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Planning for a new era of air travel

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the aviation sector and commercial travel to an unprecedented halt. It’s still unclear if and when passengers will return to pre-Covid-19 numbers. What we do know is that the road to recovery will take time.

Without anything directly comparable in its impact and scale to Covid-19, we can look to the restoration of the sector post 9/11. It took three years for passenger volumes to return to levels comparable with the 2001 summer peak. The challenge of Covid-19 will require even higher levels of international standardisation and co-operation.

The sector is feeling its way towards recovery through evolving advice from governments and regulators. Very soon, airports and airlines will have to convince passengers that it’s safe and desirable to return. To do so requires thinking differently about how to make the whole experience of flying bearable in the short-term and fit-for-purpose and resilient in the longer term.

For many, the rebuilding effort has already started with restructured, leaner businesses tackling an array of challenges simultaneously, including:

  • How to operate while adhering to new hygiene and social distancing guidelines?
  • How to manage passenger adherence to new guidelines on the ground and in the air?
  • How to stem the sharp fall in revenue?
  • How to rebuild passengers’ confidence to travel again?
  • How to invest in the right systems and technologies to enable new ways of operating and ensure these are adopted?
    Planning the recovery and understanding how to weigh-up the immediate priorities alongside longer-term investments can be complicated. In the first instance, you need to establish where you are and what your focus should be. Restarting a service that’s been impossible to operate during the lockdown is the focus for some businesses. In others, the urgency is to reconfigure the service so that it works within a continually changing operating environment. For some companies, there’s a more fundamental challenge and opportunity to reimagine a service and commercial model completely.

Restart your service

Making the best of a difficult situation
The immediate focus has rightly been on responding to the impact of the lockdown; dealing with the loss in revenue, restructuring operations to save cost and the repatriation of passengers. As flights restart and airports reopen, the new urgency is to get passengers flying again and airports and airlines profitable and stable.

With this backdrop, it’s tempting to think that the design and development of the passenger experience is not a priority. Designing a post-Covid passenger and frontline colleague experience is central to the recovery of the sector.

Passengers have changed. Right now, the industry has to understand how passengers have changed, think differently and balance the need for procedural compliance with the new emotional landscape for passengers. Passengers will only be convinced to come back if they feel safe and can see that airlines and airports have recognised their new anxieties. The need for passengers to feel informed, pass through the airport without friction and feel safe and relaxed in-flight are more crucial than ever. Airports need to design-in new steps and interventions, such as taking passengers’ temperatures and managing quarantine regulations, in ways that don’t create additional anxiety and feel positive overall. All this needs careful consideration and to be designed with passengers in mind.

Key questions to answer when restarting your service for passengers include:

  • How do we respond to passengers’ new attitudes and needs around safety, segregation and comfort when flying?
  • How do we encourage and manage compliance with new rules and procedures?
  • How do we communicate to customers throughout their journey so they adhere to the latest regulations but can still enjoy their flight?
  • How do we deal with exceptions, for example, those with invisible disabilities who may not be able to comply?
  • How do we avoid large groups of people gathering in confined spaces such as check-in, immigration, security, boarding gates or on the aircraft?
  • How do we reduce or remove physical contact between people and between people and surfaces?
  • How do we create consistency and standards across all our aviation and non-aviation sector partners, so the journey for passengers is as frictionless and intuitive as possible?
  • How do we phase our frontline teams back to work and keep them safe so they can serve customers to the best of their ability without anxiety?
    Resolving these questions and maintaining traction will require airports and airlines to adopt new ways of working.
  • Aviation businesses need a greater understanding of how passengers’ needs and attitudes are changing to inform service and experience design.
  • Product and service development and operational teams need to work even more closely to develop new processes and experiences that are compliant and great for passengers.
  • More active communication with passengers and the airport community to ensure the passenger experience is joined-up.
  • Airports have a role to play for their tenants, helping these businesses operate safely and profitably while collaborating to provide a great experience.
  • Increased agility is needed to implement quickly in response to the ever-evolving operating environment.
  • Improved collaboration and knowledge sharing across partners and competitors are required so all can learn from the best responses to the crisis.

Reconfigure your service

Identifying changes that are here to stay
A successful recovery will in part come from identifying which of the changes made during the early response to Covid-19 are here to stay and will become the new normal for air travel. Determining this brings focus for new products, services and capabilities and will inform how we’ll need to begin to re-educate passengers on how to be in, move through and enjoy airports and flying again.

For all the disruption Covid-19 has brought, it has accelerated (rather than radically changed) many of the longer-term trends the industry has recognised but often been slow to address.

For instance, safety, efficiency and customer service have long been the cornerstones for airlines, but now health and wellbeing are here to stay too. Already, Etihad has launched their Wellness Ambassadors to look after passengers’ health while onboard, and we can expect more customers to look to airlines that have credentials in this area.

Also likely is greater integration of smartphone technology as an enabler of a contactless end-to-end experience. Smartphones, coupled with higher uptake of biometric passports, may be the tipping point for the mass adoption of these technologies across regions. If this happens, airline and airport operational teams will benefit from even more real-time passenger data, with the potential to remove even more friction from the passenger experience.

Reconfiguring requires tuning-in to the most significant and valuable operational and behavioural changes so far and investing in them. The contenders will likely be those that balance the requirements of the industry with the needs of passengers.

Key questions to answer when reconfiguring your service for passengers include:

  • What are the proof-points for passengers that demonstrate they are safe, the journey is clean and is compliant with regulations?
  • What control and level of choice do passengers now want when travelling? How has this changed, and what do we need to do to cater to these new needs?
  • What’s needed to ensure staff can engage and support passengers?
  • Which touchpoints and interactions should we redesign first, and how?
  • What are the barriers inadvertently created for some passengers accessing ‘Covid resistant’ services, and how can we remove them?
    What additional levels of service do our most anxious passengers need now?
  • Is there a VIP experience in a Covid-resistant operating environment? If so, what does it look like, what are the risks and how should it be marketed?
    Organisations that successfully reshape their service will need to evolve. To reconfigure their services, organisations will need to:
  • Identify the changes that are here to stay and find solutions within the area of overlap between passenger needs and industry requirements.
  • Revise their end-to-end passenger experience strategy to guide the development of a frictionless, joined-up journey for passenger.
  • Re-evaluate planned initiatives and create a balanced portfolio of projects towards a single view of the reconfigured state.
    Invest sensibly in technologies and manage the change for passengers and staff.
  • Improve stakeholder collaboration to bring a single, shared plan to fruition.
  • Shorten product development cycles and use this as an opportunity to work with partners, stakeholders and customers to test solutions and get the delivery right.

Reimagine your service

Challenging the model
The English language proverb, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ seems particularly apt. With significant disruption comes the opportunity to think differently and reimagine the products and services you provide.

As borders reopen and the industry restores passengers’ confidence, aero revenue will return. Yet, the more exciting opportunity is to challenge long-standing models of non-aero income that haven’t seen a radical change in the last 80 years of commercial aviation.

Duty-Free shopping is ready for disruption. As online shopping overtakes shopping in physical stores, and passengers enjoy increased choice, personalisation and higher levels of convenience, the retail offer at airports and onboard looks outmoded.

An enhanced retail experience, coupled with increased adoption of tracking and biometric technology, give us opportunities to serve customers with information and services wherever they are in the airport and at any point in their home-to-home journey.

Key questions to answer when reimagining your service for passengers include:

  • What are the prevalent retail behaviours of passengers, and how might these inform new shopping experiences while travelling?
  • What does it mean for passengers to have choice, convenience and personalisation when it comes to shopping while travelling?
  • What are the opportunities to bring products and services to passengers no matter where they are and what they might need?
  • How do we blend physical and virtual services to provide an experience unique to air travel?
    To reimagine services organisations need to:
  • Challenge assumptions to create a view of the future, unbound of the organisation’s historical retail model.
  • Establish a clear and compelling vision for passenger services.
  • Define a future operating model and target passenger experience from which to work backwards.
  • Work with all stakeholders to get buy-in and collaborate to realise the vision.
  • Find experts and visionaries outside the organisation that can challenge assumptions about how people shop, eat and drink and inspire with examples of what today’s technology can enable.
  • Understand the potential of future technologies and how these will shape behaviours and ways of operating.
    The challenges are significant. Yet the unprecedented disruption to the industry from Covid-19 can and should be seen as an opportunity to envision a new era of air travel.

Success requires organising operational, commercial and product development efforts around a unified vision and plan, with the single focus of providing passengers with a safe and pleasurable experience again.

Considering three phases or workstreams will give you focus and ensure the right people in your organisation are working on the right things.

  1. Do what’s needed to restart your service safely.
  2. Reconfigure your service and the passenger experience to design-in new operating requirements and design for the new emotional landscape for passengers and frontline staff.
  3. Disrupt historical models of non-aero revenue to reimagine your service and commercial model.
    As part of Engine’s ‘Lead out of Lockdown’ webinar series, we’ll be delving into each phase in more detail to explore how to answer some of the key questions and what others are beginning to do to get back on track.

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