What new normal? Airlines bring back some pre-pandemic practices

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Delta is bringing back alcohol service but in altered form. Passengers will choose from two canned cocktails.
Delta is bringing back alcohol service but in altered form. Passengers will choose from two canned cocktails.

Airlines are gradually phasing out some of the protocols they began during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But as carriers make those changes, they face dicey decisions not only about which policies to get rid of and which to keep but also about how to shape messaging about such moves. 

"There's not a good way to communicate," said Seth Miller, editor of the airline passenger experience-focused website PaxEx.Aero. "I think there is going to be a terrible communications problem unless and until we get CDC saying the situation is under control."

At present, some airline Covid policies remain firmly in place across all U.S. carriers. Most notably, masks are required by federal order. And among full-service U.S. airlines, change fees for flights that originate in the U.S. are a thing of the past. 

But in other spheres, a slow drip toward normalcy is underway. On March 31, Delta announced that it will unblock middle seats on May 1, making it the final U.S. carrier to take that step.

Also last month, Southwest and JetBlue returned to pre-Covid boarding procedures. For Southwest, that meant the resumption of groups of 30 people waiting together in queues with another 30 people lined up on the other side of a partition, compared with the Covid policy of boarding only 10 people at a time. For JetBlue, it meant the end of back-to-front boarding and the resumption of boarding based upon priority groups, which, in general, loads the front of the plane first.

In addition, in March, Southwest did away with emailed notifications to customers whose upcoming flight was going to be more than 70% full. On April 12, the carrier will end a policy of allowing such customers to change to a less crowded flight scheduled within three days of the original planned departure free of any fare differential.

Airlines are also bringing back vestiges of cabin service, and have actually been doing so since as long ago as last May, although typically in a limited way. One recent change was Southwest's March resumption of soft-drink service. And on April 14, Delta will bring back a selection of Coca-Cola beverages for domestic and short-haul, international flights as well as coffee, tea and new snack options. The Coke products will be served in individual, 7.5-ounce cans for safety. Similarly, Delta will resume alcohol sales, offering canned Old-Fashioneds and margaritas with contactless payment. On June 1, the carrier will bring back hot food in premium cabins on some transcontinental flights.

In statements provided for this article, JetBlue and Southwest said that enhanced cleaning protocols implemented early in the pandemic, such as electrostatic disinfectant spraying and hand disinfection of high-touch surfaces, remain in place. 

"We expect these measures to continue into the foreseeable future," Southwest said.

And in Delta's March 31 announcement, CEO Ed Bastian said strengthened cleaning protocols will be permanent.

Miller, though, said that at least some airlines have quietly reduced the frequency with which they undertake certain types of cleaning. USA Today, for example, reported last August that Southwest reduced its cleaning of armrests and seat belts to nighty, rather than on every turn. 

Carriers say that as they move away from some Covid-19 procedures they are relying on public health guidance and consulting with health advisors. 

Still, saving money is an obvious incentive. Miller said that even minor policy changes, such as tweaking cleaning or ending emailed notifications ahead of crowded flights, can lead to savings.

"All of those extra little things that the airlines were doing were basically free because planes were empty," he said. "Now that they're more full, it's going to cost them real money, and that's money they need."

Ultimately, how and whether carriers choose to message ahead of Covid protocol rollbacks will be a key to how the changes are received by consumers, said Bryan Del Monte, president of the Aviation Agency, an advertising agency.

"They took those actions to build confidence with the traveling public that it was safe to fly on aircraft," Del Monte said. "My thought in running public relations campaigns to the airlines is they need to explain that what they're doing is logical, reasonable and not in their own pecuniary interest."

Such messaging is especially critical since the general U.S. public is largely distrustful of airlines, Del Monte added.

Thus far, airlines have taken various approaches to advanced messaging. When Southwest resumed its pre-pandemic boarding procedure and ended notifications about crowded flights last month, it did so with little or no advanced messaging. Conversely, the carrier provided more than a month's notice before ending middle-seat blocking on Dec. 1, explaining its view that flyers were well protected by hospital-grade aircraft filters, cleaning protocols and mask requirements.

Delta is taking an aggressive approach to outreach as it prepares to upgrade cabin service and end seat blocking.

In a statement that the airline distributed publicly on March 31, Bastian said that 64% of Delta customers anticipate having at least one vaccine dose by May 1. He added that medical experts at Emory University and the Mayo Clinic will continue to guide changes.

"Protect people above all else. Our values-based culture puts people at the heart of every decision," Bastian said. 

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