As restrictions ease and people begin flying again, what will the airline landscape look like? To help get more insight into flight trends in the travel industry and how that will impact meeting planners, Incentive Research Foundation hosted a panel of airline experts from American Airlines, United Airlines and Etihad Airways to find out what safety precautions airlines are taking, how they believe group travel will change and details about the actual travel experience.

Safety and Cleaning

The definition of safety in most people’s minds has changed. In the past people worried about the plane staying in the air, now they are worried about particles in the air filtration system. United has teamed up with The Clorox Company and Cleveland Clinic to create “CleanPlus,” which includes plexiglass at checkout counters and temperature checks for employees. CleanPlus also introduced touchless check-in.

See alsoThe Future of Air Travel: Here Comes Sanitized Flying

United now has a feature where they will inform passengers if flight capacity is more than 70 percent, giving the option to change flights. American provides the same feature, informing passengers three days in advance and at the gate, after which passengers can choose another same-day flight free of charge or choose another flight date.

What’s Trending in the Industry

“What we’re seeing is that international travel for the MICE market is going to be a little [longer] to get back where it was, as opposed to corporate markets,” Amanda Leung, director of business development and sales for Etihad Airways, based in United Arab Emirates, says. One trend she is seeing for groups and incentives is more bookings for premium cabins, as “people get a little more room on board.” In speaking with her corporate clients, she says they are looking into how they can include premium cabins in their duty of care and employee wellness programs.

How Airlines are Helping

Leung says the airline is embarking on its largest maintenance program, since its inception in 2003, to combat the virus. 2,500 special passenger and humanitarian flights to 100 online and offline destinations with the purpose of repatriating citizens and delivering medical supplies.

Alynne Hanford, global sales manager for American Airlines, says the airline is flying internationally, mostly to China and Europe for cargo delivery; American has moved about 200,000 tons of seed, mostly from Argentina, and medical supplies to various locations around the world.

She reported a “pent-up demand” for air travel and the airline is responding by rolling out more flights as that demand increases. “We’re seeing a lot of intake, a lot of bookings…we’re prepared to get the aircraft back in the sky,” she says.

United Airlines embarked on more than 90 repatriation flights and is scheduling roughly 20 flights per day for medical supplies going to destinations, such as Australia, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, according to Tyler Pierce, sales manager of meeting and incentive sales for United. Both United and American have been providing free round-trip flights for medical professionals to locations where COVID-19 cases have been highest, such as New York and California.

Hanford anticipates a lot of incentive flying when restrictions are lifted, to Hawaii and Mexico in particular. When more flying does begin, she assured incentive groups the airline will be lenient with loyalty program rules. “We will be reducing a lot of penalties, if not all,” she says.

United remains open to how they can help post-COVID, they’re even welcoming suggestions for destinations. Through Jetstream, United’s online portal, meetings customers and corporate agencies can submit a request for the airline should fly.

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