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| Written by Marie Johnson, CMP

Events > Forward — Group Travel: Safely Returning to the Skies

Our host, Jeff Naue, Special Projects Marketing Lead, and Samantha Gehrke, Senior Manager of Group Travel, talk about safety protocols, group travel updates, and need-to-know information as our client groups safely return to the skies. This is very uncharted territory for both the airlines and our customers. Consistently airlines are taking a lot of extra safety and cleaning measures. However, when it comes to group travel policies, there is much inconsistency and variation across carriers as there is not a standard or mandate.

Join us for a 10-minute chat to hear what you should consider when it comes to booking your next group and moving events forward.

Events > Forward Podcast: Safely Returning to the Skies


Can you tell us a little bit about your role and how it is being implemented within the Events > Forward Task Force?

I oversee the Group Air Travel department here at M&IW. The Group Air Travel team is responsible for providing personalized, white-glove travel arrangements that include booking air (also sometimes rail, hotel, and car). We manage changes, air reporting, and flight following from the beginning of the travel journey, all the way to the attendee’s safe return home.

My role within the Events > Forward Task Force is to keep up to date on the ever-changing global travel industry as it relates to “life after COVID-19.” So, I’m reviewing airline policies, airport policies, TSA and the Department of Homeland Security updates, trends within the travel industry, and corporate travel policy. And, also travel restrictions that are in place for international travel.

What should be considered when planning a meeting that involves group air travel during COVID-19?

This is very much uncharted territory now for the airline industry. And, airline trends are unpredictable. So, one of the most important aspects of planning a meeting when attendees will be traveling by air is the accessibility of the meeting location. What does the lift look like for that city? Airlines reduced flight schedules globally by about 70% during the pandemic. There are slow increases and everyday airlines are adding more flights back into their schedule, but it’s going to take some time to get back to pre-pandemic flight availability.

So, my first recommendation would be to perform an airfare analysis for potential destinations to review airlift and also cost. The airfare budget is also another piece of the puzzle that’s unpredictable right now. Some markets that cater to a more leisure demographic may see more competitive airfare whereas business markets may see a spike in airfare. Even after a destination is chosen, it will be very important to continue to monitor air pricing because, with the airline industry as volatile as it is right now, it could change quickly.

Other things to consider would be attendee origin location restrictions. Are those attending still under a “shelter in place” order? And, if international group travel is involved are there travel bans, will attendees need to self-quarantine, or take a COVID-19 test upon arrival?

How are airlines improving their safety and cleanliness standards post COVID-19?

All major airlines are taking the safety of their passengers, and the cleanliness of their airplanes very seriously. Nearly all major carriers including American, Delta, Southwest, and United are using high grade, EPA-registered disinfectant to wipe down the common surface areas in galleys and lavatories. Additional cleaning is also occurring more often on touchpoints of the aircraft including window shared, armrests, and tray tables. All the major carriers are also using something called electrostatic fogging which uses a hospital-grade disinfectant that reaches all public areas of the aircraft. This “disinfectant and fogging process” is known to kill germs for 7 days, but many carriers like Delta are fogging aircraft daily.

Airlines like Southwest and Delta are blocking middle seats through at least most of the summer, but this is not a sustainable practice for airlines from a revenue standpoint, so I wouldn’t anticipate this practice to continue as demand for air travel continues to grow. Some carriers like United and American are taking a different approach. They are not blocking middle seats but are instead notifying customers when their flight is reaching a certain capacity and offering them the option to move to a different flight for free.

In addition to the enhanced aircraft cleaning and limiting capacity on aircraft, all major airlines do require airline employees and all passengers to wear a face mask onboard the aircraft. Currently, each airline has its own protocol as to when a face mask is required since there is no government mandate on face masks. For example, JetBlue asks the face masks are worn from check-in all the way through to deplaning at your destination. Whereas American; is only asking the customer to wear the face mask on the aircraft. It’s best to check with your airline and airport for the latest policies on face mask requirements.

What items are travelers advised to bring along with them now when they travel by air?

TSA now allows passengers to bring one 12 oz. bottle of hand sanitizer through the security checkpoint, so I’d recommend travelers to pack some hand sanitizer in their carryon. Airlines and airports are providing hand sanitizer, but it’s nice to have access to your own sanitizer.

Also, TSA is beginning to require food to be removed from your carryon bag and placed in a bin so you will want to bring a clear plastic bag to put your food in for this purpose. TSA says that food can often trigger an alarm when it’s in carryon luggage, so they are implementing this rule to lessen the likelihood of opening and inspecting your carryon bag.

A face covering will also be something you’ll want to bring along with you. Most airlines will provide a face mask if you don’t have one. However, each airline policy does vary, and it is nice to be able to show your own personal style with your favorite face mask.

How have airline policies changed regarding itinerary flexibility?

Airline policies regarding to itinerary changes, continue to be revised almost daily it seems! Right now, most airlines are allowing tickets to be changed without a change fee. Delta has even gone as far as allowing unlimited changes without a fee, and only the difference in fare would be collected. This would be for the duration of the ticket validity which is generally 1 year from the purchase date. Airlines are taking this rule “month by month” it seems, so right now this is only for tickets purchased through June 30, 2020, for most airlines. Because these policies are ever-changing and vary by airline, it’s best to check with the carrier prior to booking a new ticket to determine what the flexibility of that ticket will look like.

Learn more about M&IW’s Group Air team. To stay up-to-date on M&IW’s efforts on safety initiatives and protocols for returning to in-person events, be sure to turn into our Events > Forward Podcast Series. In each episode, we interview subject matter experts on relevant and timely topics. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.