There is no doubt that many airlines have been experiencing a sense of suspension these past 12 months, caught somewhere between a dream of new possibilities and a nightmare of present reality.
Some have moved on from this freeze frame to focus on cost reduction, digitalization of the customer experience, automation, and restructuring their organizations in previously unimagined ways.
Come the second half of this year, airlines will be back to chasing customers again.
Most will be anxious to showcase their updated experiences, tailored to the current situation, while at the same time reassuring customers that the immaculate service and personal attention for which they are renowned is still in place.
But will that be sufficient to attract travelers back?
The returning customer’s expectations of airlines will be more informed by their recent experiences – more expansive, more diverse – acknowledging the new influences shaping life today and for many years to come.
We are about to witness an era of disruption to the luxury, five-star hospitality model. All the traditional five-star razzle dazzle may not remain relevant to customers.
Yes, they will still want comfort, they will still want attention and they will still want the best space their money can buy. But comfort, attention and room to move will no longer be enough to make five-star airlines world class.
The new world class airline experience
Has to acknowledge changed customer priorities in relation to safety, health, well-being, sustainability, service appropriateness, design integrity and empathy.
For airlines, the new focus on safety manifests itself in numerous thought-provoking ways.
Customers being thrust into close proximity of others is now anxiety-inducing. Not having to linger in the aisle while waiting for the bathroom becomes a new imperative. Being tightly packed into the jet bridge will remain something to be avoided.
How an airline manages these changed safety expectations and other less visible concerns is what will elevate them from five star to world class. Customers are anxious about their journeys and the standards the airline sets for their travel which is why in-cabin design has become more important. Well-designed environments convey a sense of care and attention to detail that make customers more comfortable.
Central to the concept of world class is an airline’s ability to demonstrate empathy and compassion – listening to what customers want and responding with relevant and meaningful communication, which is embraced by every employee. One key customer concern that has emerged as a result of recent experiences is the importance of sustainability – being able to provide what we need without waste.
This is an issue airlines face every day whether in relation to air or water quality, landfill overflow, incineration of uneaten, onboard food that causes harm to communities living near incinerators or sending disposable plastic cups and dishes to landfill.
Some four billion single-use plastic cups are produced annually for airline economy passengers. As yet, the aviation industry has no universal, end-of-life solution other than sending these plastics to landfill or incineration.
World class airlines engage in sustainability initiatives and demonstrate a circular mindset in their pursuit of end-of-life solutions for non-rotables.
As travelers become better informed about issues of sustainability, new expectations are created around Food and Beverage – reduction in waste by the avoidance of packaged and overly processed food in favor of something more authentic.
Food waste is a major issue for all airlines, not only as a cost, but also as an environmental issue. IATA reports that it is possible for up to 20% of food loaded on long-haul aircraft to end up as waste at the end of the flight.
Committing unconsumed food and plastic to landfill or incineration is not a world-class solution.
These are elements that define a more environmentally aware approach to onboard cuisine.
The world class airline today cares about the world and reaches out to customers by demonstrating empathy and engagement with their new expectations of the travel experience.