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Business in the United States is at a pivotal moment. As COVID-19 vaccinations continue to rise, economic and social activity is moving closer to pre-pandemic levels. Case in point: air travel. Around 1.5 million travelers passed through airports on March 21 – the largest number since before the pandemic. The very next day brought another milestone: On March 22, air travel topped 1 million passengers for the eleventh straight day.

How does the public actually feel about this shift back toward travel-as-usual? What narratives are emerging that airlines and other industries should know about as they look ahead to the end of the pandemic?

To answer this question, Zignal examined mentions of flying during the pandemic across digital and social media to understand what issues people are discussing as America moves into spring – and how they feel about those issues. The result is a new report on narratives related to air travel in the first three months of 2021.

As a preview of the report, here are the 5 shifts in the way we fly that are creating the most buzz online.

Read: Part 2 of our report preview.

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1. Pre-Departure Testing Requirements (289K mentions)

Public sentiment around this measure is mixed. Some narratives focused on the potential benefits of pre-departure testing and the technological innovation that enables airlines to track passengers’ results. Others opposed the idea, arguing that this requirement would halt the airline industry’s recovery and take testing supplies away from sick and vulnerable populations.

Graph of key issues around air travel

Mentions of changes to air travel in the first three months of 2021, with “Pre-Departure Testing Requirement” spiking in January.

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2. Face Coverings (63K mentions)

Mentions of masking on planes spiked following President Joe Biden’s executive order on January 21, as well as the CDC’s accompanying announcement on January 30 requiring all federal buildings and transportation services to enforce a face covering policy. Reactions towards the CDC’s announcement were mixed, with some users expressing frustration that the government did not require masks in airports months ago.

The Transportation Security Administration also released a statement on February 2, stating that passengers will be required to wear masks until May 11. A federal mask mandate has been a major focus for airlines since the beginning of the pandemic, as concerns regarding unaccommodating passengers have presented liabilities.

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3. Vaccine Passports (13K mentions)

As vaccinations ramp up, big tech companies such as Microsoft are working with the pharmaceutical industry to develop what will be known as “vaccine passports.” While many see these passports as a means to safely return to normal activities, others worry it’s a slippery slope leading to the government regulating other health conditions. On March 9, China rolled out its version of a vaccine passport against growing concerns over privacy and civil liberties violations.

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4. Enhanced Cleaning Protocols (10K mentions)

In addition to taking steps to reduce airborne transmission of the virus on planes, airlines are enhancing their clearing protocols to make surfaces as clean and safe as possible. Though far below the mentions counts of the top issues, this issue still received over 10K mentions.

Top air travel topics by mentions

Topics related to changes to air travel, ranked by number of mentions, Jan. 1 – March 22, 2021.

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5. Limited Capacity (9K mentions)

Although plane capacity is last on our list in terms of number of mentions, the issue attracted more negative coverage than other key topics. The largest driver of negative attention took place on Twitter on March 17, when a country singer commented on the US airline industry’s almost complete return to full-capacity flights, which the CDC had previously criticized. Passengers in the UK and Europe also appear to be concerned that airlines are allowing full flights.

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Get More in Zignal’s New Report

This is just the beginning of our analysis of narratives around the return to air travel. Read the full report to learn:

  • Which sources (Twitter, news articles, etc.) are driving most of the conversation.
  • How the prevailing narratives differ depending on the source.
  • Which kinds of stories generate the strongest response.

Schedule a meeting with our team to see how to conduct analyses like this one using the Zignal media intelligence platform.