The need to fly by planes has not disappeared because of the coronavirus outbreak, but it will take some time for our sense of safety to recover. For this to happen, we need international agreements and a change of mindset among travellers and travel service providers alike, writes Eero Pärgmäe, Chief Commercial Officer at Tallinn Airport.
While healthcare experts were telling us a couple of months ago that the coronavirus would not be going anywhere any time soon, and we would have to learn to live with it, we still kept secretly hoping it would quietly subside like any flu wave before. It has now become clear this virus will not disappear in the nearest future, and there are basically two choices: to spend the next two years at home and hope someone succeeds in developing an effective vaccine or accept the new reality and change our behaviour accordingly.
Some lines of business have got off lighter than others: we have all learned how to hold conference calls by Teams, Skype and Zoom by now, but changes in certain sectors take much longer, are way more costly and, sometimes, rather painful. By the beginning of July, Tallinn Airport had reached the point where 45% of aircraft movement but only 20% of the number of passengers had been restored. Which is to say in layman’s terms that planes are flying, but they are still relatively empty.
The need to travel and create face-to-face business contacts is still there
Objectively, there is quite a number of reasons. The number of flights has been largely recovering in the last month, the pre-sale period has been extremely short, and hugely varying restrictions which even expert search engine users might often find difficult to understand are still in force in different countries and can change quickly.
At the same time, in a broader sense, travelling has become a part of what we are, and giving it up completely is out of the question. I am not trying to say we should all storm to Venice or Paris again at the first opportunity. What I mean is that many of us spend a part of the year in another country or have family members who live abroad. I have personally established all my best work-related contacts with whom I am doing business today during joint meetings and follow-up discussions. Making such contacts by e-mail alone is extremely challenging.
Passengers bear greater responsibility these day
Travelling must stay, but it must also change. After 2001, it felt very weird to start putting all liquids in a small transparent plastic bag, but now we consider it completely natural. Similarly, people have got used to the idea of washing their hands more frequently and staying at home when they are ill. The availability and selection of face masks has also become quite impressive, so anyone can purchase something suitable before a trip. Of course, wearing a mask on a plane is inconvenient, but it is a small price to pay for your own and fellow travellers’ sense of safety.
The biggest change is that every single person needs to assume greater responsibility for a trip to go smoothly. Before, European Union regulations and excellent insurance products offered by insurance companies protected travellers from nearly any imaginable incident. Naturally, travelling must remain a safe type of pastime in the future, too, but if I have paid 100 euros for a plane ticket and expect 400 euros of compensation from the airline in case the flight is cancelled, I must realise this might not be sustainable from the airline’s perspective in the current situation and it would be reasonable to accept another flight. At the same time, I will have already incurred other expenses associated with this trip like booking a hotel or renting a vehicle.
Customers expect more flexibility from travel service providers
This is the point where we reach another major conclusion: travel service providers also need to change and make their products more flexible. If we have an opportunity to alter any of the services we have booked, risks for travellers will be significantly reduced. For example, certain airlines now allow you to change the time of your flight but not the destination. At the same time, if bookings could be altered with greater flexibility, some would gladly go to Greece, for example, instead of Croatia. In their turn, employers also must become more flexible and allow employees tweak their annual leave schedules. This might be more complicated for some lines of business than others, but it is still something to consider.
Numerous insurance companies are already reviewing their products, and some of the insurers even offer to cover coronavirus treatment expenses. We realise it is extremely difficult to demand in the current unstable situation that insurance companies cover all the risks associated with virus levels suddenly increasing and borders closing. However, insurance companies are very good at risk assessment and calculation, and I am sure they will be constantly updating their product portfolios because they, too, are interested in offering the services that tourists presently need.
Europe needs a common agreement concerning the movement of people
Changes are also necessary at national levels. The first thing extremely important for European countries is to be able to agree on common principles for how travelling will be organised. There have been talks about a common approach, but, in fact, every country is largely doing what it considers right. As one of the foundations of the European Union is people’s freedom of movement, rules and procedures need to be harmonized at some point. For example, people go to Belarus and Sweden for business travel anyway, but they are using Finland for transit. In such case, Finland should be responsible for letting such passengers off the plane who are well-informed and who assume responsibility for the health of their own and their loved ones.
State aid for the tourism and transport sector is certainly necessary in the current situation. But it must be precisely targeted and bring the intended results. No-one expects the tax-payers’ money to pay the entire sector’s wages or high-interest loans to be invested in projects that might be no longer needed tomorrow because demand has changed. Still, Estonia is and will remain a small country with open economy, and its accessibility is an issue of key importance. And if, for example, the market needs daily flight connections with Oslo, supporting them should be considered for economic relations to be maintained and for companies to bring additional taxes on their income to the State Treasury.
Changes generally take more time in such capital-intensive lines of business as hospitality, aviation, and marine shipping. Time is what we do not have at the moment. We will either manage to change in step with the market and our clients or find ourselves in the situation where some companies go bankrupt and others barely make ends meet. The new reality also demands flexibility from our clients, who do have an opportunity to cross borders again but need to assume greater responsibility for their trips to be planned and go smoothly. Another power that needs to keep pace with changes is the politics at national and EU levels, which can be achieved through better international agreements, faster legislative changes and smart targeted financial aid.