The crucial role of airport communicators in industry recovery

David Whitely by David Whitely | Jan 25, 2021

As the most difficult year in aviation history drew to a close, optimism began to creep into the forecast for 2021 as vaccination campaigns began and prospects for a sustained recovery increased.

Gatwick Airport

As with most developments during the pandemic, it felt like every time the industry took a step forward, then immediately was forced to take two steps back, however. The prevalence of new, more contagious, strains of the virus resulted in more restrictions and renewed lockdowns, hampering the efforts of the industry to recover.

With circumstances changing so quickly and decisions on lockdowns and restrictions being taken at short notice, the challenge for airports to communicate with passengers, staff, and partners has never been consistently greater.

The way that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have unfolded has shown the value of flexibility and responsiveness in the face of an evolving and persistent crisis.

This is a lesson that will need to be carried through as airports plan for recovery and restart.

The challenge for communications in an enduring crisis

From the start of the crisis, restrictive quarantine measures halted the industry, resulting in dramatic reductions in traffic around the world. Since then, there have been attempts for the industry to restart in different regions and at different paces.

This uncertainty and unpredictability has made it difficult for airport communications teams.

Experience around the world has shown recovery of operations has been gradual and staggered, and governments as public health authorities have imposed new restrictions that affect operations.

In such changeable circumstances, critical to success will be the communication links that have been established by the airport with internal and external partners and with local government, regulators and public health bodies. These networks will allow information provided—or new procedures advised—by these bodies or developed in close collaboration with the public health authorities, to be communicated to passengers, staff and stakeholders and partners swiftly, clearly, and consistently.

Gatwick Airport

Airport communications teams will need plans in place to help ensure that the requirements to meet these new procedures are understood before staff and passengers arrive at the airport, if possible.

Bringing the airport community together

It is important to note that airports are diverse and sophisticated communities that bring together different players across many sectors.

As restrictions on travel are lifted and connectivity begins to return, communication will play an important role in bringing the entire airport community together to understand and meet the challenges of restart—not just in communicating with staff employed directly by the airport, but also with all partners across the campus.

This will help to ensure consistent communication with all staff employed at the airport and, crucially, that passengers will receive the same message from each of the service providers that they come into contact with at the airport before, during and after their journey.

Advocacy and campaigning bringing the aviation industry together

While airports are focused on health and safety and providing passenger and staff with the best experience, there are wider issues that airports can play an important role in advocating for to the benefit of the whole industry.

ACI has consistently called for assistance to protect jobs and essential operations as traffic and revenue disappeared.

Airports and airlines have been united in the urgent call for governments to prevent the systemic collapse of the aviation industry with non-debt generating financial support. COVID-19 remains an existential crisis and airports, airlines and their commercial partners need direct and swift financial assistance to protect essential operations and jobs.

While it is heartening to see the UK government announce a financial support scheme for airports in England, such assistance is only one piece of the puzzle.

Urgent government action to introduce widespread and coordinated testing of passengers to enable quarantine requirements to be removed is also needed as, without this action, it is not an exaggeration that the industry is facing collapse.

Airport communications teams can add weight to the industry message in advocating for these measures. The industry is strongest when it speaks with one voice and the pandemic has united the voices of airports, airlines and all partners in the aviation ecosystem.

Testing and vaccination together will underpin recovery

People want to travel.

ACI research found that 48% of travellers considered themselves likely to travel within the next three months and airports are going above and beyond to provide an airport experience that is safe, hygienic, and responsive to the changing needs and expectations of passengers.

Despite this eagerness to travel, however, around 80% said that having to quarantine would mean they would decide not to travel.

The rapid deployment of vaccines is rightly welcomed as a breakthrough but there will be a considerable period before they are widely available.

As they become more available for travellers, there must be a proportionate approach to vaccination before travel balanced with a risk-based approach to testing. It is important for the recovery of the air transport industry that a coordinated approach to testing be introduced now to promote travel and do away with restrictive quarantine measures.

As these public health measures unfold, airports have an important role to play in rebuilding the trust that aviation and travel is safe and does not pose a risk to public health—and communications will be at the forefront of this.

Towards a long term, sustainable future

While we hope that there are some positive signs on horizon and prospects are slightly better for recovery as we begin 2021, there is still a long way to go.

ACI World has developed scenarios exploring the potential recovery trajectory and, under the baseline scenario, domestic passenger traffic is expected to recover to 2019 levels by 2023 with the recovery of international passenger traffic following in 2024.

To support the longer-term recovery, airport communications teams will need to have prepared flexible plans so that they can be scaled up or down as the recovery escalates and, potentially, de-escalates again.

The industry is committed to recovery and working towards reconnecting the worlds again in 2021.

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David Whitely

David Whitely

Senior Director, FTI Consulting
David Whitely is a ACI World Business Partner with more than 25 years’ experience in journalism, corporate, media, and public relations in the UK, Canada and Australia. He has held in roles with HSBC, and with the governments of the UK and Western Australia. In aviation, David has served in the senior leadership teams of London Gatwick Airport and ACI World. He is currently a Senior Director with FTI Consulting based in the Asia-Pacific region and supports clients on strategic communications matters including ESG, crisis and reputation management, and change communication.
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