After returning to Atlanta from a recent international trip through London Heathrow, I was contacted by the U.K. National Health Service, informing me that someone on my Virgin Atlantic flight had tested positive for COVID-19. Had I still been in the U.K., I would have been required to quarantine for 10 days, but the notification came six days after my return.
The contact tracing process is primitive, with most airlines relying on optional sign-ups for domestic travel and hard copy forms for international travel. Many commercial apps claim to improve and augment manual contact tracing, but download rates are low and most are not being used effectively. Similarly, usage is not yet widespread for contact tracing apps developed and deployed by U.S. states, and there’s been limited success to date for the Apple and Google collaboration to enable Bluetooth technology to help government agencies contact trace. This lack of choices has left most airlines resorting to manual contact tracing forms for international travel and no contact tracing at all for domestic travel.
The process was slow, but it did work in my case, though the experience got me thinking about how technology might improve the process, enable domestic contact tracing and make for a better overall experience for the flying public.
The question of airline customer data
Airlines do not conduct contact tracing themselves – they simply collect the data and send it to government health agencies. As with all customer data – particularly, in this case, health data – airlines are concerned with maintaining user privacy. Airlines do have flight and address data for their passengers and could leverage that for quicker contact tracing, but so far, they have chosen to defer that task to government agencies rather than doing it directly.
COVID vaccines and the accompanying mandates loom even larger than contact tracing in the fight against COVID. Domestic U.S. travel does not require a COVID test or proof of vaccination from passengers before a flight, and no quarantine warnings are sent out, so employee vaccinations will be key to keeping both customers and employees safe as delta and other variants surge.
How airlines are complying with the federal vaccine mandate
- United Airlines – United was the first airline to mandate vaccinations for its employees, with termination the consequence for noncompliance. Despite strong labor contracts, United reports that more than 99.5 percent of their U.S. employees have been vaccinated and the ones that have sought religious exemption have been placed on unpaid personal leave.
- Delta – Having earned a reputation for handling COVID well (keeping middle seats blocked longer than any other carrier, for example), Delta seems to be taking a softer approach, requiring bi-weekly tests for unvaccinated employees rather than mandating the vaccine, and levying a $200/month insurance premium surcharge on unvaccinated employees. The airline does require all new employees are fully vaccinated.
- Hawaiian, Frontier, American Airlines and Southwest have opted to comply with the federal employee vaccine mandate. Hawaiian allows religious exemptions but requires negative COVID test results. There was some speculation that Southwest’s flight cancellations over the long holiday weekend October 9 – 11 were due to employee mandate protests, but management denies that’s the case.
- JetBlue and Alaska have mandated vaccination proof from employees, citing federal contracts as their reason for compliance.
- Las Vegas-based Allegiant and ultra-low-cost carrier Spirit have also indicated they will comply with the federal vaccine mandate, but details are not yet available of how many employees are vaccinated.
Airlines are choosing to comply with the mandates and are publishing data about their vaccination rates in a bid for all-around safety as business and personal travel picks leading into the holiday season. Complying with federal vaccine mandates ensures airlines retain their federal contracts, reassures passengers that airlines are working to keep them safe, and helps recruit new hires.
COVID and the Customer Experience
Customer experience is often described in terms of being personal, easy, efficient or inviting. In the age of COVID, it’s also all about being safe. As eager as customers are to leave their homes and resume their lives, a safe and comfortable customer experience is the ultimate goal of contact tracing and vaccine uptake.
Beyond airlines, other business-to-consumer travel businesses share this need to show “hypercare” and deliver a socially distant and COVID-safe customer experience that still feels high-touch and customized. Requiring a vaccinated workforce also conveys care for employee safety, bolsters retention and attracts applicants. By facilitating contact tracing for domestic travel and creating a vaccinated population, the travel industry is on the forefront of the post-COVID experience.
ISG helps airlines navigate the ever-evolving travel and transportation industry. Contact us to find out how we can help.
About the author
Pratibha Salwan is a Director with ISG Consumer Services.