COVID-19: act now

Rob Britton became head of advertising at American Airlines three weeks after 9/11. Julie Baxter asks him how should our industry publicly react to COVID-19

Q.The COVID-19 virus is causing airlines huge damage what lessons can we learn from past threats you’ve worked through?

I was working at American Airlines on “9/11,” the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Perhaps we’re lucky that there has not been as grave an existential threat to our business until now, with COVID-19. Of course, terrorism and this virus are very different. In 2001, the quiet that followed the hijacking of four airlines calmed us. Unlike al Qaeda terrorists, this current enemy is almost invisible, and the hoped-for ‘quiet’ is some months in the future.

Q.How damaging is the coverage and debate around covid-19 for airlines?

As always, mass media reporting has been long on drama and short on science – no one is helping ordinary people understand and judge the actual risk. Social media, which didn’t exist in 2001, amplifies the frenzy. Elected leaders worldwide try to reassure the flying public, but trust in elected officials and political leaders has diminished greatly in recent years.

Q.How should the industry engage in the public conservation?

Once the national lockdowns and border closures end, the airline industry needs to confront COVID-19 head-on. Industry associations like IATA and Airlines for America, and the carriers themselves have posted information on websites, but this is not enough. Even when COVID-19 is brought under control, our industry will need to explain the tiny risk of infection while flying or when in destinations, clearly and with just a few datapoints that we keep repeating.

Q.So what would you advise as the way forward for the industry?

The way forward will be to combine our own messaging – which must be clear and honest – with those of perfectly credible experts and proxies. The industry ought to hire epidemiologists, statisticians, and others, and charge them with quantifying the tiny risk in ways that are understandable to regular people.

Maybe we need celebrity voices to say “I’m not afraid to fly, nor to enjoy the destination when I arrive.” The proxies need to quantify the tiny risk in ways people easily understand.
For example, we need to remind people that seasonal flu (the kind some of us get every year), has in 2020 caused more than 20 times the deaths of COVID-19. And we don’t stop flying when winter flu season comes.

Q. Is this approach likely to work when the public has become so anxious?

In addition to facts and data, we will need to use positive emotion to persuade people to fly. After 9/11 at American Airlines, we developed poignant advertising that reminded people of the joy of reuniting with friends and family.

Q. Governments in Europe and the Americas have come forward with assistance, do you think that will help?

Government grants and loans will help, and everyone in the industry is grateful that governments recognise that airlines underpin so much economic activity. But in a business like ours with huge fixed costs, that public money will be quickly used.

Q.When should the efforts to rebuild the business really begin?

We will need to act once we have a sense that the pandemic is under control, which will likely vary by region or nation. The virus has temporarily devastated our business, with whole companies shuttered and many more seriously damaged. So we will need confident customers, and winning them back will depend on how effectively we act when the time is right.