When Christine Ourmières-Widener took over as the new CEO of TAP Air Portugal this summer, the airline had already begun aggressively restructuring in the wake of the pandemic. Since her arrival, the EU approved a €1.2 billion loan and €3.2 billion in aid for the airline. But what should passengers expect when they fly on the Portuguese flag 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 gotten started. How’s it going for TAP Air Portugal?
Most airlines have a big holiday season, but for TAP it’s even bigger because there are quite a few people coming back home who were not able to travel the last two years. There’s a lot of demand.
At the same time, TAP has been shrinking its fleet because we wanted to plan for a more sustainable operation. So we are delivering as much as we can.
What’s the status of the recovery for TAP?
We’re at 80% of capacity compared to 2019. Brazil has been quite strong for us. We’re back in the U.S. with the opening in November. And Africa has been very sustainable. We have quite a big market in Africa with all the Portuguese-speaking communities. It’s a very resilient area of the world during the crisis.
Now, Europe has been up and down. Europe is critical for us because it feeds traffic to our long-haul flights, but the situation is very different from one country to another depending on the reopening.
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You’ve also talked about the digital transformation and how the digital and the physical need to be aligned. Can you tell me what you meant by that?
We’ve put an emphasis in always having a way for our customers to reach us digitally, including increasing our availability through our online channels.
So our customer wants to have this digital experience. That’s very basic, you know — the need to be efficient. Reducing the 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 contact from time to time. So you also have to have a call center.
We’ve made some changes since the pandemic began, in terms of customer service. But human contact will not disappear.
In terms of the customer experience, is there one thing that you’re proudest of?
It’s the Clean & Safe initiative. We’re lucky at TAP because we have our own clinic. We own UCS, a Portuguese clinic, and it’s been a fantastic asset during this crisis. So we deployed a test facility in the airport in very early stage later in the pandemic.
We have our own clinic doing tests at the airport and we are trying to provide the service because we have common interests. We want to make sure our customers don’t miss their flights. If they want to really test at the last minute, we are trying to help them. So, that’s very useful.
When you joined TAP you said in a video to employees that you have to have the willingness to take bold decisions. What did you mean by that?
I will not be able to give you all the bold decisions that are on the table because we haven’t announced them yet, and there’s some confidentiality.
I think most of the things that I have done with regard to bold decisions as being open and transparent, maybe on things that people we were not open and transparent with in the past. We’re telling the truth.
For instance, we did a communication to employees saying that the level of absenteeism is not acceptable.
What do passengers want now?
I think they want reassurance. They want to know they’re very safe when they’re flying. They want to know how we are recycling the air, they want to know about the fact that we are cleaning comprehensively, they want to know about the products that are being used. I think for travelers, it’s all about being reassured before traveling.
I agree that travelers are nervous. Just the testing requirements …
Yes, people want to know what documents they need. Do they have to be vaccinated? Do they have the right vaccine? Do they need a test or not? And what kind of test — a PCR or antigen? We have tried to upload as much information as we could on our website. But we still see a lot of customers calling us on our call centers, so we’ve added new staff there as well.
I received an email yesterday from one of your passengers, who said that she was supposed to fly to Austria, which just started a lockdown. So for customers like that, if they’re holding a nonrefundable ticket are you offering credit for them or do they get a refund?
Good question. We have been suspending quite a number of our conditions during COVID. As you know, there are conditions for customers to be able to have a refund. But we would offer a refund during a lockdown like they are having in Austria.
How are you doing on issuing refunds from the initial outbreak?
It’s a very complex situation, but we are down to one to two percent of the refund requests. I get the messages from passengers who want refunds — they find me on Linkedin and Instagram. We apologize for these delays. We are processing everything we can.
Do you have any advice for people traveling abroad during the holidays?
Make sure you have all your documents. Make sure they are on your mobile device and print them, in case you have a loss of connection.
You probably get asked this question a lot, but when will things go back to normal for air travel?
I don’t think this will ever end. We will have tests. We’ll have masks in aircraft for maybe forever. We will have to give confidence to our travelers and as much as we can.