Jun 15, 2020

How airlines, booking sites, airports can restore trust post-COVID-19

Put safety before profits. Focus on customer service. Replace feel-good measures with meaningful changes that will restore trust. 

These seem like simple solutions for a travel industry struggling to recover post-COVID-19.

Instead we get airline "rules" "requiring" passengers to wear masks, but no enforcement. We get promises of temperature checks instead of a system of pre-boarding testing. We get assurances of social distancing, then hear about packed planes with middle seats filled. 

Third-party booking sites pass the buck for cancelled reservations to the airlines and hotels which pass it back. 

Travel insurance? Forget it. Covid-19 is either "unforeseen" or "foreseen." Either way, you're not covered. 

I've been thinking about the trust issue after reading a Facebook post by a friend who spent the better park of a week sitting on hold with Expedia, listening to Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound," while trying to resolve a refund dispute in which the airline and Expedia bounced her back and forth, each blaming the other. 

"What is the point or advantage of using Expedia,?" she asked. Not one of 87 people who commented were able to provide an answer.

She finally extracted a verbal promise from Expedia that she was due a full refund. The catch: It will take two to six months to process.

Her conclusion. "They count on you just giving up."

To restore trust, these sites need to revamp their whole purpose for being, starting with customer service when something goes wrong. "Pretending" to offer convenience (they rarely offer value) while hiding behind the fine print when it comes to resolving disputes won't cut it in a post-COVID world. 

This is a good time to remind travelers having trouble getting refunds to which they are entitled to challenge the charge through their credit-card issuer. This takes time, but almost always works. I know several people who did this recently after getting the run-around from airlines and third-party sites. The process is known as a "chargeback," because the credit card companies take back the money from the travel providers as part of their contract that requires refunds for services paid for but not provided. 

There's one important new wrinkle to watch out for the next time you sign up for a tour or a cruise. A law firm recently advised travel advisers to rewrite their contracts with customers to forfeit their right to a chargeback. The purpose of this is to allow the travel companies to issue vouchers for future travel instead of cash refunds as many tried to do during COVID-19.

Here's what Jeffrey Ment, managing partner of The Ment Law Group, recommended in a recent story in Travel Age West

"When discussing this with clients, I suggest using language that states: “While we do accept major credit cards including Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover, customers must provide us a signed charge authorization agreement for every transaction for your trip.
Your authorization is a binding agreement for us to charge your card, and as such, you waive any right to a chargeback in the case of cancellation for any cause (excepting fraud), including a force majeure event (meaning cancellations due to unpredictable events such as as floods, riots, COVID-19 outbreak etc.), and agree to refund policies (read this to mean vouchers instead of cash refunds) and procedures as outlined in these terms and conditions." 

Best advice going forward: If your travel advisor, cruise line or tour operator asks you to sign something like this, don't. 

Airlines are falling over each other to promote their new deep cleaning methods, seat blocking to reduce capacity and requirements that crew and passengers wear face masks. 

None of these will make a real difference in how people feel about flying until the Federal Aviation Administration steps in to create across-the-board policies for all airlines and U.S. airports.

These should include:

*Mandatory pre-flight virus testing (available through a home kit) for anyone boarding a plane. Sounds extreme, but anything short of that, including temperature checks, are meaningless in terms of assuring passengers that a flight is virus-free.

*Even with adequate testing, there will be false negatives. Airlines should be required to follow-up with passengers two weeks after a flight via an e-mail questionnaire to start compiling real data about the risk of infection after flying. These results should be published along with data the FAA requires airlines provide regarding involuntary bumping, lost luggage etc.  

*Keeping sick people off planes by requiring airlines to drop change fees for flights rescheduled within one year.

*Getting rid of "Basic Economy," a bad idea from the beginning. Airlines threw budget passengers a few dollars of savings in exchange for giving up seat selection and overhead storage space for carry-ons.

*Coming up with a system for replacing food and beverage carts with bags filled with snacks and bottle water available at the gate.  Anyone who needs extra water could request it onboard. 

*Restricting entry to airports to ticketed passengers only and may one other for those who need extra help.

*Allowing airports to spend money on temperature screening. FAA recently informed Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that public health screening is generally not considered proper use of airport revenue. That needs to change.

* Requiring all airport personnel to wear masks.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee wrote that a federal response is necessary for people to be protected from COVID-19 and to have confidence in the safety of air travel.

He suggested the collection of contact information for passengers and travel details, and asked that COVID-19 tests be offered at airports for all passengers arriving from other countries.

These are hard and expensive measures to be sure. But nothing short of  constancy when it comes to airlines and U.S airports will make people feel better about flying again.


  1. Travel simply isn't going to be fun (nor safe) for some time into the future if one needs to travel through airports and on airlines to accomplish it. While I like your ideas, I can't imagine the logistics, cost and manpower it would take to accomplish such testing and follow up. . .especially for airlines that are 'on the brink' now and letting staff go.

    1. What would happen, I wonder, if an airline actually saw its mission as serving its customers rather than trying to figure out how to squeeze every last dime and inch of space from them? The millions the airlines could save by not having to pay for advertising intended to obscure and/or deceive could be put into a genuinely customer friendly product.

  2. You left out safe distancing. Yes, it's painful for the airlines to block middle seats but absolutely necessary for passengers to be/feel safe.

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