Skift Take

It's difficult to imagine that middle seats on planes will be permanently removed after a recovery takes place. That's why coronavirus testing is so important. But if passengers won't fly with another flyer at their elbows, then expect airfares to skyrocket.

While U.S. politicians debate whether there is currently enough coronavirus testing capacity, JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said such testing will be critical to reassure passengers and employees in a recovery that it is safe to board planes.

Hayes said passengers will be co-mingling at airports, including in security lines. “This is why testing is so important so people know before they fly,” Hayes said Tuesday on CNBC.

Many JetBlue employees don’t currently want to fly, Hayes said, adding it’s important to reassure them, as well.

Hayes said he think’s JetBlue is currently at the bottom in terms of the downturn. “We are bumping along the bottom,” he said.

He said that once a recovery takes shape it’s vital there are common flying standards among countries, which may have different expectations.

If there are divergent rules, Hayes said, “it will be very confusing for people.”

Flyers need to be assured that not only is it safe to fly from a Covid-19 perspective, but also that the destination they are flying to has ample safeguards in place, he said.

Coronavirus Will Bring Changes Like 9/11 Did

Just as 9/11 brought reinforced cockpit doors and other enhanced security measures, the coronavirus pandemic will spur significant changes in passenger experience, Hayes said.

JetBlue is already keeping the middle seat empty on flights, passengers are wearing masks, planes are getting thoroughly cleaned, and the airline is investing in filtering technology, Hayes said.

“I’m sure there will be other measures that come out,” he said.

Hunkering Down

Hayes said several times during the CNBC interview that the airline is “hunkering down,” cutting costs, and conserving cash, and he added that JetBlue had ample liquidity entering the pandemic, and will be ready when a recovery takes shape.

“We are able to sit it out for as long as we need to sit it out,” Hayes said.

What Will Recovery Look Like?

Hayes said he thinks a recovery will evolve and there are various scenarios, but the drive market, domestic flights, and international flights close to the U.S. could be the first to make comebacks.

There is ample pent-up demand for passengers to visit friends and family, Hayes said, adding that JetBlue needs to plan “conservatively” despite states like Georgia and Florida reopening businesses this week.

Hayes expects minimum number of flights for now; the airline is flying 15-20 percent of its schedule in April, and he believes it will do around the same for May and June.

Hayes said JetBlue will be ready for when passenger demand returns.

“There will be some great deals around when this is over,” Hayes said.

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Tags: airports, coronavirus, deals, jetblue airways, passenger experience, robin hayes, security

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