Normally, around this time of the year, we’re off someplace for our annual vacation. Packing our bags and going somewhere, preferably one out of our travel bucket list, is one of the joys we look forward to. But these are extraordinary times. We live with so many uncertainties brought about by this global pandemic that travel, among other things, are now put on hold. If at all, we have to play it safe and stay home which is the best destination to be right now.
Such is the impact of the COVID-19 to the global economy that our Philippine businesses and industries have been sent on a tailspin. One such industry that has been directly hit are the airlines as most countries have closed their borders, visa grants to foreign visitors have been put on hold and incoming and outgoing flights have been cancelled. All these measures to contain the virus and flatten the curve of new infections and hospitalizations have cost the travel industry unprecedented losses on their share prices, plunging sales and the resulting employee layoffs. I have asked our airline executives on how they are facing up to these uncertain times and I would like to thank Philippine Airlines Express president Bonifacio Sam (BS) and AirAsia Corporate Comms (AC) for their timely response.
With the current closures of national borders and restrictions on travel, how is your company and your workers faring?
BS: Despite the suspension of all regular/commercial flights, we have been deluged with requests for cargo charter services. We have been mounting PAL and PALex-operated cargo-only flights between Manila and various domestic outlying stations. Philippine Airlines operates various international all-cargo flights between Manila and several points in Asia. We have also operated sweeper flights to bring back to Manila many foreigners stranded in the provinces such as flights to and from Cebu to Manila/Siargao to Manila and many more. We are using a skeletal workforce to handle these adhoc flights.
AC: AirAsia is playing its part in helping curb the spread of the virus in order to keep flying safe for everyone. We have put in temporary hibernation most of our fleet across the region. Measures have also been put in place to manage and contain costs, including a review of our annual budget and voluntary unpaid leaves among management and senior employees. These will help ensure that the company can ride out this prolonged period of extremely low travel demand and at the same time minimize the impact on employees, especially those in junior positions.
What is your company policy with regard to customers who would like to rebook their tickets?
BS: Passengers holding confirmed tickets with travel dates March 15 to April 30 whose flights were cancelled have the option to either rebook, reroute, refund or avail of a travel voucher. We will apply waivers on rebooking and refund fees. Fare difference applies only if a passenger rebooks to a higher cabin class.
AC: All AirAsia guests whose travel plans are affected by restrictions or cancellations are advised to refer to the COVID-19 Flight Changes Guide. All affected guests have been notified by email and SMS. Aside from refunding cancelled flights, they have the option of converting their flight booking into a credit account that is valid for future redemption for 365 days or moving their flights for an unlimited number of times without any charges to another date prior to Oct 31, 2020. Guests can perform these changes via AirAsia virtual Allstar AVA on airasia.com or support.airasia.com. Guests booked on AirAsia Philippines are also advised that changes to travel plans may be made even after the community quarantine period.
What measures have you taken to safeguard your company and be able to survive this pandemic?
BS: 1. Disinfection of our cabin upon arrival at airport after every flight
2. Mandatory wearing of face masks by all crew – ground, flight and cabin crew
3. Mandatory quarantine of crew with history of travel to China as early as Feb 3
4. Stationing of alcohol dispensers at airport check in counters
5.Carrying out temperature readings on front-liners and passengers.
AC: The airline continues its critical operations and customer support by implementing a work from home scheme with a very lean rotational workforce reporting onsite. Equipment such as laptops and portable Wi-Fi devices have been distributed to some Allstars to make their homes more conducive for working. Allstars have also been well-connected online through Workplace, AirAsia’s work connectivity platform in ensuring productivity and mental wellness.
Has your company taken any initiative to assist in our national effort to fight and/or mitigate the impacts of this pandemic?
BS: We are working with different government agencies, especially the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to help transport the donated personal protection equipment (PPE) coming from China to the Philippines and onward to our hospitals in the different provinces in the coming weeks.
AC: In the Philippines, AirAsia works closely with its partners in government to manage the public health situation. The company is extending any means possible to provide air services, such as cargo and recovery flights. Recovery flights had previously been mounted to and from Puerto Princesa, for example.
How do you envision the situation of the airline industry in the months ahead; or when things return to some sort of “normalcy”?
BS: I envision a gradual calibrated return to normalcy. Important factors come into play: the travel appetite; the lifting of travel restrictions; the health situation, etc.
AC: We are witnessing subdued demand for travel in some of our key markets and necessary adjustments will be made to our network to reflect consumer demand. AirAsia will continue its close partnership with the Department of Tourism to promote domestic travel to stimulate the tourism industry once the health situation improves.
The airline industry remains a vital vehicle for global commerce. Thus it is a welcome news that the government will extend financial assistance to this critical sector as part of its economic stimulus package. PAL Express president Bonifacio Sam appeals on behalf of the industry, “for the government’s assistance in the form of credit guarantee and support from the banking sector in terms of easing debt payments.” While the government has announced that they are allowing deferment of payment by airlines of takeoff and landing fees, the industry is looking forward to a more positive response on their requests. Indeed, these are most trying times and I fervently hope that our airlines fly proudly again. But for now, I try to enjoy my simple flights at home. Like travelling from my room to the kitchen.
Please email the author at [email protected].