travel managers if there are immediate actions travelers should take to reduce their risk or maintain their safety.