Covid-19: How Clean Design can restore trust in air travel


Restoring passenger confidence in air travel is the immediate problem facing airlines during this pandemic. “This is a very human issue, involving more than just the sanitisation of interiors. Airlines must inspire a compassionate behavioural change in passengers to move the needle,” says Anthony Harcup, senior director of airline experience at Teague in part one of a three-part series.

The return to skies hinges on trust, but are we addressing the key issues?

The aviation industry is facing one of the toughest challenges in its history. Against a backdrop of a pandemic with no current cure and a need for a re-energised global transport network, it falls on the airlines to reassure passengers that it’s safe to fly.

The news is littered with stories of airlines responding rapidly, introducing PPE, rapid testing, social distancing onboard, enhanced cleaning protocols and adapted hygienic customer service. Yet many of these activities have been done in departmental silos. Each department has innovated rapidly in a bid to build passenger trust, with every man-hour within each airline focussed on finding Covid-19 solutions.

This piecemeal approach isn’t any different to the usual development of passenger experiences onboard aircraft, but it has been exaggerated by the pressure of the current situation. Working with major aviation brands on post-Covid strategies, we are seeing first-hand the depth at which the OEMs, suppliers and airlines are working cross-industry with biomedical and chemical experts. The industry is gaining valuable insights into how to approach a clean cabin, but as of yet, no individual company has managed to successfully connect the dots between the various parts of the passenger journey.

We are still in a period of uncertainty, and passenger confidence has been knocked. No airline can vouch for passenger safety in the fight against this pandemic, as the airline customer experience still doesn’t match with CDC or WHO recommendations. Best practices have to be created, and airlines need to own the conversation with their passengers in order to rebuild the trust required to secure future bookings.


Passengers need best-practice guidelines. This is an opportunity for airlines to step up

Here at Teague, we have been Journey Mapping for over 70 years, deep-diving into key moments in the customer journey. That same process is invaluable right now in building a ‘Clean Design’ framework to combat the pain points that are causing a lack of trust. After all, what purpose is blocking middle seats if this comes after pre-boarding herds passengers together in an airbridge? ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ is the anxiety-driven sentiment now present at almost every stage of the passenger journey.

As aviation is a truly global industry, there is an increased need for an approach to building new human behaviours across the passenger experience. The guidelines for dealing with personal hygiene have varied wildly between countries, highlighted by the current pandemic. While there isn’t a clear answer on the horizon, it’s apparent that everyone is trying to do the right thing. The most Googled phrase last month was ‘How can I help?’, which resounds succinctly with the catchphrase of 2020, ‘We are all in this together’.

It is impossible for an airline to present a guaranteed hygienic environment, but they can create a strong brand preference by creating emotional connections as benevolent guardians, making passengers feel as safe as possible. This has to be based on trust, and that is earned by investing in a new programme of hygiene. The good news is that this is already being researched and developed by Teague. We have created a ‘Clean Design’ framework, which has been firmly rooted in human psychology to elicit passenger trust through the pandemic and onwards into the future.

Design Thinking can help airlines to structure a holistic response to the pandemic

Within the framework there are two main goals: first to protect crew and passengers, and secondly to relieve anxiety from travel. To respond to the concerns of consumers the first goal has to be based on CDC and WHO procedures and interpreted to work within aviation. This will require the implementation of best practices for infection identification, social distancing, and minimising microbial contact due to surface transferal.

Only after these practices have been adopted can airlines start a process of communication and consideration. This can be imparted through crew engagement with passengers, interactive procedures and, of course, sharing the relevant sanitation levels of the aircraft through existing and new airline-branded communication channels.

Communicating the new and enhanced cleaning practises will help reinforce important messaging

But how can Clean Design promote human compassion? After all, the quickest way to make an impact is by retraining human behaviour. For many years the airline industry has already been creating subconscious habits in the airline environment, from how we navigate an airport through to how we eat and sit onboard.

The most immediate & impactful changes will come by bringing about behavioural changes in passengers

Whilst Clean Design technologies like biometric ID and touchless operation are obvious physical manifestations of the future of flight, the natural development cycle of in-cabin products precludes them from being helpful when they are needed most: that’s why one of the key desired outcomes of our framework is that it immediately inspires compassionate behavioural change.

The World Health Organization recognises the value of human behaviour in managing pandemics. It has stated in its Outbreak Communications Planning Guide that behavioural changes can reduce the spread of infectious diseases by as much as 80%. No doubt everyone has caught themselves falling into old habits, which are counter-productive to the spread of the disease, i.e. forgetting to wash hands or touching surfaces inadvertently, cross-contaminating and continuing the spread of a contagion. While new surfaces – such as copper and silver nitrate – are antimicrobial and help in the limit of contamination, it is human behaviour that has the biggest impact.

Amenity kits for every passenger could help encourage positive behavioural change

The fundamental near-term solution needs to be rooted in human behaviour, as altering the actions of humans will have the biggest impact on the hygiene of aircraft cabins. Even the most committed of us could still have habits that breed contagions. But with the education piece currently missing on best practice, passengers are rudderless in their approach to mitigating the spread of germs and viruses.

So how can airlines encourage human behaviour through the use of design? Of course, there is the safety video and other airline communication channels to impart best practices. There are also small wins, such as giving branded face masks as part of amenity kits to reduce the psychological distress of being greeted by a clinical product – the same reason a child’s hospital gown features cartoon characters. Hand sanitisers will become a branded opportunity for airlines, as common as branded hand soaps in lavatories, perhaps delivered pre- and post-food service. Whatever the implementation, the human psyche is based on herding instincts, and synchronised behavioural changes are highly visual, positive reinforcements.

Clean Design is the North Star for an evolving travel industry

Not only are there near-term solutions, now is a time for airlines to initiate a longer-term strategy to becoming healthcare-oriented travel companies, and ‘clean design’ with its many tools must be their North Star. It has taken most brands several weeks – if not months – to adopt new ‘normal’ consumer experiences. We’ve seen supermarkets around the world become early adopters of new hygiene standards, but eyes will turn to the airline industry as it resumes service to see how it is adapting. With the right tools in airlines’ hands, including new products, training and communication strategies, passengers could be in for a safer experience in the coming months.

However, the key to this experience lies in being led by a Clean Design framework, whereby the equilibrium between both the airline and customer ownership is achieved. In the future, air travel could be safer than it has ever been, but in the short term, ‘We are all in this together’ might be the most obvious solution in taking the first steps in the right direction.

Anthony Harcup is senior director of airline experience at Teague. Look out for parts two and three of his blog series exploring the post-Covid passenger experience

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