Airlines rush to boost demand as coronavirus shreds standard crisis management strategy
Air carriers suspend change fees for new ticket reservations in the hope of winning over hesitant travellers
CHICAGO/SYDNEY: The rapid spread of coronavirus cases worldwide is complicating a standard strategy used by airlines when disease, disaster or conflict hit travel destinations - lower fares and redirect flights to trouble-free areas.
For now, some airlines have resorted to suspending change fees for new ticket reservations in the hope of winning over hesitant travellers until it becomes clear where coronavirus outbreaks are localised and which routes could benefit from price drops.
While lower fares have proven effective in the past in reviving demand, aviation consultant Samuel Engel said, "The pocketbook only works so far against emotion."
The coronavirus, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, has spread around the world, with more new cases now appearing outside China than inside.
JetBlue Airways Corp, which does not fly to Asia, was the first airline to launch free rebooking options last week, as it became clear that cases were not isolated to China. JetBlue pulled together and announced its plan in a matter of hours, President Joanna Geraghty told Reuters.
"We tried to put ourselves in the shoes of our customers and think about what we would want if we were, for example, booking a spring-break trip right now," Geraghty said.
US majors have since followed suit with varying waivers on change fees for new reservations to many destinations, a switch from a previous policy that covered only pre-booked flights to areas hardest hit by the coronavirus.
In Latin America, Peruvian low-cost carrier Viva Air was holding a board meeting on Wednesday to discuss measures, Declan Ryan, Executive Chairman of the board of directors, told Reuters.
But with none of the offers so far guaranteeing money-back refunds, travellers say the policies are not enough.
"I understand that there are a lot of question marks right now for the industry on how this will unfold, but I don't feel like there's a truly customer-friendly policy out here," said Amanda Elman-Kolb of Chicago, who has put on hold plans for a family trip to Europe in August.
Declining demand to fly abroad is not limited to US travellers. International travel to the United States will fall 6% over the next three months amid coronavirus concerns, the largest decline since the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the US Travel Association forecast on Tuesday.
With extra widebody jets on hand after suspending flights to China, South Korea, Japan and northern Italy, major US airlines are deploying them on domestic routes, a process known as upgauging. American Airlines Group, for example, is flying passengers from Chicago to San Francisco on a 787 Dreamliner, rather than just the usual narrowbody like a 737 or an A321.