Restoring confidence in the travelling public

It used to be that people were concerned about flying due to gravity issues; the effects of positive and negative g during take-off, landing and turbulence etc., as well as having concerns about the unknown or the untrusted. Not understanding how aircraft fly or the thought of not being in control of them whilst they are flying. We all know that flying is (or was) the safest means of travel, but now, the travelling public have a new concern; how can they minimize their risk of infection!

The impact of COVID-19 on travel

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the lives of everyone around the globe. Many countries have experienced lockdowns, resulting in limited socializing, travel, and in some cases not even being allowed to go outside your own house or flat. So, as lockdowns begin to ease across the world, and people begin to travel freely again, how will behaviors have changed? How will the general public feel now about travelling? It’s likely they will have lingering concerns about using most forms of public transport for some time to come, particularly air travel.

High footfall, multiple contact points

The opportunities for close contact with other members of the general public are numerous for a traveling passenger. Airports are naturally places of high footfall and the sequence of movements passengers have to make to move around the facility (from queuing to enter the terminal building in some cases, to queuing to check-in or drop off luggage, to passport control, security and beyond, including spending hours in lounges, catering and retail outlets) present a range of challenges when it comes to reducing physical contact.

And it’s not just direct physical contact that passengers are cautious of, there are other points of indirect physical contact to take into account, including using restroom facilities, seating, utensils in the catering outlets and payment devices in the retail shops. And as passengers move around the airport, there are other surfaces that will be touched by passengers passing through, including lift buttons, escalator handrails and security trays.

On board the airplane too, passengers will need reassurance that the aircraft is hygienic. There are certain hygiene hotspots aircraft are susceptible to under normal circumstances (such as toilets, tray tables and seat back pockets!), without the added risk of infection. In today’s world, a world impacted by COVID-19, cleaning regimes of airlines are under increasingly intense scrutiny.

New travel patterns

Until the public feel more reassured that they can travel safely and hygienically, it’s possible we’ll see more domestic leisure trips, or a preference for short-haul travel.

For business travelers, it’s likely their employers will be rethinking travel policies with the focus on personnel safety and their duty of care.

So, what’s the answer? How can these air travelers protect themselves and their families? How can employers protect their staff when traveling? Short of not flying at all, how can organizations mitigate the risks to their staff?

We may see less business travel, shorter haul flights, and it’s not inconceivable that employers will revise their policies to introduce new criteria for selecting airlines, including restricting travel to airlines which have focused on hygiene as an essential part of their package.  

So, the challenge at the heart of rebuilding the aerospace sector is clearly on restoring confidence in the travelling public, but what challenges does the industry have to overcome to achieve this?

Dilemmas the industry faces

  • Infection; and how to minimize it. This applies to the whole journey, including getting from your home to the airport, and then going into the departure airport to exiting the destination airport, and to all potential contact points along the way as outlined before.
  • Government policies; airlines are impacted by differing government policies, including some who require two weeks of isolation on arrival, so you may get to your destination but not be able go out for 2 weeks.
  • Finance and economics; Business class is the revenue-generator for airlines. Economy makes little margin, so airlines face the dilemma of getting people back onto aircraft and also of getting them to spend, whether it’s on a better class of travel, or in-flight services such as catering.

The RPK conundrum

Let’s look at the economics in more detail. The RPK (Revenue Per Kilometer) and load factor (proportion of seats sold on a flight) are critical. The pandemic has obviously caused a significant reduction in people flying, varying between 60% and 90% or more. If the capacity is not reduced to match demand, then the load factor is reduced. In Asia-Pacific for example, demand dropped 60% but capacity dropped only 44%, leaving a load factor of 58%. Most business models function on a load factor in the 90s. In 2019, only four airlines managed to operate commercially with a load factor below 62%, but this is below the realistic break-even point, so there is perhaps some financial support being applied to keep them going. Break-even load factors vary regionally, but in North America it is 75%, in North Asia it’s 76%, in Europe it’s 79%, and in Asia-Pacific it’s 81%. So the break-even load factor range globally is about 75% – 81%. This means that most seats need to be occupied for the business model to remain viable.

Social distancing on board and the impact on RPK

One option being espoused to provide some element of social distancing on board is not selling the middle seat. This results in a reduced load factor and consequently a reduced RPK too. For example, on an A320 with 168 seats, if the middle seats are left empty to provide social distancing, the maximum load factor becomes 62%. The increase in the cost per passenger is 50%. On a 777 with 373 seats, the maximum load factor goes down to 60%, with a cost per passenger increase of 67%. Note that these are maximum load factors, so assuming 100% of the available seats are sold. The reality will be less, so the net load factor is further reduced.

Alternatively, screens may be installed around seats to give physical separation between passengers. This means more weight, so less capacity for people or freight, and more fuel consumption per passenger. So the RPK still suffers. There are logistical issues with this too, such as passengers getting into and out of the seats, including the initial boarding; boarding time which is already long may become longer still, in-flight restroom visits, or leg stretching on long-haul, serving food and drinks to people fully screened; how will cabin crew manage? I can foresee lots of food being dropped onto passengers’ laps!

The industry response

Increasing prices would seem to be the logical solution to the economic pressures mentioned. Higher prices would restore the RPK and counter the load factor drop. But faced with the challenge of encouraging people to fly again, increasing prices may present a further barrier to reinvigorating air travel. Conversely, we may even see a price war. Ryanair has said that if a competitor airline sells below break-even, they will sell even further below the break-even point.

So, has the age of cheap travel gone for good? Perhaps so. These changes in RPK and load factor are not sustainable long term. You will no doubt be aware that many airlines have received significant financial support by their respective governments to stay in business. Examples include; Air France-KLM (Euro 10Bn), United Airlines (USD 5Bn), Alaska Airlines, Allegiant, Delta, Frontier, Sky West, South West (USD 3.2Bn), Easyjet, Iberia, Vueling, Lufthansa Group (including Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa, Swiss) (Euro 10Bn), Norwegian (NOK 3Bn). Others have received less, such as Ryanair which is in receipt of GBP 600M under the UK COVID Corporate Financing Facility. Finally, BA to date has received GBP 300M. Overall, airlines have received USD123Bn in financial support to date. Of this, USD67Bn is repayable.

So pricing is going to be a real challenge when faced with falling passenger numbers and pressures on existing business models.

For airlines facing some of the challenges highlighted, BS 65000: Guidance on organizational resilience is essential reading. I encourage you to look at the BSI website and read more about Organizational Resilience; it applies to every business, no matter what sector.

Some airlines around the world have already suffered more, having gone into administration. These include Virgin Australia, which went into voluntary administration in April, Flybe, Air Italy, Avianca, Trans States Airlines, Compass, Atlas Global, Germanwings, South African Airways (a flag carrier), and many more.

Analysts said earlier in the year that by the end of May, most airlines in the world will be bankrupt and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that airlines globally will lose at least $314 billion due to the outbreak.

What’s key in the sector’s recovery strategy?

Load factor down, RPK down, costs up, fewer seats sold (possibly at lower prices if there is a price war). There are multiple challenges facing airlines. But could there also be opportunities longer term?

Influence over government policy is arguably limited. That will be driven by the need for public safety and pandemic management, balanced against the other main driver of the need to restore and grow the economy. Part of this is and will continue to be government financial support to industry, including aerospace. And as mentioned before, many airlines have already received significant sums to keep going.

So back to the essential question, how do we restore the confidence of the travelling public and business travelers in the safety of air travel?

The next normal

To rebuild and thrive in the future, airports and aircraft need to be safe, clean and hygienic. People need to be assured that airports and aircraft are safe places to be. And that means new ways of working in all aspects;

  • Food hygiene, including handling, transporting, serving, utensils; every aspect. This applies to airports, airlines and catering contractors (for on-board catering).
  • Airport cleanliness; a deep, anti-viral cleaning regime that is effective. All surfaces need to be considered; seats, lifts (and especially the buttons), escalators (especially hand-rails), door handles, any financial transaction whether by cash or chip and PIN device. Airline lounges too will need to adopt the same high standard of cleanliness; arguably, cleanliness of lounges could become a selling point!
  • Aircraft cleanliness; increased focus on cleaning regimes, taking into account the differences between short-haul and long-haul flights. Short haul operators who operate 6.5 flights a day may only usually clean once a day under normal circumstances.
  • Minimizing contact and maximizing space/social distancing; real estate (airports and aircraft) are not designed for this, people flow systems are not designed for this, indeed the opposite is true; they are designed for high density efficient flows. The layout of airport seating, which is robust, fixed seating, will need to be revised to provide gaps. This reduces capacity. People don’t like it if they can’t find a seat. And proposals for screening off passengers on-board need to be evaluated and implemented. Aircraft layouts, in-flight management and cleaning will also need to be revised to cope.
  • Passenger flows through airports need to be fast and efficient, with no close queuing, no unnecessary contact with people or equipment. Aircraft boarding methods will need to minimize people contact. Fill up by seat number from the back; good-bye to priority boarding?
  • Lead times; arrive just in time to check in and board, not wait around for 2 hours. Layovers are a different issue, but perhaps layover passengers and one-trip passengers will be separated to prevent cross-contamination? Who knows. This may adversely affect airport revenues from retail.
  • Flight crew. The cockpit seats are fixed, probably not the required 2 meters apart. How can this be mitigated? A robust cleaning regime after every flight would seem a minimum requirement, not least for crew confidence, as well performing crew temperature and health screening checks before each flight.

Airports and airlines will need to consider and plan for all these aspects of the next normal. Furthermore, there are human factors to consider; airport and airline staff will all have been affected by the pandemic; the effects of prolonged lock-down, possibly being furloughed, and concerns of redundancy, plus the on-going concerns about their health being impacted by contact with so many people every day. They will need support as they return to work.

The role of standards in the next normal

What will give the travelling public confidence is the effective application of standards.

What PPE will be required as the sector plans to restart? Where will you source it? Is it genuine and effective? BSI has been very busy testing and certifying PPE for many years, and intensely over the last few months. It’s vital that your procurement teams do their due diligence when sourcing PPE. If you have a doubt about PPE, talk to BSI or check our website, as there is a lot of useful information there to assist you. Also available online is complimentary access to BSI SCREEN, which gives daily updates on supply chain issues created by COVID-19, including risks such as theft, falsification of certification, counterfeit goods etc.

The role of standards for cleaning and hygiene, food and equipment is significant. Travelers need to trust the airports and airlines. And to provide assurance of the effective application of standards, to gain this essential trust, 3rd party certification is key.

If all food handling organizations are certified to the relevant standards for food handling and hygiene, then again, the travelling public can have confidence, they can trust that they are not going to be exposed to risks. Examples of relevant food standards are;

All of these are suitable for airports, airlines and catering organizations including the in-flight catering providers.

For airports and airlines, and indeed other places of work, including offices, factories, and maintenance and repair facilities, our new BSI Hygienic program addresses the challenge of providing hygienic facilities.

For example, if an airport has been independently audited and verified as meeting the BSI Workplace Hygiene program standard, it can display the Kitemark logo as a mark of trust, on its website, walls and notices etc. The travelling public can then be assured that the airport is following a standard and meets it; trust is established and confidence in the safety of the airport’s hygiene is reinforced. For operators, the travelling public will have confidence that the aircraft they board is safe for them to travel in, with minimized risks of contagion.

Therefore, confidence and trust are key to the rebuild and recovery efforts of the aerospace sector.

For more information, guidance and support materials as you navigate the next phase of recovery following COVID-19, visit our dedicated aerospace web page.

You can also follow my ‘Reopening and Rebuilding’ the Aerospace Sector podcast series here. Look out for the Aerospace playlist.


Brendon Hill, Global Head of Aerospace


About the author

With over 40 years’ experience in aerospace and engineering Brendon leads the strategic direction of BSI’s aerospace sector. Brendon collaborates with industry bodies to drive innovation and is an international speaker, leading the way for a safe, secure future for the sector. Previous experience includes 26 years as a British Army Officer and Aircraft Engineer, both writing and implementing the quality management system and providing technical support to British Army aviation. He has also worked at a senior level in manufacturing in aerospace and other high-risk sectors.


ISO 22000 Food Safety Management Systems