Airline industry execs warn passenger experience improvements can’t be left up in the air

Fehr data shows what's dominating conversations among travellers, while Diehl Aviation imagines the cabin of the furture

“I don’t want to touch anything.”

“My neighbour isn’t wearing a mask.”

“What are the rules?”

It’s hard to capture the full range of questions and concerns passengers may have before they board an plane again, but anticipating and preparing a response is the only way for airlines to recover, executives told the virtual Passenger Experience Conference on Wednesday.

According to more 950 million conversations in passenger datasets it collects, for example, Lake Forest, Calif.-based Fethr has seen that most people continue to look at airlines as the “voice of authority” regarding safe travel.

That said, its vice-president of business development Patrick Prefontaine suggested there is mounting confusion and frustration over what puts them at risk and what doesn’t.

“Airlines that are actually creating portals and updating the information regularly are getting a lot more positive sentiment,” Prefontaine said, adding that customers primarily want to see consistent messaging, promises kept and a human touch. ”Passengers remember, and passenger loyalty will be affected by how the industry responds during this crisis.”

Fethr, which provides artificial intelligence applications and big data services to the airline industry, has identified eight different “battlegrounds” where customers will ultimately be won or lost. These include frequent communication that is aligned across channels and is not delivered after the fact but throughout the entire passenger journey.

“They’re open to airlines over-communicating to them right now,” Prefontaine said.

Conversations about service availability have risen 97 per cent in the last six months, meanwhile, and mentions about airline response times have skyrocketed 141 per cent over the same period.

Prefontaine said a lot of these conversations are denominated with questions about voucher redemptions and whether or not staff are properly equipped to solve basic problems. There has also been a 139 per cent increase in conversations about air miles and point balances.

Overshadowing everything, of course, are conversations about airline safety and sanitation, which have risen 692 per cent in the last six months, and the sentiment is positive in 17 per cent of cases.

Inside the Cabin

Air industry suppliers are already thinking through how they can best address some of those concerns. This includes Diehl Aviation, which manufacturers cabin interiors and aircraft supplies.

Helge Sachs, the firm’s vice-president of product innovation, noted there was a wide variety of responses from airlines so far to alleviate safety and hygiene concerns, from the use of “fogging” to clean seats to equipping crew in full-body anti-contamination suits. 

Initially, Diehl Aviation sees an opportunity to help by creating placards and projection technology to communicate safety and distancing rules, as well as masks dispensers, sanitizer dispensers and special light and fragrance scenarios.

At the same time, however, Sachs showed mockups of prototype cabin environments where air is circulated vertically between seats instead of “air rolls” that circulate ultra-fine particles and the use of active air humidification.

Mobile phones to book the lavatory, meanwhile, may soon become common, as is the ability to reserve luggage space in there overhead bins. The doors of those bins, as well as almost anything in the lavatory, will likely become touchless, Sachs said, while UV light could be used as part of the cleaning process afterwards.

While much of the technology required for these changes has been available for some time, Sachs suggested airlines have been reluctant to make some of the necessary spending decisions, even after COVID-19.

“They think the recovery will happen by itself,” he said. “All these measures and technologies need to be retrofitted, minimally invasive and inexpensive.”

Anything to eat, drink or buy?

Another key aspect of the traditional passenger experience has been buying food and retail items, but Prefontaine said conversations about apprehension around open plates and eating without the use of masks is up 110 per cent.

This may cause passengers to bring their own food, he said. In other cases, airlines may need to be more vocal about the quality of their food sources and supply chains.

Another option is to facility off-flight dining by providing vouchers to use in an airport or destination city, he said.

Jaime Moreno, CEO of Spanish design consultancy Mormedi, encouraged airlines to be creative in what they provide passengers in lieu of traditional amenities.

“If, for example you’re not selling food on board, but why not be able to reserve (food) and have it in a doggy bag when you get off the plane?” he said. “You’re flying in a different way — and in many cases it’s not pleasant. If you want to recover so people don’t get scared of travelling again, you need to offer value to these new circumstances.”

Similarly, consumers may be less likely to buy onboard but might order more online. That means airlines should look to increase the range or products offered, as well as enhance “destination services” that not only let them book tours but help them understand what activities are available at their destination and what restrictions may be in place.

“We need to differentiate between hardware improvements that will take two to three years and how we can innovate in service layer,” Moreno said. “This requires serial investment in terms of capex, rethinking the process and the whole passenger experience.”

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