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The airlines' dangerous game of perception

The airlines' dangerous game of perception
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It was four days after the attacks of 9/11 that airline service in the United States resumed. And when it did, members of the National Guard were stationed at security checkpoints around the country. The airports had not been attacked, nor had the attacks happened because of a breakdown in airport security. Yet we saw these uniformed men and women stationed around the country in an attempt to make the flying public feel safer as they flew.  

It was a game of perception then, and that same approach is being used today.

As the COVID-19 crisis spread, the topic of masks quickly moved to the forefront. In a briefing by the World Health Organization on March 30, officials clearly stated that they did not recommend the practice of wearing masks. The U.S. surgeon general, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others said the same thing

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The topic of taking a person’s temperature was also a point of contention for many, as we learned that someone could be symptom-free and still transmit the coronavirus for a period of 14 days. If that is the case, what is the purpose of taking a temperature if many of the infected individuals appear healthy? 

As June approaches, we now see airlines requiring masks, and they will be taking the temperature of each passenger traveling. If masks and temperature taking are not effective means for safety, why are airlines taking this approach?

The answer comes down to perception and revenue.

Over the last three weeks, three travel-related photos have gone viral. Two involved crowded American Airlines flights, with passengers not wearing masks; another, a United flight was full with passengers wearing masks. In both cases, the social media outcry was clear; passengers did not feel safe.

Airlines are losing as much as $50 million to $100 million a day, and they are desperate for cash. Earlier this year, more than two million daily passengers flew; on May 8 that number was just 215,444 — down 92 percent from the same period a year ago. 

The numbers are now climbing, but not fast enough to save the airlines that are being forced to survive on 8 percent of the traffic they enjoyed a year ago. They need the traveling public to feel safe about flying, which is one of the reasons we are seeing more press releases from airlines about their enhanced aircraft cleaning procedures. The airlines will do anything possible to create the perception that it is safe to return to the skies.

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Estimates from the CEOs of both Boeing and Airbus predict it will take the airline industry more than two years to fully recover from this crisis. With this bleak timeline before them, airline executives are scrambling to find ways to make the traveling public feel safe.

Enter masks and temperature checks.

When airlines tell passengers they can wear homemade masks, it becomes quite clear that the idea of masks for safety is not the objective. The objective is to help passengers feel safe.

Further, the flight attendants for some airlines have been told that if a passenger aboard a flight removes a mask, they are not to force passengers to comply. If masks are vital to the safety of those on a flight, why does this suddenly become optional? I suspect this plan of action will change once on-board altercations between passengers erupt when the mask policy is disregarded by one, over the protests of others.   

Airlines have long played the game of perception, and it can be a dangerous one.  Before the attacks of 9/11, checked bags on domestic flights were not screened, even though it was recommended in the accident investigation after the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988.

The public thought bags were being screened and that was enough. But to satisfy those demanding a change, the airlines began asking three questions to everyone who flew: “Did you pack your bag yourself? Has it been in your possession the entire time? Has any unknown party approached you asking that you carry an item?” 

These three questions were a joke, yet that is how we responded to a known threat at the time. That is how the perception of security is handled, as opposed to increasing actual security.

The same approach is seen when airports screen passengers before flying, but fail to screen airport employees before they are granted access to the secured areas of the airport. Only a handful of airports do so, and the Atlanta airport only began once it was discovered employees were running a gun smuggling ring between Atlanta and New York.

If airlines and airports were serious about security, each employee would be screened each time before being granted access to the sterile (secured) areas of the airport.  Currently, employees only undergo random screening, which is far less than what is required in order to address this gaping hole in security. Yet, for the sake of perception, it seems to be enough.

Security on the outside of the airport is also at risk. Even though billions of dollars annually are spent on security inside the airport, precious little is spent to reinforce the security for the airport runways, tarmacs and taxiways. The large number of people accessing our airports without being detected (the Austin tragedy is the latest such event) is evidence enough that we are doing little to improve security, even though we are fully aware that planes and passengers are at risk. 

A budget-driven security approach is simply not enough. There will be a point where the dangerous game of perception will no longer work, and lives will be lost as a result.

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