Qantas takes a special interest in looking after passengers on long flights because most of its international flights are long haul, that is, are five hours or longer.
It is therefore logical that Qantas would instigate a research project to investigate the health and wellbeing of its passengers on long haul flights, ahead of the launch of its 17 hour direct flight from Perth to London, in March 2018.
This is from the Qantas Media Release of 22 June 2017:
In a world first collaboration … the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre will work with Qantas to help develop the airline’s new approach to long haul travel ahead of the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner flights this year.
“By taking a holistic view of our customers, our partnership will examine everything from reducing the impact of jetlag through to health, nutrition and sleep through the entire journey experience,” Mr Joyce said.
The research project raises two interesting issues from a legal perspective:
- Will the research find ways for Qantas to improve flying conditions and health warnings to satisfy the legal duty of care it owes to its passengers for their health and wellbeing on long haul flights?
- What findings will the research provide to support the to-be-advertised health and wellness benefits for passengers when they fly the Boeing 787 Dreamliner?
What follows is a ‘holistic’ analysis – legal, public relations and marketing.
What ‘health and wellness inflight’ research is to be done for Qantas?
Clinical trials “will develop an integrated, holistic and evidence-based approach” to:
- Jetlag - strategies to counteract jetlag: circadian entrainment, sleep and light exposure
- Physical activity – on-board exercises and movement, pre and post flight preparation
- Nutrition – food and beverage services, menu design and service timing
- Transit lounge design – to promote airport lounge wellness
- Cabin environment – lighting and temperature to assist sleep patterns
The duty of care an airline owes for the health and wellbeing of its passengers
An airline owes a duty of care to its passengers for their health and wellbeing. This duty is limited to bodily injury under Article 17 of the 1999 Montreal Convention:
The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.
By virtue of section 9E of the Civil Aviation (Carriers’ Liability) Act 1959 (Cth), Article 17 of the Convention (and no other law) must be used for compensation claims for illness and injury sustained on board an aircraft flying to, from or in, Australia.
The leading Australian decision on Article 17 is Povey v Qantas Airways Limited  HCA 33, a decision of the High Court of Australia.
That case dealt with a medical condition, Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT).
Brian Povey alleged that he had developed DVT during two long haul flights: Sydney to London via Bangkok, and the return flight via Kuala Lumpur. Passengers who are prone to DVT can have a blood clot form in the veins of their legs due to impaired blood circulation during a long haul flight, which can result in a stroke.
Mr Povey argued that Qantas had breached its a duty of care to him in two ways:
- By not providing flight conditions to minimise the risk of DVT; because they provided cramped seating on the flight, discouraged passengers from moving about the aircraft, and supplied alcoholic or caffeine beverages; and/or
- By not providing warnings to passengers of precautions to take to reduce the risk of DVT, such as inflight exercises.
The High Court of Australia dismissed Povey’s claim. It found that DVT was not compensable under Article 17 because there was no “accident” to cause the condition. That is, there was no sudden and unexpected “external event” which caused a bodily injury – DVT occurred imperceptibly over the course of the flight.
Justice McHugh gave two examples of an “accident” on board an aircraft which would be compensable under Article 17: if a food trolley runs over the foot of a sleeping passenger; and when a flight attendant directs a passenger to sit in a seat which collapses.
Health warnings and wellness advice – the current position
Not long after Povey, Qantas took the cautious view and introduced health warnings about the risk of developing DVT on its flights, and suggested exercises, on its website, magazine and safety video.
The current Safety Video contains this warning: For more information on DVT, check the Health and Safety Section in your Qantas magazine.
By giving health warnings and providing wellness advice on ‘Your Health Inflight’, Qantas is looking to insulate itself against health-related claims. If a passenger does not heed the warnings and follow the advice, Qantas can claim that they contributed to their condition. This is in line with Article 21 of the Convention which gives an airline the ability to exonerate itself if the airline demonstrates that the passenger has contributed to their medical/health condition.
Currently, it is rare for a health or wellbeing complaint to be compensable as a bodily injury under Article 17. But it is possible, for example by serving foods which provoke allergic reactions without giving a warning, such as “may contain nut traces/wheat/milk/eggs”.
Therefore, in the research project, Qantas is not looking so much to address any current legal liabilities, but to anticipate potential liabilities if ill health and lack of wellbeing become compensable conditions in the future, by:
- Bringing to light any emerging health risks about which Qantas should warn and give advice to passengers;
- Recommending changes to its standard flight conditions to improve health and wellbeing;
so as pre-empt future claims for health-related conditions which are based on a failure to give warnings, advice or provide healthy flying conditions.
Advertising/marketing the health benefits of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner
In the promotional video in its Media Release, Qantas gives a glimpse into the health and wellbeing benefits it would like to advertise for long haul flights, especially ways to reduce jetlag; optimise inflight nourishment; and maximise sleep:
- The research will document sleep patterns, moods and physical state, food and beverage consumption, and the influence of cabin lighting and temperature;
- The results are expected to reveal the best foods to eat inflight and when, on-board exercises, and airport lounge wellness so that –
passengers will feel refreshed and rejuvenated at the end of the flight
The Australian Consumer Law prohibits misleading advertising/marketing. A business cannot make a false or misleading representation that services are “of a particular standard, quality,” (section 29(1)(b)) or that services have “performance characteristics, accessories, uses or benefits” (section 29(1)(g)) which they do not have.
In Australian Competition and Consumer Commission v Allergy Pathway Pty Ltd  FCA 960 the Federal Court of Australia (Finkelstein J) noted that various health claims made by Allergy Pathway about the way it “diagnoses and treats allergies including testing for and identifying a person’s specific allergies” were misleading or deceptive because Allergy Pathway did not have “published scientific evidence to support” them. The Court ordered corrective advertising.
Qantas has a head start in claiming health benefits when flying in its 787 Dreamliner aircraft, because Boeing has improved the cabin specifications – improved air quality (circulating every 3 minutes), higher humidity, higher air pressure, better lighting, larger dimmable windows, lower cabin noise, and technology to reduce turbulence.
Qantas will be relying upon scientific evidence from the research project, and on how this translates into health benefits, so that it has reasonable grounds for making health and wellbeing claims for flights on its 787 Dreamliner flights, in its advertising and marketing.
Public Relations Comments
This is clever move by Qantas.
By getting on the front foot and commissioning this research into the health and wellbeing of passengers on long haul flights, Qantas is positioning itself to add “inflight health” to “safety” in its branding and marketing as a leading international carrier, with the wellbeing of passengers at the centre of this new initiative.
Importantly, it also “buying legal protection” when it comes to giving health warnings and in advertising the benefits of its long distance flights.
These comments were prepared with the assistance of Richard Lenarduzzi of The Premier Communications Group, strategic PR advisors
For airline customers, the allure of a direct Sydney-London flight is blunted by the thought of long haul travel, airline food, poor air quality and the inevitable jet lag and associated physical discomfort including dehydration, stiff joints, cramps and disrupted sleep patterns.
So how does an airline overcome a preconception that for many seasoned travellers is a lived and dreaded experience?
Qantas needs to prove they are offering more than just a modern transport solution with a shorter flight time, but that the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can provide a more complete travel experience, including a comprehensive health and wellbeing solution to the known downsides of long haul travel.
Consumer marketing is a form of storytelling that deliberately highlights benefits and distorts or conceals negative side effects. For example, cola producers focus on fun, freedom and lifestyle, not sugar intake and obesity.
Marketers engage market research firms to help them understand their customer’s practical, emotional and psychological needs, to inform their product development, marketing and advertising strategy. The marketing messages need to bypass the logical part of our brain that knows long haul travel is gruelling, and convince us that it is in fact a liberating experience for the savvy traveller.
I expect the Qantas research will test and measure every input to identify the optimum flying experience and then repurpose the insights as an ‘optimum health itinerary’, supported by advertising showcasing enthusiastic travellers loving their life and arriving at their destination as fresh as a daisy.
Consumers can benefit greatly from this type of research if they follow the instructions, especially the pre-flight preparation and post-flight recovery insights. The reality is that some people will ignore good advice, but at least the airline has made a genuine effort to understand the issues and make evidence-based recommendations on mitigating the negative side effects of long haul travel.
Airlines are largely restricted in what they can say and rely on artfully vague aspirational statements such as ‘A great way to fly’ or ‘Smooth as silk’. Qantas has introduced the tagline ‘Our spirit flies further’.
With renewed evidence drawn from the market research, I expect Qantas to develop a stronger tagline such as ‘Fly fresh’ or ‘Land fresh’.
If you can convince Australians that they can ‘land fresh in London’, both the leisure and business travellers will be queuing up to fly.
Marketing commentary by Michael Field, EvettField Partners – www.evettfield.com