Improving Passenger Experience Could Drive Recovery
COVID-19 lockdowns were some of the greatest challenges the aviation industry faced in modern history. Two years after the start of the pandemic, with vaccination rates increasing globally and travel restrictions slowly decreasing, the aviation industry is beginning to recover while it keeps adapting to the uncertainty that continues permeating the sector. Besides recovering the lost passenger traffic, airlines must also deal with more demanding customers, who are looking for expediency, comfort and safety.
After lockdowns and travel restrictions put the aviation industry on hold during 2020, the industry has recovered as restrictions ease and passengers are increasingly willing to travel again. During 2021 aviation and tourism started to pick up but full recovery has been unequal between regions. To keep adapting to both uncertainty and higher user experience standards, airlines and airports have made their policies more flexible and have relied on technology to ease passengers’ fears and facilitate travel while keeping them protected.
Domestic travel within countries has shown the strongest recovery. During the past 18 months, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reports that domestic travel has recovered and is approaching its pre-COVID levels. Delta Airlines, for example, expects to see a 90 percent recovery during 2022 for its US domestic leisure flights, said Livier Bustos, General Manager Mexico, Delta Airlines. However, corporate travel is a different story, with Delta reporting that these flights remain at only 50 percent from 2019 levels. Business travel is expected to start recovering at a faster pace after 2H2022, as more workers head back to the office, which will eventually lead to the reactivation of business travel, said Bustos.
International flights are still reeling from the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 travel restrictions and the potential emergence of new COVID-19 variants and lockdowns. With vaccination rates and travel restrictions varying from country to country, passengers remain exposed to last-minute changes in their travel plans. “The airport or the airline is not the issue. The issue is the uncertainty during the entire process that begins when you start planning your trip. This is what creates anxiety before and during travel,” said Anthony Harcup, Senior Director of Airline Experience, Teague. To adapt, regain trust in traveling and face volatility, Harcup suggests alliances with travel agencies, which offer comfort and reassurance to customers during unpredictable changes. Travel agencies are now being used by 33 percent of travelers.
Passengers’ changes in travel behavior can also bring opportunities for airlines. With business travel on hold, passengers who were used to traveling in business class are now looking for more comfort when traveling on their own. Airlines have seen a sharp rising demand for premium economy seats, making them consistently overbooked, notes Harcup. Some airlines, such as Air France-KLM, are using its business capacity to create incentives for certain market segments that are currently not doing corporate travel, allowing potential flyers to use business class tickets for leisure travel, said Guilhem Mallet, General Manager, Air France-KLM Group in Mexico.
In the reactivation of international travel, governments play a crucial role. With diverse health policies and travel restrictions, mobility remains complex for international passengers, leading industry associations to approach governments to simplify and align these diverse requirements. For example, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) works with governments to convince them that the implementation of easier, simple and more aligned travel requirements that are integrated to global best practices will incentivize passengers to travel internationally again. “Dealing with health authorities was never at the center of the aviation industry operation until the pandemic. We had to learn their dynamics and drivers to collaborate together,” said Filipe Pereira, Regional Director, the Americas Airport, Passenger, Cargo and Security, IATA. Collaboration with governments remains key for the sector’s reactivation.
Policies implemented by airlines are crucial to their recovery as they can improve passenger experience throughout the entire process. “Removing most change fees in the face of unpredictable travel restrictions helps gain trust back from travelers,” said Bustos.
However, diverse policies and options increase complexity for passengers when planning their trips. “The pandemic pushed airlines to adapt and change their policies, making it hard for passengers to keep up. Now passengers have more responsibility than before to be very well informed, here is where developing technology to facilitate the process and understanding of options becomes relevant for air travel to reactivate,” said Lise Vives, Country Manager, Kayak Mexico.
As the world begins to overcome COVID-19, the goal in the aviation industry is to get passengers to fly again, as it is essential for economic recovery. Restrictions and uncertainty may remain in the short term so both airlines and passengers will have to keep adapting to changing realities. As countries and regions cease restrictions for mobility and leisure, passengers will increasingly resume their travel plans. With the implementation of all the lessons learned in the past two years, increased flexibility, exceptional customer service and technology will help the aviation industry to recover.