Bookings slowly increasing as vaccine wait continues, but international standards needed to get things moving properly
“What’s happened to the industry is just… horrible,” says Máire P. Walsh with a shake of the head. “On every level, nobody in the travel business has ever seen anything like it.”
It has indeed been tough. An immediate wave of cancellations hammered cash reserves across the sector, with travel restrictions prolonging the fear factor and hampering recovery. Six months on, where does the industry stand?
“Although the numbers still don’t look good, they are better than they were six months ago, with airlines and hotels reporting an increase in its US bookings,” says Máire P. Walsh, SVP of Digital Technologies with Enterprise Ireland. “At the Skift Global Forum, we heard Arne Sorenson (CEO of Marriott) report that their US bookings have improved from 10% of normal in March, back up to 35%.
“Delta Airlines is also coming back, mainly on foot of domestic travel,” says Walsh. “They are at 50% compared to this time last year and while that sounds bad, when you look at the wider context it does represent progress. There are reasons to be optimistic.”
She points to China, which “has a good story to tell” and where life is all but back to normal, with a QR code system allowing people to display their health status and go about their daily business. (“Bear in mind this is China, where Government has greater, and not always wanted, control,” she notes.)
“Marriott in China is back up to 90% in terms of bookings,” says Walsh. “Leisure was the first to come back, followed by business and now events, and that will largely be the case everywhere. Domestic air travel has now surpassed 2019 numbers.
“But international travel is at a standstill,” she says. “And that’s not going to improve until we have a global set of standards, with consensus over things like restrictions and quarantine. Different countries are doing different things and that uncertainty is holding back on international recovery.”
Walsh, one of the leading voices in travel tech, says that testing can help to get things moving.
“Absolutely it can, and we’re seeing that already,” she says. “Recently, San Francisco Airport (SFO) started rapid testing passengers on United flights to Hawaii, you can take a rapid test in SFO before your flight to Hawaii and bypass quarantine requirements, if you’re negative. United experienced a surge in demand and testing was oversubscribed. For the first three days, 18,000 people flew from SFO to Hawaii—a huge vote of confidence and an indication that it will work for longer distance international flights. Lufthansa is also set to begin testing and Emirates has been testing since April. Alitalia has two flights every day from Rome to Milan that will be strictly reserved for passengers who have tested negative for Covid-19 in the past 72 hours. This will become a new standard as we move forward and it will help drive confidence and recovery.
Even with increased testing, many people may simply be afraid to return to flying. How is consumer sentiment?
“We’ve seen two very encouraging pieces of research on that front,” Walsh says. “Southwest Airlines surveyed passengers and found that 50% of them ‘intended’ to fly. They followed up and found that, of the 50% that did take a flight, 80% of them said they would fly again. So, the appetite is there.
“There’s also been a study by Harvard that’s interesting,” she says. “They discovered that between HEPA filters [High-Efficiency Particulate Air filters; standard equipment on most commercial aircraft] and mask compliance, there’s only a 1% chance of contracting the virus on a plane.
“It’s promising,” she adds. “But I think most senior industry people would agree that, apart from a vaccine, a uniform set of guidelines is how travel is going to properly restart.”
Going forward, rapid testing, biometrics and contactless technology, and even an immunity passport will ensure a very different travel experience: flights just for people who have tested negative for Covid-19, fewer touchpoints, less human interaction, a more seamless experience. Here, Irish innovation is playing a leading role with airports, airlines and hotels.
“When we do come out the other side of this, travel as we have known it will be transformed due to innovation and the renewed drive and need for stakeholders to test new technologies,” says Walsh.
“We’re lucky in Ireland to have a thriving portfolio of companies with solutions to rebuild travel,” she goes on. Let’sGetChecked is a rapid PCR testing solution that was selected by American Airlines to restart their demand to Hawaii and The Caribbean. They have on average a 48 hour turnaround time and the test can be done at home or at the airport, all with FDA approval and an end-to-end solution.
“Daon just launched a really exciting partnership with Denver International Airport to reduce passengers’ anxieties about social distancing at the airport. VeriFLY allows passengers to make a reservation to access a dedicated TSA screening lane and a reserved limited-capacity train car to the concourse. Then we continue to build out this partnership to take advantage of their position as a leader in biometric and contactless technology.
“Another great example of Irish tech is the hygiene and accessibility solution from Mobility Mojo, which is now being used by Virgin Hotels,” says Walsh. “Richard Branson actually dedicated a LinkedIn post to how their solutions are helping to restore traveler confidence… a huge feather in their cap. Other companies like P3 Hotel Software are offering an interconnected and seamless online guest journey. This ensures an experience with limited or no interaction if desired by the traveler”.
Some of Enterprise Ireland’s most promising start-ups – as well as more established brands such as CarTrawler and Datalex – took part in the (virtual) World Aviation Festival recently, offering a glimpse of what we can expect from the of future travel.
“There was VRAI, a really interesting company that specializes virtual and augmented reality,” says Walsh. “VRAI already ran a successful test with IAG Cargo but their sweet spot is remotely verifying training, which is not only safer but can help airlines reduce costs.
“We also had Urban Fox, which is helping companies to deal with synthetic fraud,” she says. “And there’s the whole area of customer care where firms like Cation Consulting and EdgeTier are using AI, machine learning, and human power to help brands engage with customers at the right time through the right channel.”
Other Enterprise Ireland clients that were selected to take part include Noa, which translates written journalism into audio formats, as well as Coras and TripAdmit, both events-based ticketing firms.
“Now is the time for travel brands to look for ways to create additional revenue streams, particularly through new forms of ancillary like entertainment and ticketing,” says Walsh. “Travel will return, and operators need to be planning for the future.”
In terms of a recovery timeframe, she is understandably circumspect.
“It’s a tough one. IATA (International Air Transport Association) is projecting that we’ll be back to 2019 levels in 2024,” she says. “I think we’re going to see a number of jumps in demand and even further innovations that will hopefully get us back where we were.
“We’re all waiting for science to make the primary breakthrough,” she goes on. “In the meantime, once people take that first trip and see for themselves how brands are innovating to protect their customers, I think the reassurance will start to come back.
“Travel is a lot safer than many things people around the world are continuing to do,” says Walsh. “And technology is working overtime to help make it even safer.”
To learn more about Irish travel tech innovators contact Maire.Walsh@enterprise-ireland.com.