TWT: Masks Off for Euro Air Travel, Crowded Flights Mean Unhappy Flyers

Editor’s note: This Week in Travel (TWT) is your essential guide to smoothing the road from here to there for your attendees and yourself.

In a long-anticipated move, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have issued an update to the health safety measures for air travel, now dropping a mandate for medical masks in airports and on-board flights.

The agencies, however, note that a face mask is still one of the best protections against the transmission of Covid.

The agencies issued a join statement that cited levels of vaccination, naturally acquired immunity and the accompanying lifting of restrictions in a “growing number of European countries” as the reasons for the change.

“From next week, [May 16] face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” said EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky in a release.

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalization of air travel. Passengers should, however, behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”

The statement warned that flights to and/or from a destination where mask-wearing is still mandated would “continue to encourage mask-wearing.”

U.S. carriers dropped the mask mandate several weeks ago when a Florida judge questioned the legality of the Biden administration extending it.

Since that time, airlines have reported a drop in on-board disturbances and the necessity for flight attendants to police passengers’ behaviors.

Bottom-line for meeting planners: Look for airlines to respond by bringing back services like alcoholic beverages, full meal services and other business and first-class perks that got paused. Economy and economy plus services will, of course, lag way behind. Meetings groups traveling to Europe will now have more consistent and seamless experiences since U.S./Europe mask mandates are more closely aligned.

Also, look for harder-to-book flights as mask removal will boost airline traffic, already handling pent-up demand.

Read MoreCarina Bauer: European IMEX Marks Return to Normal

Airlines Passengers Are Not Happy, Says Survey

Mask mandates have lifted and the “normal” in-flight experience seems more in sight, but customer satisfaction is lagging far behind.

Results of the J.D. Power 2022 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, released on May 11, point to high load volume and low approval ratings.

“Customer satisfaction with North American airlines climbed to unprecedented highs for all of the wrong reasons during the past two years,” said Michael Taylor, travel intelligence lead at J.D. Power.

“Fewer passengers meant more space on airplanes, less waiting in line and more attention from flight attendants. But that business model was simply not sustainable. Now, with volumes surging and some remnants of pandemic-era constraints still in place, passenger satisfaction is in decline—but that’s not really bad news. If airlines can find ways to manage these growing volumes while making some small adjustments to help passengers feel more valued, they should be able to manage this return to ‘normal.’”

Key findings of the study include:

  • Overall passenger satisfaction declined sharply across nearly all measures: Overall passenger satisfaction across all three study segments—first/business, premium economy and economy/basic economy—is 798 (on a 1,000-point scale), down more than 20 points from a year ago. Passenger satisfaction with cost, flight crews and aircraft all declined in this year’s study.
  • Premium passengers want their free drinks: Remnants of pandemic-era restrictions, such as the suspension of alcohol service in premium class, has driven sharp declines in passenger satisfaction with food and beverage offerings. This year, food and beverage satisfaction scores declined 38 points in the premium economy segment and declined 12 points in the first/business segment. By contrast, food and beverage satisfaction scores increased 7 points in the economy/basic economy segment.
  • Cost is a driving factor in satisfaction as average ticket cost rises 20%: With higher fuel prices and rising demand driving a 20% increase in average airfares through March 2022, cost continues to be a significant factor in passenger satisfaction. Overall satisfaction with cost & fees declined in the premium economy segment (-66 points), in the economy/basic economy segment (-33) and in the first/business segment (-21).

On individual airline rating, JetBlue Airways ranked highest in customer satisfaction in the first/business segment with a score of 878. Alaska Airlines (876) ranked second and Delta Air Lines (862), third.

JetBlue Airways also ranked highest in customer satisfaction in the premium economy segment with a score of 851. Delta Air Lines (837) ranked second and Alaska Airlines (825) ranked third.

Southwest Airlines came in highest in customer satisfaction in the economy/basic economy segment with a score of 849. JetBlue Airways (828) ranked second and Delta Air Lines (813) ranked third.

Read MoreAirlines Evolve to Cater to Groups

Bottom Line for Meeting Planners:

“Airlines should be able to solve their fleet, crew and schedule problems by later this summer. But by that time, the flying public will likely be focused on the price of a ticket. Fuel costs are expected to be a major price factor if travel demand continues on its current trend, Taylor told Smart Meetings.

“Although it’s not something we track directly in the airline study, there seems to be a renewed demand for travel to conferences and group meetings. The ‘animal spirits’ of people wanting to interact in-person seems to reflect the desire to get away from tedious virtual meetings.”

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