Are airlines botching their response to coronavirus emergency?

Are airlines botching their response to coronavirus emergency?
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Make no mistake, airlines stink when it comes to customer service. More often than not, if we receive high levels of customer service when we travel it is by mistake, because the days of feeling appreciated, spoiled and thanked are long gone. Customer service left us in the 1990s, when airlines fell in love with technology and placed that above their desire for true customer service.

Yet, when it comes to how airlines are handling the coronavirus outbreak, airlines deserve high marks. It seems they have learned from history.

In the past, airlines were slow to react to crisis. If a weather storm approached a major hub, they would strive to operate as many flights as possible up to the very last minute. Revenue was everything and cancelling too many flights, too early, was simply not an option. And it was that thought process that led to the Detroit Airport debacle of 1999, where thousands of passengers were stranded for hours on airplanes that were stuck in the middle of a blizzard. 

Today, airlines see approaching storms and begin adjusting their flight schedules days in advance. Flights are cancelled and passengers are rerouted long before the storm hits. Those silver revenue tubes are protected as never before. And where airline customer service goes out the window on a normal day, during times of irregular operation and bad weather, airlines rise to the occasion, and that is exactly what we are seeing with their approach to China and the coronavirus.  


Delta, American and United Airlines have suspended a majority of their planned service to China, with a reduction of flights to Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. There is obviously a decrease in demand due to the medical crisis. But the airlines are striving to protect their passengers, and flight crews and are willing to forgo a  certain amount of revenue to make that happen.

Flights that are operating are absent blankets, magazines, pillows and other materials that could spread the virus among passengers. On several flights, the in-flight service has been cancelled as a way to better protect the flight attendants from passengers who might be carrying the virus.  

To date, China has cancelled more than 50,000 flights (of the 165,000 scheduled to operate between January 29 and the end of March), and that number is expected to soar the longer the medical crisis exists. World health experts are predicting the virus will not peak for several months. That means many more flights will be cancelled — a surprising and welcome departure from the mindset of the past, where airlines would operate as many flights as possible. 

Passengers traveling to and through the affected areas are encouraged to use an alcoholic wipe to sterilize their tray table, arm rests and in-flight entertainment screens. Medical professionals have called into question the effectiveness of medical masks, although passengers still insist on wearing them.

Through all of this, airlines are assisting passengers to amend their travel plans, a stark departure from what we’ve come to expect. Let’s hope this level of increased customer service lasts long past this current health emergency.   

Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an IHeart aviation analyst.