Future Tense

The Aviation Industry Can’t Give In to the Temptation to Compete on Safety

An airplane in the sky, surrounded by swirls of pink, blue, and yellow
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A jet flying under dark skies and over a storm-tossed ocean was not the best idea for an aircraft advertisement, but in 1999, Airbus was desperate. Its four-engine, 300-seat jetliner, the A340, was losing sales to Boeing’s 777 twin engine jet, so some of the European jet maker’s less gifted communicators got the bright idea of producing an ad showing exactly this frightening scene, with the caption “If you’re over the middle of the Pacific, you want to be in the middle of four engines.”

Some people might have been scared by this ill-advised ad campaign, but targeted customers—airlines in the market for aircraft—were deeply annoyed. Airbus had violated one of the sacrosanct (if unwritten) rules in aviation: Thou shalt not compete on safety. Airlines and other aviation companies were extremely critical. Gordon Bethune, the respected head of Continental Airlines at the time, told Airbus that the ad “makes it more unlikely we would put our confidence in you or your products.” The ad was withdrawn. Bizarrely, Airbus tried a watered-down version of the ad (“A340—4 engines 4 long haul”) three years later and was again roundly denounced.

Since that ill-fated campaign to raise doubts about the wisdom of twin-engined wide-body planes, the industry has reverted to its previous reluctance to cast stones at each other on safety grounds. Regulators and watchdog groups occasionally call out airlines or manufacturers for transgressions, but their competitors don’t try to capitalize on these to gain market share.

The primary reason for this is simple: Nobody in the industry wants to scare the flying public. Instead, the consistent message from everyone has been that flying is safe, that regulators have the authority to keep it safe, that the system works. Through the recent 737 Max controversy, nobody in the industry—not Airbus, not airlines that opted not to buy the plane—has alluded to Boeing’s problems as part of a sales pitch. Airbus and other manufacturers instead point to lessons learned from past disasters and how this body of knowledge created the safest form of travel yet devised. And I am guessing you have never heard an airline boast of how many millions of people it may have flown without a crash.

But this injunction against competing on safety may be sorely tested in the post-COVID-19 era. Following past market shocks, such as 9/11 or the 2008 financial meltdown, global air travel demand fell but recovered quickly, and declined by only 2 to 3 percent on an annual basis, according to the Airline Monitor. COVID-19 has hurt the industry in a far worse way. If we make a miraculous (and not very likely) fourth-quarter recovery, the International Air Transport Association says demand this year will fall 48 percent worldwide from 2019. As of this writing, it’s down about 95 percent, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

As the pandemic eases (I hope) and with it travel restrictions, quarantines, and lockdowns, people will gradually resume flying. They might do so nervously, and tentatively. Most of them won’t fear engine failures, pilot error, or suicidal terrorists. They will fear one another, eyeing every fellow passenger as a potential pathogen host. And they will fear their tray tables, their armrests, and all other surfaces that could harbor the virus over the course of a few flights.

Hence the conundrum. Airlines are reflexively tribal when it comes to closing ranks around the safety of flying, at least what we traditionally think of as safety. Airlines are also accustomed to competing against one another on the basis of comfort and spacing between seating; business class offerings on long flights in recent years have boasted of separate compartments, and screens between seats. Now suddenly, competing on the basis of how isolated your business class pod is, or the width of your coach class seat, can easily seem like a safety and health claim—a knock on the competition as being not just less comfortable, but less safe. Or take competing technologies and techniques airlines are embracing to deep clean and disinfect their planes. Will it be fair game for one airline to champion its approach over another’s?

The temptation will arise not only because of the blurred line between safety and comfort, but also out of desperation. The entire airline industry system will likely suffer from serious overcapacity for years to come—too many carriers with too many jets chasing too few passengers. How far will airlines be willing to go to reassure these passengers? More worryingly, how far might they go to cast doubt on their competitors’ safety standards?

This could all start at the bottom end of the market. Because ultra-low-cost airlines—think Ryanair or Spirit, among many others—depend on passenger seating density to achieve low fares, they will be quick to advertise any remediation they take to accommodate concerns about spacing, such as filtration systems or higher jet cleaning frequencies. If they can’t advertise these kinds of remedial pandemic safety methods, consumers may not trust them anytime soon. It’s one thing to sign up for an armrest battle with a seatmate spilling over into your seat in the best of times to save a few bucks; it’s an entirely different calculus in a pandemic-focused environment.

At the other end of the aviation spectrum, we might see business jet charter providers, or other private aviation market players, break the code by suggesting this is no time to be boarding planes with hundreds of other passengers (and using large public terminals). The cost of private aviation means it only competes directly with scheduled air service for a very select clientele. But it would still be an unwelcome development if private services directly advertised their virtues with references to the pandemic.

The reasons the aviation industry hasn’t historically competed on safety are still valid: Implying that competitors are less safe undermines passenger confidence in the entire system and will be a lose-lose over time. Instead, the industry needs to work together to ensure safety around clear, shared standards. Whatever measures are adapted for passenger safety—minimum space requirements, air filtration and disinfectant techniques, new seating configurations, cabin cleaning intervals, boarding procedure, pre-flight passenger testing, etc.—need to apply to all airlines equally.

If an airline wants to exceed these standards, that’s fine. It can do so quietly without trying to upcharge for them or gain market share as a result, much like how airlines currently don’t boast of how much training their pilots may get above what’s legally required.

The only question is where these shared standards come from. The International Air Transport Association and the International Civil Aviation Organization may play a role here, as might national industry groups such as Airlines for America. The industry may approach the problem collectively. Or perhaps ad hoc groups will emerge to propose answers to specific safety challenges, such as this proposal for preflight passenger testing. Finding common ground is a far better idea than letting individual entities develop their own solutions (and inevitably using these solutions for a competitive edge).

Without such universal standards, the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastation of commercial aviation could prove to be deeper and lasting than it needs to be. And if anyone in the industry tries to gain short-term profit or market share by promising passengers higher safety standards, they will deserve the same scorn Airbus’s A340 ad was met with in 1999.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.