Opinion: Five drivers that will shape the new reality of the aviation business

For more than a decade, I have had the chance to work with airlines and airports from all over the world to design engaging passenger experiences, from physical to digital, from loyalty programs to entirely new cabin experiences. All challenges were unique and so were the results. But now, everyone is in the same position. And it’s not a nice one.

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For more than a decade, I have had the chance to work with airlines and airports from all over the world to design engaging passenger experiences, from physical to digital, from loyalty programs to entirely new cabin experiences. All challenges were unique and so were the results. But now, everyone is in the same position. And it’s not a nice one.

However, the most important fact to remember is quite simple: Travelling won’t disappear.

Although we’re currently experiencing an unprecedented state of travel restrictions, our world will still be connected on the other side. We’ll still be travelling but the experience of it will be different.

Customers will have significantly changed expectations, and those aviation brands who anticipate and adapt to these changed expectations will be the ones who remain relevant. Executives should already be planning strategies for how to re-design their services to this new reality in order to re-establish their previous revenue and, even more importantly, ignite future revenue opportunities that currently may not even exist.

Changes are coming, and I believe what’s next in aviation will be shaped by five drivers:

  1. Regaining trust in the system

  2. Designing for (social) distancing

  3. Going even more digital — a lot more

  4. Personal safety will determine loyalty

  5. Predictable customer journeys will disappear

Regaining trust in the system

People have been deeply rattled by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, for most brands, rebuilding trust with consumers should start immediately. For aviation brands, this is probably the most challenging part as the fear of being closely confined with a lot of people won’t go away easily.

84% of passengers are feeling afraid to travel before the virus is fully contained¹.

As such, it will be essential for aviation brands to look at all aspects of their current customer journey to identify crucial opportunities for building trust, and the critical areas where it risks being lost. Once the travel bans are lifted, people will choose to travel with the services they feel most comfortable with.

If they feel safe, they will travel. If not, they’ll wait.

That’s why it’s essential to consider building trust as a decisive factor going forward.

Designing for (social) distancing

When thinking of current travel restrictions, the most likely scenario is, that they won’t all be lifted gradually and not at once. We will see a period of gradual easing of restrictions, but also in some cases the re-introduction of tougher restrictions. During this period, keeping a distance will become the new premium, and for service brands that involve physical environments — such as airports and ground transportation for example — it will be essential to flexibly adjust service offerings according to shifting levels of restriction.

Redesigning ground processes, services and customer interactions should be done now in anticipation of the first gradual easing of restrictions after the lockdown. Being mindful of designing for social distancing, and thus enabling for flexible operation, can increase trust in brands and it will even create new revenue opportunities going forward.

Going even more digital — a lot more

Going forward, passengers will also be looking for services that reduce human contact as much as possible, and especially in places with a high amount of human traffic from many different destinations such as an airport. Uncertainty, even partial fear, of being too close to strangers in public places will be the new standard mentality for many people.

As a consequence, all new services or products must be designed digital-first. Services that involve personal human-to-human interaction might fully disappear. But, this will drive the progression of more new digital revenue streams — streams that also will stay after COVID-19. As such, brands must now put an effort into even more digital services, including some entirely new revenue models, or else they won’t be able to stay competitive — not now and not later.

Personal safety will determine loyalty

We will see a significant change in what defines passenger loyalty. In the pre-COVID19 vaccine period, brand loyalty will not primarily be determined by points, upgrades or access to lounges. It will be driven by how safe travellers feel during their journey.

Travellers will demand transparency on the measures taken to keep them safe, they will expect simple-to-follow rules and they will value easy-to-understand communication. Consumers will choose providers that will be able to continuously deliver a high level of personal safety and transparency with their products and services, as they put personal safety at the top of their travel choices. Key aspects in this will be frequent access to sanitation, social distancing and having access to as many digital and contactless services as possible. In the short term, a thing such as continuous access to hand sanitisers will be seen as more valuable than frequent flyer point promotions.

Predictable customer journeys will disappear

The time of the predictable customer journey is over. Depending on their behaviour, risk assessments, trust in services and brands, consumers will want to uniquely build their experiences and journeys will become individual. Some will want to skip most touchpoints, others will want services that don’t exist today, some will want services that are essential to them personally but not relevant to fellow travellers (i.e. think of high-risk groups with a strong need for physical distancing all the way from curb-side to airplane seat). Future products, services and experiences must be designed so that they can work entirely independently, allowing each journey to be mixed-and-matched and easily adjustable based on the current state of COVID-19 restrictions and the corresponding request from products and services from passengers.

And to most people, it won’t matter who provides that services, but it will matter who curates them and how they are made available, consumable and smoothly connected to their individual travel needs. Future customer experiences will be non-linear, and they will mostly not follow predictable customer journeys.

Going forward with travel restrictions being slowly lifted and air travel slowly re-starting, the real challenge for airlines and airports will not be to imagine a pre-COVID19 vaccine travel future but to deliver it. There won’t be much time to build it and there won’t be many chances to fail without becoming irrelevant as a brand, so better buckle up and accept the challenges now.

The next decade might only take 2 years.

¹IATA Passenger Insights Study, April 2020, IATA.org