A Post-COVID-19 Strategy for Airline Passenger Experience

Airplane taking off from the airport.

Understandably, the COVID-19 pandemic brought most travel to a halt, creating significant turbulence in the airline industry. As airlines continue to respond to daunting new challenges, they remain focused on maintaining customer trust and paving the way for quick recovery once operations fully return.

But during times of constraint, creativity often expands to meet existing and new needs. Airlines can continue the innovation and transformation prompted by the pandemic with insights gained from how the customer journey was pressure-tested. This creativity could set the stage for the future of travel.

To identify what airlines should prioritize to recover rapidly and optimize revenues post-COVID-19, we revisited our Adobe digital benchmarking assessment conducted in 2019. This comprehensive, data-driven analysis of 20 global airlines uncovered five top-of-mind questions among airline executives charged with accelerating their companies’ digital transformations.

Here’s a look at those questions, how airlines answered them, and what insights can help organizations respond to today’s challenges and drive business objectives after COVID-19.

1. Which direct channel is most important for prioritizing digital experiences: desktop, mobile web, or mobile app?

Across all industries, most conversions still happen on the desktop. Yet, mobile is still critical, with 83% growth in mobile Web traffic since 2016 versus a 10% drop for desktop, according to Adobe Digital Insights.

We see this trend reflected in the airline industry: Travelers look to mobile for initial inspiration and information, and then many move to desktop to select seats or baggage options and to pay. This makes connecting mobile with desktop vital to drive seamless bookings.

“Rather than focusing on one channel, it’s critical to recognize each one’s role in the customer journey,” says Jasmine Perillo, a digital strategy consultant at Adobe.

United Airlines, which syncs loyalty customers’ recent search histories across channels, understands the opportunity. Their travelers can start browsing via the mobile web and then easily shift to desktop to put the finishing touches on their itineraries. Other airlines, including Delta, are responding to their increasingly savvy loyalty customers by streamlining mobile processes to let them book a flight in just one click. More importantly now, travelers can modify their itineraries seamlessly across devices and channels, including via mobile messages.

Many airlines also recognize the role of mobile apps for day-of-travel communications and functions. If social distancing continues, for example, demand for online check-in and preordering of products in airports may increase. Some airlines are already well on their way to accommodating this shift. For example, the American Airlines app can sync with Siri, Apple’s voice assistant, to let travelers check in, check flight status, determine travel time to the airport, and order food from airport restaurants to take on board.

Mobile will continue to play a critical in-trip role and also help to mitigate sanitation concerns. When travelers start to fly again, they will expect airlines to have measures in place to protect their health and safety. Airlines should embrace this, to identify high-value mobile features and innovations they can add to their offerings to meet this new wave of needs. Airlines should also ensure that data is integrated across channels for a seamless experience.

2. What will distinguish the airlines leading the way with best-in-class experiences?

Coming into 2020, the airline industry as a whole was in the midst of a digital transformation. COVID-19 brings even more pressure to accelerate these initiatives. Although individual airlines excel in certain areas, no single leader has emerged. Airlines can look to the retail industry, which was ahead of the game even before COVID-19, and has set expectations for best practices by all consumer brands.

“Digital experiences are becoming more like human interactions as retailers learn who each customer is and create experiences personalized for them,” Perillo says. “That means retailers have moved beyond explicit preferences, and they are digging deeper to determine implicit desires and offer up recommendations for matching products and services.”

Similarly, travelers expect airlines to take into account their travel history, preferences, and behaviors, and then suggest relevant new destinations, preferred fare class and seats, and intriguing activities. For example, customers who visit the AirAsia website for the first time receive recommendations for destinations and deals based on location and nearest airport. But if the customer researches travel to Bangkok, for example, the site updates to reflect this interest. On the next visit, the web content may automatically highlight popular activities in Bangkok.

This can be extended into a real-life example from COVID-19. During the pandemic, many travelers’ trips were either disrupted or canceled. When customer sentiment about travel improves, airlines can take advantage of previous trip interests. They can look for similar options based on flight schedules or offer alternatives, taking into consideration COVID-19 restrictions and customer behavior.

Relevancy is not the only driver for exceptional experiences; they also need to be smooth and frictionless – and, as much as possible, contactless in the physical world. Digital has been a crucial vehicle during this pandemic to manage communications and offload customer support from call centers. If social distancing continues for an extended time, airlines may need to rely more on digital to replace high-touch experiences with low- or no-touch access. For example, Delta and British Airways use technologies like facial recognition to expedite airport check-in and RFID tracking to improve baggage handling.

Another opportunity: Mobile apps can give passengers the security of minimal exposure to surfaces during their flights. This may mean replacing in-flight hard-copy safety instructions and reading material with digital content, or switching to “bring-your-own-device” features to replace and/or control in-flight entertainment screens. This may also open up extensive opportunities for airlines through new insights into passengers’ interests and behaviors, enabling them to serve the right content at the right time and place.

3. How can digital help manage the negative impact of critical operational challenges like flight disruption?

Even before COVID-19, more than half of airline travelers (55%) had experienced a travel disruption in the past year, according to the International Air Transport Association’s “2019 Global Passenger Survey.” For airlines, disruption is the primary factor impacting customer loyalty.

“Airlines can’t control disruptions, and COVID-19 has caused unparalleled and unanticipated disruptions across the entire airline ecosystem,” says Julie Hoffmann, global head of Industry Strategy & Marketing, Travel, Hospitality & Dining at Adobe. “What airlines can control is a response that supports travelers through fast recovery, accurate communication, and personalized handling using the self-service tools and channels most accessible for the customer.”

The investments airlines have made into digital have helped tremendously and are reflected in their ability to meet demands during this time. More than half of U.S. Internet users (54%) approve of how airlines have handled the COVID-19 outbreak, according to GlobalWebIndex.

Best practices when disruptions occur require taking three steps as quickly as possible, says Vincent Lacroix, head of disruption solutions at global travel technology company Amadeus. Those steps are to detect the disruption, implement a plan, and execute the plan.

“’We’re working on it’ is never enough,” Lacroix says. Airlines should accompany a status update with a default recovery option communicated through digital channels. Then customers can take charge, engaging with the airline to select the best option for them.

In recent months, Amadeus has worked with airlines to minimize disruption arising from COVID-19. In fact, the company has processed nearly 2.5 million re-accommodation transactions per day for its customers, up from a typical volume of just 150,000 per day, according to a blog post by Julia Sattel, president of airlines at Amadeus. In addition, Amadeus has been advising airlines on how best to use system capabilities and products to manage disruption. For example, updating previous fare rules allowed travel agents and passengers to change tickets themselves, eliminating the need for manual involvement by the airline and lessening call center workload.

For a seamless customer journey, using digital technologies to support recovery after disruption must also progress horizontally to ground transportation, hotels, and other services. In a January 2020 LinkedIn post, Bjoern Becker, senior director at Lufthansa Product Management Ground & Digital Services, introduced hotel booking with no lines or vouchers. If a Lufthansa flight is cancelled and travelers need a hotel, the airline will send them a link so they can reserve a room online at the airline’s cost.

“[It’s] the next step towards a 100% digital supported journey,” Becker wrote.

4. How can airlines deliver exceptional experiences and capture value?

“For digital capabilities to be a competitive edge, airlines must have strong, extensible operations and a technology foundation,” says Albert Bahar, head of digital strategy, Travel & Hospitality, at Adobe. “That lets airlines deliver best-in-class experiences, capture optimal value, and elevate capabilities going forward.”

The required foundation rests on three pillars:

Airlines should assess current digital capabilities, ensure their teams are fully adopting the tools they have, and invest in the necessary technology that the don’t — supported by a service-centric operating model — to drive meaningful customer relationships. By building the right backbone across these pillars, airlines can position themselves effectively to recover rapidly and drive growth after COVID-19.

5. What can we expect for the airline industry’s future?

Needless to say, the airline industry is having a watershed moment. While the future of passenger demand remains uncertain, the airlines that take this time to plan their return and embrace data-driven decisions and new digital opportunities, will set themselves up to emerge stronger as we come out of the pandemic.

A traveler’s journey is complex and, as customers begin to resume travel, airlines will need to reassess the end-to-end experience to accommodate shifts in customer expectations. Customer experience is the sum of each micro-experience that consumers have with a company. Airlines will need to work more closely with others in the travel ecosystem to connect these touchpoints and deliver a seamless experience all while ensuring customer safety. These partnerships – whether for marketing purposes or operations – can enable airlines, hotels, tour operators, and others to redefine the new normal for travel together and build stronger customer relationships.

Providing exceptional experiences starts with stitching together the first-party data airlines own with the third-party data gathered from other sites and platforms, so carriers can know their customers more intimately. In addition, partnerships across the ecosystem, such as hotels, tour operators, and credit card loyalty programs, can supply second-party data to tailor each customer’s profile and experiences.

To benefit from all of that data, airlines on the forefront are investing in data warehouses and data lake repositories. Technology like analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning help provide a full view of the customer. This data intelligence will be important to define and prioritize the right segments to target initially. Passengers should represent segments that are more likely to book first and travel post-pandemic, such as leisure travelers, Millennials, and, later, business travelers. By marrying the trends airlines are seeing in online searches, such as destinations and dates, with data partnerships, including hotel searches and bookings, and also customer profiles, airlines can target these segments with the best experiences — destinations, packages, and promotions – in real time to drive passenger demand.

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