The Coronavirus pandemic has shut down the world on an unprecedented scale. Never before have so many borders been closed, airlines shut down and people all over the world faced social isolation and quarantine edicts on such a mass scale. But as time goes on it becomes increasingly imperative that airlines need to start flying again and return to normality as soon as possible, and yet at the same time it is clear that they should never be allowed to operate as normal again.
In December 2019 a new strain of Coronavirus, SARS CoV 2, was found in Wuhan in China. Since then it has spread throughout the world with the World Health Organisation declaring it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30th January 2020, eventually prompting country after country to ground aircraft and close borders and ultimately leading to the unprecedented exceptional travel advisory issued by the UK and the almost worldwide shutdown of the entire travel industry.
Despite the general level of agreement amongst experts that some limited restrictions were needed to flatten the curve of COVID 19 thanks to the sheer speed and ferocity with which it spread, global health experts including the World Health Organisation have always and continue to overwhelmingly advise against mass travel restrictions.
This is not the first time global health experts have been ignored on this issue. Since International Health Regulations for dealing with outbreaks were published in 2005 after the SARS outbreak two years earlier, the WHO has declared six other Public Health Emergencies of International Concern, including H1N1 in 2009 and Ebola in 2014 and 2019. In at least three of those cases international governments have ignored WHO recommendations that large scale travel and trade restrictions were unwarranted, but none have ever been so heavy and far reaching as the reaction to this current outbreak.
The weight of scientific and academic evidence suggests that prolonged travel restrictions can at best slow a pandemic but not prevent one, are on the whole ineffective, and can have long lasting negative effects on the economy and society. When these restrictions are also coupled with heavily imposed social distancing and quarantine measures, the social, psychological and emotional impact on individuals can be profoundly worse than the effects of the virus itself.
This is why as important as it is to ‘flatten that curve’ and slow down the spread of the virus long enough for a vaccine to be found and herd immunity to take effect without overwhelming our health care services in the meantime, it is also important to remember that any travel restrictions and quarantine are and should be temporary, that they have never been advised for a long period of time and should only ever be imposed with the lightest touch. This is why it is imperative that despite the scaremongering in the mass media and the fear driven, public placating and heavy handed approach to policy, airlines cannot and should not be grounded and borders should never be closed indefinitely.
The sooner we get back to relative normality, even if some restrictions remain in place, the better.
That is why it is certain at some point in the near future, borders must open up and airlines must fly again. Even though the specific timeframe may be in doubt, the fact is we will as a global society get through this. New outbreaks are already declining and numbers of new cases are already falling, so it is just a matter of time before we are boarding our flights and exploring the world again.
Should airlines return to normal?
One thing is certain however, is that even as the world and the industry starts to get back to normal, there is one aspect of it that should not. Airlines behaviour and contempt for the law and their paying customers.
Airlines have once again come under heavy criticism and scrutiny for falling back on normal behaviour during the outbreak.
Lying to customers about rights to refunds, ignoring any attempts to contact them or obfuscating and stalling if people do manage to get through, and then outright denying refunds for cancelled flights because they think they need the money more.
That behaviour is normal for airlines, we expect it of them, we advise on legal routes to deal with them, we even roll our eyes at the useless and toothless Civil Aviation Authority who do little more than to ask airlines to pretty please stop breaking the law. We are used to it.
Yet during a global crisis this behaviour is amplified to the nth degree and is beyond the pale even more.
Now to be fair not every airline has behaved badly during the coronavirus outbreak, many have really stepped up to the plate and despite their own troubles have gone out of their way to waive normal cancellation or change fees, rebook customers where possible or get them home in an emergency when they were really needed and have refunded tickets in a timely and reasonable manner.
These are the airlines we as paying customers will remember when this is all over. These are the ones who will have earned our money and loyalty.
But the problem is many airlines have not.
Many airlines have been heavily criticised for their behaviour during the crisis. Richard Branson has faced af massive public backlash after grounding flights and expecting staff to take unpaid leave, and then begging the government for a massive bailout. British Airways, Ryanair (of course) and Easyjet have all come under fire for refusing simple refunds for cancelled flights and in many cases have even been accused of outright deception toward customers. Some airlines are even being sued by their customers for breach of contract!
This behaviour is not new, this is in fact normal modus operandi for many airlines, something which paying customers have put up with for far too long, but with airlines once again coming cap in hand expecting a government bailout, perhaps it is about time a sorely overdue clampdown is needed.
Even though a bailout has been refused for the airlines, so far at least, perhaps now is the time for airlines to be told once and for all that they need to change. If they expect a single penny from the taxpayer, then urgent reform and heavy sanctions are needed to ensure that they operate within the law, never mind basic common decency.
It is not too much to ask as a paying customer to get the service I paid for, or a refund or compensation if I do not. That is the way all businesses all around the world work. Airlines have gotten away with essentially scamming customers for far too long.
Due a legal refund? We’ll lie and obfuscate so that you either think you aren’t entitled to one or just give up and go home a few hundred quid lighter.
Know your rights? We’ll still ignore you as long as possible and then make things as difficult and as awkward as possible so you’ll just give up and go home anyway.
Need to get in touch with us to book a flight? We’ll pick up the phone right away and offer you a bewildering array of add ons to make you part with more money.
Need to get in touch with us after we have your money? Good luck!
The travel industry regulator ABTA has even begged the government to suspend or change the laws on refunds during this crisis so that industry operators can survive, and have asked travellers themselves to consider taking a credit note rather than a refund.
This has led to many airlines, as well as tour operators such as STA travel using that as an excuse to break the law, which is just not acceptable. Even ABTA themselves have had to backtrack very quickly and take a stand by saying they will take action against those that do this. Although I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Now I’m all for supporting the industry and have supported a travel later, not now approach since this crisis began. Travellers can pay a huge role in helping the industry survive by purchasing vouchers, postponing or re booking for later in the year and many other methods, but they should not be forced to do so.
If passengers choose to help if they can, that is a great thing, but the industry making that choice for them and in effect stealing their money is just wrong. Not just wrong, but illegal.
Travellers have been massively affected by this crisis too in many ways, and if they decide they want their money back, that is their prerogative. They do not need any rhyme, reason or justification for that, a refund is their total and absolute right under the law. Airlines who are refusing that or even worse calling for a change in the law to allow them to refuse just because it is a time of crisis simply amounts to theft, and frankly whilst I am a huge supporter of the industry in general, I do not think many airlines deserve it.
Airlines need to start flying travellers again as soon as possible. Borders need to open up again as soon as possible, but some things should never go back to the way they have been, and airlines really need to take stock of their behaviour and have it carefully examined and scrutinised once this crisis is over.
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