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06 February 2020 | Blog

Coronavirus: The impact on travel and top tips for managing disruption

With every day bringing news of additional measures to confine the spread of the coronavirus, the travel industry is once again facing up to the challenges of managing widespread disruption.

As authorities aim to limit the outbreak of the virus, severe travel restrictions have been imposed, with many countries – including the US, the Philippines and Singapore – preventing people with a recent travel history to China from entering or transiting.

Meanwhile, dozens of the world’s largest airlines – including American Airlines, British Airways, Qatar Airways, Lufthansa and Delta – have reacted to health warnings and travel restrictions by suspending flights to mainland China.

In some cases, these suspensions will remain in place until at least the end of February, but some carriers have already ruled out flying to China before May.

The impact on airlines

China is the world’s second-largest travel market and home to two of the planet’s 10 busiest airports. Mass disruption to its aviation sector is likely to have significant consequences for all major airlines, including the cancellation of thousands of flights and a substantial loss of revenue. 

When combined with other factors – including Brexit, geopolitics and major weather events – GlobalData has predicted the quick rise of the coronavirus “could mean a tough year lies ahead for the international tourism industry”.

The South China Morning Post has reported that Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, one of the world’s premier airlines, is set to cut 90% of its flights to mainland China for the next two months in order to combat the fallout from the coronavirus.

Chief Executive Augustus Tang Kin-wing admitted the impact on the airline had been “very significant”, adding the cuts are “temporary for now and driven by the commercial and operational realities at the current time, as well as the projections in short-term demand”.

What can we learn from the past?

Airlines should be realistic when forecasting the impact of the coronavirus on their operations and financial results for the coming months. Several trends seen during previous pandemics indicate the effects of such a crisis can be substantial and wide-ranging.

  • Asian airlines recorded a 35% monthly fall in passenger numbers following the SARS outbreak in 2003.
  • SARS wiped out a total of $10 billion in airline revenue – and the Chinese market is now approximately 10 times larger than it was in 2003.
  • Airlines have recorded an average drop in revenue of 13% across several recent pandemics.
  • Travel from Asia to the US fell by 30% during the SARS crisis, despite the US recording just eight cases and no deaths.
  • During the Ebola crisis in west Africa in 2014, international arrivals in Sierra Leone declined by 93%.

Some experts believe the coronavirus has the potential to be even more devastating than SARS in economic terms.

However, looking back at previous pandemics provides reason for optimism too. For example, the aviation market recovered extremely quickly after the SARS outbreak. Hong Kong and Beijing airports were among the hardest hit in terms of passenger numbers declining in 2003, but both bounced back in 2004 with increases of 35.4% and 43% respectively.

How to deal with widespread disruption

Thousands of flights to and from mainland China have already been cancelled and many more airlines are likely to follow suit. This leaves operations teams at all the world’s largest carriers with the challenge of informing millions of passengers that their travel plans have changed and offering potential resolutions.

People understand things can go wrong and, in the case of the coronavirus, that circumstances are beyond the airline’s control. But this is not a reason to leave them in the dark. Keeping your passengers informed and helping them to minimise the impact of the disruption will make them feel empowered and will leave them with a positive impression of your brand.

Some airlines still use call centre agents to complete the time-consuming, laborious task of trying to contact passengers by phone when disruption hits. But at 15below, we believe the best way to get the message to all of your passengers during any period of disruption is through personalised automation.

When there are hundreds of thousands of travellers to contact, you need a system which has the capacity to quickly, easily, and accurately deliver the high volume of notifications via a range of channels that best suits your passengers.

In 2014, one of the US’ largest airlines used the 15below platform to send 225,000 targeted notifications to passengers affected by the Polar Vortex in just 24 hours. A third of the notifications included an option for passengers to accept a new flight the technology had provisionally booked them a seat on.

Read more about the 15below platform or contact us to find out how automation could help your business send huge volumes of notifications quickly and reliably during times of disruption.