How to win air travellers back

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Air travellers are dreaming nostalgically of the golden age of flying.  

No, not the Pan Am Stratocruisers of the 1950s for which the boarding pass was elegant millinery for the ladies and trilbies for the chaps. The golden era ended two years ago, at the end of 2019. And we’re talking about the whole air travel range from Wizz Air A320s to Emirates A380s.

Guests at hip dinner parties now compete to see who can claim to have gone the longest since they last got airborne. This is not, dear reader, a “who is the greenest” competition. Their agonising anecdotes drip with nostalgia. Even Ryanair customer-service horror stories qualify for full-on “those were the days” treatment. It seems memories of a 17-inch seat-pitch with no seat-back pouch to hold your stuff are recalled fondly.

Anything for a sniff of aviation fuel.

To listen to them, you’d think these intrepid voyagers would kill to get aboard any aircraft given permission to get airborne since the Covid pandemic’s grip slackened last summer. So why don’t they? Why are the winning dinner party anecdotes those that claim the longest grounding?

The long-suffering airlines are doing their best to win passengers back, but the principal barrier preventing them returning to anything like normal service is uncertainty, particularly on international routes. Domestic routes in big markets like the USA are almost normal, since they don’t face differing national rules on how to manage borders in a pandemic.

In the Good Old Days of 2019, business leaders could get on with running their businesses. Now nationalism is in – and treaties/alliances are suddenly uncool – they have to negotiate continually with governments both at home and abroad, to agree ways of meeting the ever-changing rules that limit what they are permitted to do today.

Unfortunately, uncertainty is with us to stay, even when the pandemic is brought under control, because nationalism has been on the rise since the Trump presidency in the USA, Brexit in the UK, and the influence of increasingly belligerent governments in Moscow, Budapest, Warsaw and Beijing.

However hard they try, cabin crew and pilots cannot entirely disguise the stresses they face in this new working environment. And when stressed cabin crew meet stressed passengers who have been juggling for days with Covid tests and providing proof of them on arrival at the airport, the golden age seems far away.

There has been a severe shortage of happy stories about air travel, but a few glints from the golden age may yet be in the offing.

Airlines like Emirates, Singapore Airlines, British Airways and Qantas are wheeling A380s out again, their press offices fondly reminding passengers that this huge machine provides perhaps the best air travel experience available – even in the economy cabin.

Marketing air travel is not easy right now, but one thing is for sure: selling air travel nostalgia is one of the few tactics likely to work.

UK airlines and EU air services after Brexit

UK-headquartered aviation law specialist Clyde & Co has gone public with basic advice on how the Brexit referendum vote could affect British registered carriers. At a time when shares in UK commercial air transport have been harder hit by the referendum vote than almost any other sector, this advice is apposite and helps the un-initiated to understand why they have taken such a hit on their equity values.

Clyde makes clear that the legal landscape is complex, and here I am only presenting the simplest part of their advice relating directly to intra-EU and UK-EU services. Exit from the EU also affects British carriers’ bilateral air service agreements with North America and the rest of the world.

This is what Clyde says: “The most significant consequence will be that air carriers which have been granted their operating licence by the UK CAA will no longer be “Community carriers” for the purposes of EU Regulation 1008/2008 (“Regulation 1008”), and thus will no longer be able to enjoy the right to fly between any two points in the EU/EEA that is conferred by such status under the Regulation.

“In the absence of any other arrangements, the old bilaterals between the UK and the other EU Member States, which have been overtaken by EU liberalisation and hence dormant for years, would become effective again, and should provide a sufficient legal basis for most 3rd and 4th freedom services, but in most cases only those two freedoms.

“The services most affected will be 7th and 9th freedom services – in other words, between two non-UK points in the EU (eg, Amsterdam – Barcelona) and between two points in the same EU Member State (eg, Rome – Milan), which would no longer be automatically permitted.” End of quote.

On the other hand the EU has been pretty much an Open Skies organisation toward Norwegian regarding its intra-EU services. Norway is not in the EU but is in the European Economic Area, and its most rapidly growing airline has been permitted the kind of freedoms most EU-based carriers enjoy.

That does not mean the EU is compelled to be liberal toward British carriers’ intra-EU services, but they might be.

EasyJet would be the most affected of all British carriers because of the huge number of intra-EU and UK-EU services it offers. While it had always made clear its wish for the referendum vote to favour remaining in the Union, it clearly has Brexit plans up its sleeve and isn’t panicking.

And although it says it doesn’t want to move its HQ out of Luton and into an EU state, if it had to do so it could. Then it would be able to register its company and its fleet outside the UK, like its arch-rival Ryanair, which is registered in Ireland, an EU state.

The issues regarding services from the UK to the rest of the world are manifold, because the EU has, for many years now, overseen – and used its negotiating weight in – bilateral agreements between all EU states and the outside world. And some of Norwegian’s applications to serve the USA from European countries other than Norway have bounced off a rubber-brick wall on America’s eastern seaboard, because it is not the EU’s job to support non-EU airlines’ applications. Norwegian’s negotiations with the USA over services by its UK division have become even more difficult since the Brexit vote.

There will be a lot of talking to do during the next two years while the UK continues to enjoy the privileges of EU membership, but in the meantime the uncertainty generated by this limbo situation is causing considerable stress in the industry.