Transportation is expected to be among the hardest-hit business sectors in the U.S. as the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread across the nation. Airlines in particular were dealt a hammer blow on Wednesday when, following the World Health Organization's declaration of a global pandemic, President Trump issued a 30-day travel ban from Europe (excluding the U.K.) to the U.S.
Until this past week, travel brands in the U.S. have remained relatively quiet about the outbreak. But that's changing fast as travel restrictions and customer fears result in a steep dropoff of passengers. Already 21 percent of U.S. adults report they have either canceled or decided not to plan spring travel in the wake of the coronavirus and 15 percent are doing the same with summer travel, according to a CivicScience survey of 1,854 adults between February 12 and March 10.
As a result, airlines, ride-sharing apps, cruise lines and train operators have been adjusting their business tactics and messaging. As the virus spread, and continues to spread through the country, travel brands are reassuring passengers and showing how they’re taking traveler concerns seriously. So far, brands in the mobility space have been taking to social media and email to relay their messages over other forms of paid media.
Airlines like United and JetBlue are sharing details of cleaning procedures of their aircaft and real-time updates of canceled flights; ride-sharing apps like Lyft and Uber say they will fund drivers who fall ill; and cruise lines like Princess Cruises are postponing trips.
“The communication I have seen from mobility and travel providers have by and large been proactive and reassuring,” says Dipanjan Chatterjee, vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “Brands have little to gain and a lot to lose by downplaying the potential gravity of the situation … This is not the time to sell. A few destinations are alluding to light tourism as a way of attracting visitors, but travel brands risk being seen as opportunistic and uncaring if they push their wares at a time like this.”
Experts are saying that airlines are seeing their largest business crisis since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The impact of the coronavirus on the global airline industry could cost $113 billion as demand dips, according to the International Air Transport Association. Airlines are doing as much as they can to reduce costs by cutting domestic and international flights. On social media, they’re making it known that passengers can change their flights for free and are sharing how they’re taking the proper steps to clean their planes.
United Airlines’ stock has been tumbling since cases of the virus began appearing in the U.S. The airline was selling at $82.20 on the stock market on February 12 and on Thursday afternoon stock price was around $41.70, about a 50 percent drop in just a month.
On a webcast of the J.P. Morgan 2020 Industrials conference on Tuesday, United President Scott Kirby said that the airline is seeing its domestic net bookings plunge by 70 percent and gross bookings by 25 percent. The airline estimates that it will take 18 months to recover from the impact of the virus on its business.
Until then, the airline is cutting 20 percent of its May flights, and has instituted a hiring freeze until June 30, while also offering current employees a voluntary leave of absence, unpaid.
Communication is key for the airline during this period of upheaval. “We are actively providing our customers and employees the latest information on what we are doing to manage through the COVID-19 situation with their safety as our top priority, and so that customers can make the best decision for their individual travel plans. This involves regular updates on our website, mobile app, social media channels, emails and internal channels,” said a spokesperson for United Airlines in a statement.
This week, the airline shared some of the steps it is taking to mitigate the threat of the disease with its followers on social, as well as through email and on its website, including how it cleans its planes and terminals. (United uses an “electrostatic fogger” to disinfect the air and the surfaces of aircraft on arriving international flights.) There are also changes to how the crew interacts with passengers. Crew members will now wear gloves during food service and will only refill drinks using new cups.
Another message to those on social: The airline will waive change fees for trips booked from March 10 to April 30.