‘Bold’ decisions to come as TAP Air Portugal prepares for COVID return
When Christine Ourmières-Widener became the new CEO of TAP Air Portugal this summer, the airline had already started an aggressive restructuring in the wake of the pandemic. Since his arrival, the EU has approved a loan of 1.2 billion euros and 3.2 billion euros in aid to the airline. But what should passengers expect when traveling on the Portuguese national carrier during the upcoming holiday travel season? How long will the mask requirements last? I recently spoke with Ourmières-Widener in Lisbon to find out.
The holiday travel season has just started. How are things going for TAP Air Portugal?
Most airlines have a great holiday season, but for TAP that’s even more important because there are quite a few people returning home who haven’t been able to travel in the past couple of years. There is a lot of demand.
At the same time, TAP reduced its fleet because we wanted to plan for a more sustainable operation. So we deliver as much as we can.
What is the state of recovery for TAP?
We are at 80% of our capacity compared to 2019. Brazil has been strong enough for us. We are back in the United States with the opening in November. And Africa has been very sustainable. We have a fairly large market in Africa with all the Portuguese-speaking communities. It is a very resilient part of the world during the crisis.
Now Europe has had its ups and downs. Europe is critical for us because it feeds the traffic for our long-haul flights, but the situation is very different from country to country depending on the reopening.
More Q&A from Travel CEO
US Open: This is what a trip to America will really look like
Head of TravelInsurance.com: travel could return to “normal” in 2022
EasyJet CEO: Low cost “doesn’t mean bad quality”
Breeze Airways CEO: Nice Airline is “here to stay”
You also talked about digital transformation and the need to align the digital and the physical. Can you tell me what you meant by that?
We have focused on always having a way for our customers to reach us digitally, including increasing our availability through our online channels.
Our client therefore wants to live this digital experience. It’s very basic, you know, the need to be efficient. Reduced number of clicks and faster response times. When you buy a ticket, you want to go to a website to get information about the required documents. You really want to find the information you need.
But at the same time, you still need human touch every now and then. It is therefore also necessary to have a call center.
We’ve made some changes since the start of the pandemic, in terms of customer service. But human contact will not go away.
In terms of customer experience, is there something you’re most proud of?
This is the Clean & Safe initiative. We are lucky at TAP because we have our own clinic. We own UCS, a Portuguese clinic, and that has been a fantastic asset during this crisis. So we deployed a test facility in the airport at a very early stage later in the pandemic.
We have our own clinic that does tests at the airport and we try to provide the service because we have common interests. We want to make sure our customers don’t miss their flights. If they really want to test at the last minute, we try to help them. So, it is very useful.
Related: TAP Air Portugal customer service contacts
When you joined TAP, you told employees in a video that you need to be willing to make bold decisions. What did you mean by that?
I won’t be able to give you all the bold decisions that are on the table because we haven’t announced them yet, and there is some confidentiality.
I think most of the things I’ve done in regards to bold decisions as being open and transparent, maybe on things that we haven’t been open and transparent with in the past. We are telling the truth.
For example, we communicated to employees saying that the level of absenteeism is not acceptable.
What do passengers want now?
I think they want to be reassured. They want to know that they are very safe when they are flying. They want to know how we recycle the air, they want to know that we are deep cleaning, they want to know what products are used. I think that for travelers, it is a question of being reassured before traveling.
I agree that travelers are nervous. Just the test requirements …
Yes, people want to know what documents they need. Should he be vaccinated? Do they have the right vaccine? Do they need a test or not? And what kind of test – a PCR or an antigen? We have tried to upload as much information as possible to our website. But we still see a lot of customers calling us at our call centers, so we’ve added new staff there as well.
I received an email yesterday from one of your passengers, who told me she was supposed to fly to Austria, which has just started lockdown. So for such customers, if they have a non-refundable ticket, do you offer credit for them or do they get a refund?
Good question. We have suspended a number of our conditions during COVID. As you know, there are conditions for customers to be able to get a refund. But we would offer a refund during a lockdown like they do in Austria.
How do you manage to issue refunds from the initial outbreak?
It’s a very complex situation, but we’ve fallen to one to two percent of the claims. I get messages from passengers who want a refund – they find me on Linkedin and Instagram. We apologize for these delays. We process everything we can.
Do you have any advice for people traveling abroad during the holidays?
Make sure you have all of your documents. Make sure they are on your mobile device and print them out, in case you have a lost connection.
You are probably asked this question a lot, but when will things get back to normal for air travel?
I don’t think this will ever end. We will have tests. We will have masks on planes for maybe forever. We will have to give confidence to our travelers and as much as we can.