It was a meeting of the aviation minds.
Leaders in Canada’s airline sector met, virtually, on Tuesday (June 9th) to discuss the future of air travel as destinations worldwide enter the early stages of reopening after months of border closures and lockdowns due to COVID-19.
Hosted by online marketing expert Frederic Gonzalo, the split-screen chat addressed the current state of air travel in Canada, how its restart may look in the coming weeks and months, and what travel advisors can do to prepare.
Joining Gonzalo was an all-star power panel of industry insiders, notably: Lisa Pierce (Managing Director, Sales, Canada & U.S., Air Canada), Vincent Etchebehere (General Manager, Canada, Air France-KLM); Joseph Adamo (Chief Distribution Officer, Transat & President, Transat Distribution Canada); Len Corrado (VP, Commercial Operations, Sunwing); and Charles "Chuck" Crowder (VP, Sales & Distribution, WestJet).
While there are still a lot of unknowns in the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines are moving forward, putting health and safety, flexibility and its partners at the forefront of their strategy and operations.
“The new normal is the pace of change, which is incredibly rapid,” said Lisa Pierce of Air Canada, which has maintained select domestic and international routes throughout the pandemic, all the while introducing CleanCare+, a new program dedicated to passenger safety and enhanced aircraft grooming.
Air Canada relaunched its U.S. service on May 22nd and continues to operate in key international destinations. There are 97 destinations in its summer schedule, half the size of last year’s, but “we’re optimistic we’ll fill those planes,” Pierce said.
Right now, for Joseph Adamo, it’s about survival at Transat (which has temporarily suspended its operations) and “taking difficult, but necessary steps.”
“There’s still some activity, despite being on pause,” Adamo said. “The new normal is emphasizing the ability to deal with this uncertainty and begin planning for the future in a very different environment.”
(Transat, two days after this broadcast, announced that it will resume its operations on July 23rd).
Adamo said “time will tell” in terms of what the demand will be when air travel resumes, but suggested that friends and relatives, and millennials, will be the first ones to fly.
Adamo also hinted at new health and safety protocols “grounded in science, developed by industry bodies and regulators."
As such, Transat's Traveller Care program was announced on June 11th to ensure "the safety and peace of mind of the Corporation's customers with new health measures at check-in, at boarding, on board and at destination." (See complete details here).
WestJet’s Chuck Crowder emphasized the need for recovery and stability.
“Safety and security is paramount in getting people comfortable to travel again,” Crowder said. “We need to join forces and work with government agency partners to ensure those measures are lifted, when appropriate, to make sure travel happens again.”
Crowder said WestJet, which unveiled a range of safety protocols this week, has seen an uptick in small business travel.
“Construction companies and factories are reopening, and those workers need to get around to job sites,” he said.
Canadians are also starting to research beach destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico, but those trips may not happen until "deeper into the fourth quarter,” Crowder said.
Vincent Etchebehere noted how Air France-KLM has seen a steady increase in its operations since May.
“We’re developing our frequencies,” Etchebehere said, noting how Air France’s Montreal-Paris service will be a daily product as of June 15th, while KLM, in addition to already serving Toronto, will resume flights between Amsterdam and Calgary (two weekly) and Vancouver (three weekly) starting in July.
Air France-KLM was, notably, the only European carrier that continued to bridge Europe and Canada during the pandemic, Etchebehere said.
“When the situation calms down, Europeans currently residing in Canada will travel home to Europe,” Etchebehere said, noting the companies’ ongoing commitment to flight safety, sanitization and sustainability.
Len Corrado at Sunwing (which has also temporarily suspended its operations) said his team is looking at ways of making travel “more seamless,” with a focus on reducing touchpoints and one-on-one interactions.
Additionally: “We’re waiving change fees and offering reduced deposits to get people comfortable travelling again,” he said.
He said Sunwing is working to achieve a level of consistency within the industry, especially when it comes to introducing new health and safety guidelines.
“Airlines don’t compete on safety,” he said, noting Sunwing’s own health and safety protocols, which were introduced recently.
This is just a slice of the many ideas, strategies and future outlooks our esteemed panelists shared. Watch the complete episode here!
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