Today (April 24, 2020): April 2020 luxury travel news.
Every last Friday of the month, you can read my news round-up of what’s happening in the world of luxury travel and aviation. In this issue:
- United Airlines implements social distancing on its flights
- TAP Air Portugal announces four new routes
- Virgin Australia and Air Mauritius go in voluntary administration
- Is the end near for South African Airways?
- Austrian Airlines dramatically reduces its fleet size
- New Economy Class seats might be introduced in the post-COVID-19 era
- Social distancing will end era of cheap air travel, industry warns
- Marriott launches new internal platform to promote hotel cleanliness
- Philippine Airlines launches designer cabin crew uniforms with PPE
- Thai Airways is on the brink of collapse
1. United Airlines implements social distancing on its flights
United Airlines is joining a growing list of airlines (e.g. Delta, Emirates) to implement additional, temporary changes to promote social distancing in the air and on the ground, in an effort to minimize contact between passengers and cabin crew amid the coronavirus pandemic. The new changes – which will remain in place until May 31 – include:
- Limiting seat selections in all cabins, so passengers won’t be able to select seats next to each other or middle seats where available.
- Alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs.
- Boarding fewer customers at a time to allow for more distance during the boarding process.
- Spacing out passengers during boarding to minimize crowding in the gate area and on the jet bridge.
- Processing complimentary premier upgrades in priority order at the gate before departure.
United said it would “continue to evaluate how best to proceed given the fluidity of the current situation”, and would follow CDC guidance. The carrier has a page on its website detailing what it is doing to keep customers and employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. TAP Air Portugal announces four new routes
You wouldn’t expect many airlines to be loading new flights into the schedule right now, but that is exactly what TAP Air Portugal has done, hereby creating a somewhat positive mood in the aviation market during these hard times. While other airlines are reducing their number of routes, Portugal’s flagship carrier – which has grown significantly in recent years – is continuing to expand its offerings. The airline’s latest route announcement includes Toronto in Canada, Cancun in Mexico, Cape Town in South Africa, and Agadir in Morocco:
- TAP Air Portugal will offer four weekly flights from Lisbon to Agadir. These flights will be operated by small turboprop ATR-72-600’s of its subsidiary TAP Express.
- The new flights from Lisbon to Cancun will start thrice weekly. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, TAP Air Portugal will operate with an Airbus A330-900neo from Lisbon to the Mexican holiday destination.
- As of November 11, Cape Town will be added into the Lisbon network. These flights will be operated by an Airbus A330-900neo every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
- As of this summer, TAP will be launching nonstop flights between Ponta Delgada (in the Azores) and Toronto. The two weekly flights between Ponta Delgada and Toronto will be flown by an Airbus A321LR.
3. Virgin Australia and Air Mauritius go in voluntary administration
With the worldwide spread of the coronavirus pandemic in recent weeks, the entire airline industry, and aviation companies in particular, have been experiencing “the worst crisis ever since World War II”. Airlines have indeed been severely hit by travel restrictions and the closure of borders in almost all markets, as well as cessation of all international and domestic flights. This
has forced several of them to have recourse to voluntary rescue processes.
- Air Mauritius decided to go in voluntary administration due to its high degree of reliance on tourism, which is one of the most affected sectors when it comes to the Mauritian economy. The airline had already begun a transformation program earlier this year to address “financial difficulties”, but global travel restrictions and plummeting demand caused by COVID-19 have exacerbated the issues faced by the carrier. The flag carrier is majority owned by the Mauritian government; it has a fleet of 13 aircraft, including the A330 neo and A350-900.
- Virgin Australia has gone into voluntary administration, with accounting firm Deloitte appointed to oversee the process. The carrier was founded in 2000 by Sir Richard Branson and Australian businessman Brett Godfrey, and was originally known as Virgin Blue before changing its name, first to V Australia and eventually to Virgin Australia. The airline said it entered voluntary administration to recapitalize the business and help ensure it emerges in a stronger financial position on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis.
4. Is the end near for South African Airways?
Unfortunately, the coronavirus may prove the final nail in the coffin for South African Airways (SAA). According to Bloomberg, SAA plans to lay off its entire workforce after failing to persuade the government to provide more financial aid, a move that threatens to ground the 86-year-old carrier for good. The state-owned airline has offered severance deals to all 4,700 staff from the end of this month after administrators concluded that a successful turnaround is now unlikely, according to a proposal to eight labor groups seen by Bloomberg News. The basic value of compensation will be one-week pay for each year of service and will depend on the successful disposal of assets such as real estate, according to the document. SAA has relied on bailouts and state-guaranteed debt agreements for years, having last made a profit in 2011, and was put into a form of bankruptcy protection in December.
5. Austrian Airlines dramatically reduces its fleet size
Flight operations of Austrian Airlines have been temporarily at a standstill since March 18, 2020 as a consequence of the coronavirus crisis. This year, Austria’s flag carrier predicts a 25-50 percent drop in demand, and a maximum of 75 percent of the pre-coronavirus level is expected by the end of 2021. In order to adjust capacity to the changed demand from COVID-19, Austrian Airlines has decided to make some fleet changes. In addition to the phase-out of the original 18 Dash turboprops, which was decided and started in 2019, all seven A319 jets and three of the six B767s are to be retired by 2022. The Boeing 767 aircraft are OE-LAT, OE-LAW and OE-LAX, which are among the oldest aircraft in the fleet with an average age of 28 years. The entire fleet currently has an average age of 15.4 years. By phasing out older aircraft, the age will decrease to 14.6. The entire Austrian Airlines fleet currently numbers around 80 aircraft; the restart plan now envisages a fleet of around 60 aircraft in 2022, nine of which will be long-haul aircraft.
6. New Economy Class seats might be introduced in the post-COVID-19 era
Airlines are often trying to come up with innovative ways to cram together as many people on a plane as possible, especially in Economy Class cabins. However, the coronavirus crisis is fundamentally changing this policy as social distancing will be the new normal in the near future. This could potentially even change the way seats are designed and arranged on planes post-COVID-19. According to Business Traveller, Italian design firm Aviointeriors, which specializes in designing aircraft cabin interiors and passenger seats, has proposed two new seat designs for post-COVID-19 travel that attempt to create some social distance between passengers on planes without losing seating capacity:
- In one of Aviointeriors’ proposed designs, the middle seat is facing backwards and every seat has a plastic shield partially surrounding it. Dubbed Janus, after the two-faced Roman god, passengers on the aisle and window seats in this new s-shaped arrangement will continue to face the direction of travel. Each seat is surrounded by a high shield that prevents the “breath propagation to occupants of adjacent seats.”
- Aviointeriors has also proposed another seat design for airlines for when travel returns after Covid-19. The Italian seat-maker unveiled the Glassafe, a shield that can be added to each seat on a plane to create a barrier between passengers. This shield can also be “easily” installed and removed so airlines do not have to drastically change the cabin interior of the aircraft.
7. Social distancing will end era of cheap air travel, industry warns
According to The Guardian, the days of cheap air travel will be over if airlines are forced to introduce physical distancing measures on planes because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Alexandre de Juniac, the director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said that if governments ordered airlines to adopt physical distancing onboard aircraft, at least a third of seats would remain empty and airlines would have to raise their ticket prices by at least 50% or go bust. “Either you fly at the same price, selling the ticket at the same average price as before, and you lose enormous amounts of money so it’s impossible to fly for any airline, particularly low cost; or you increase ticket prices by at least 50% and you are able to fly with a minimum profit. So it means that if social distancing is imposed, cheap travel is over.” IATA estimates that, worldwide, there has been a $314 billion USD loss of passenger revenue and a Quarter 2 cash burn of $61 USD billion.
8. Marriott launches new internal platform to promote hotel cleanliness
Marriott, which has long had a reputation for high standards of hotel cleanliness with well-established cleaning processes and training in place, has created the Marriott Global Cleanliness Council to tackle the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic at the hotel level and further advance the company’s efforts in this area. Over the next few months, when guests are in hotels within the Marriott portfolio, they will notice a number of changes to set an even higher standard of cleanliness for the hotels. Specific areas of focus include:
- Use of electrostatic sprayers with hospital-grade disinfectant to sanitize surfaces throughout the hotel. Electrostatic sprayers rapidly clean and disinfect entire areas and can be used in a hotel setting to clean and disinfect guest rooms, lobbies, gyms and other public areas. In addition, the company is testing ultraviolet light technology for sanitizing keys for guests.
- In public spaces, the company has added to its already rigorous cleaning protocols, requiring that surfaces are thoroughly treated with hospital-grade disinfectants and that this cleaning is done with increased frequency. In guest rooms, the company has likewise added to its rigorous protocols, requiring that all surfaces are thoroughly cleaned with hospital-grade disinfectants. Marriott will also be placing disinfecting wipes in each room for guests’ personal use.
- Marriott will be using signage in its lobbies to remind guests to maintain social distancing protocols and removing or re-arranging furniture to allow more space for distancing. Marriott is also evaluating adding partitions at front desks to provide an extra level of precaution and will make masks and gloves available to associates. In addition, in over 3,200 of Marriott’s hotels, guests can choose to use their phones to check in, access their rooms, make special requests and order room service that will be specially packaged and delivered right to the door without contact.
- At Marriott, all food handlers and supervisors are trained on safe food preparation and service practices. Marriott’s food and beverage operations are required to conduct self-inspection using the company’s food safety standards as guidelines, and compliance is validated by independent audits. In addition, the company is modifying its operational practices for in-room dining and designing new approaches to buffets.
9. Philippine Airlines launches designer cabin crew uniforms with PPE
According to ABS-CBN News, Philippine Airlines has introduced specially designed personal protective gear for cabin crew as part of a “new normal” to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that grounded global aviation. Designed by Filipino couturier Edwin Tan, the protective suits have the “fit and function” that will allow cabin crew to perform their duties. The garments also bear the colors of the airline, which take off from the Philippine flag, PAL spokesperson Cielo Villaluna said. Tan fused protection, comfort and branding in the final design, Villaluna said. The “new normal” cabin crew uniform will have various looks, designs and colors. Edwin Tan says: “The detail is a subtle branding for the airline. We didn’t have time to print or embroider so we came up with the idea of mimicking or reworking the flag logo of Philippine Airlines. We used a non-porous material for the personal protective equipment (PPE). A material with substantial weight to give it a better fall than generic PPE’s.”
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10. Thai Airways is on the brink of collapse
According to Nikkei Asian Review, Thai Airways is dangerously close to becoming the world’s first national flag carrier to go bust amid the coronavirus pandemic, with only days left to maneuver out of its latest financial straits. Down to its last 10 billion baht ($307 million USD), according to local reports, which is enough to pay its employees for one month, the airline is in talks with the Thai government regarding a bailout. To tide itself over during the emergency, the carrier has requested that the government approve a 70 billion-baht bridge loan, with the Finance Ministry as a guarantor, ministry sources told the Nikkei Asian Review. “I still would like to see Thai Airways as the national flag carrier,” Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said, “because that is the way things have been for a long time.” Thai Airways made the request based on the hypothesis that the pandemic will be contained by October. Before the virus hit, Thai Airways was also experiencing a slump: the airline announced a net loss of 12 billion baht for 2019, its third straight year in the red.