Few industries have been as impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as commercial air travel. In the last few months, many airlines shut their doors and are laying off large sections of their workforce (1,2). It is reported that airlines worldwide are losing $1.6 billion USD per day (3). The effects of the pandemic on airlines’ revenue have been drastic.
This begs the question of how airlines plan to recover financially. Even with government bailouts, the future of many airlines is uncertain. Traditional efforts to increase revenue, such as using analytics platforms to gather customer metrics and deliver targeted ads, product deals and promotions, are unlikely to work. This strategy of squeezing as much revenue as possible out of customers will ultimately fail if customers don’t return in full force to air travel.
Therefore, financial recovery will not come by focusing on analytics that try to increase revenue, but by designing solutions that improve the customer experience and motivate them to return again and again.
But where to start?
Steps Airlines Have Already Taken
Airlines are already putting in many procedures intended to improve the experience for customers. Some include cleaning planes, handing out disinfectant kits, highlighting existing safety practices, limiting contact with the crew, and offering refunds and flexible bookings (4,5).
Other measures have been more drastic like Emirates airlines running blood samples to test for COVID-19 before letting passengers board. Although this measure might be intended to improve the overall customer experience by taking extra precaution, it is making some customers more reluctant to fly (6).
So, what other steps can airlines take to focus their recovery efforts on the customer experience?
Recovering With Customer Experience Principles
According to various reports on customer experience design, there are a number of principles championed in user-centered design that have and will continue to help airlines recover. Two principles focused specifically on communication with customers are put forth here.
Align Communication Channels
Going forward, passengers will want information that helps them ‘protect their health [and] satisfy[…] their desire to travel”(7). For a long time, information available to the customer was not comprehensive and depended a lot of who they spoke to at the airline. This resulted in frustration and time wasted if one airline department was unable to provide information maintained by another.
Because of this, JetBlue invested in a new customer support system in 2017 that streamlined communications between departments. This system delivers a wide variety of essential customer information to an airline rep working with customers such as customer contact info, past and upcoming flights, and the entire history of customer interactions with the airline, information which was originally siloed in separate channels (8).
A system that aligns each part of the airline will not only improve communication with the customer but also help airlines protect the health of their customers. By prioritizing information customers need to promote and safeguard their health, airlines can ensure a positive experience for customers by helping them feel more confident about flying.
While many experts are talking about increasing the size of airports to facilitate social distancing or redesigning airplane interiors for easier removal and cleaning, it is important to include customers in these design decisions (7,9).
KLM is giving the passenger a voice by having them participate in improving the customer experience through the airline’s X-Gates program. X-Gates is a prototyping environment right in the airport that seeks to improve the customer experience by eliciting feedback from customers on designs and services that can be tested in a manner of days (10).
Missteps like Emerites’ taking blood samples to screen for COVID-19 might have been avoided if the airline had empowered users to provide timely feedback.
This method would help airlines and airports test out what might make the biggest impact on the comfort and experience of their passengers. It would also enable them to get valuable feedback before spending vast amounts of money overhauling some aspect of their experience with little effect.
Flight Going Forward
A question many are asking themselves currently is what it will take for them to feel comfortable riding on an airplane. As the dust settles on aviation travel, and attitudes toward it are reevaluated, airlines would do well to follow principles focused on the customer experience like aligning key customer communication channels and empowering customers to provide feedback on the experience. This will enable airlines to shape their customer strategy going forward and expedite financial recovery.