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How digital can save airlines

April 22, 2021
About the author Kian T. GouldKian T. Gould
CEO & Founder AOE, Chairman Omnevo

Digital is the best solution for reassuring and re-engaging customers, while making the most of new revenue opportunities as the aviation and travel industries reopen.

This was the central theme of a panel featuring Omnevo Chairman Kian Gould and PriestmanGoode Managing Director Kirsty Dias at the World Aviation Festival this week. Strong viewpoints and engaging discussions were shared during the discussion, which also featured Arda Ener, User Experience and Industrial Designer at Turkish Airlines, and Vice President Design Development Operations at Marriott International Asia Pacific, Ralph Frehner. Addressing the title Digital to the Rescue, the group uncovered strong alignment on how digital can improve the customer experience going forward – and what stakeholders in the aviation sector can learn from their peers and other industries.

Here are some of the biggest talking points we identified during the lively and engaging event.

Recognizing and setting trends

Burgeoning trends and the exciting opportunities they provide were the focus of early discussion, ranging from customers’ demand for zero-touch processes and connectivity to the importance of maximizing the potential of loyalty programs. The common theme throughout was a need to fully integrate digital processes as this will help customers feel more comfortable as the world reopens. 

Many trends, such as a desire for sustainability or pre-planning of purchases, have been accelerated by the pandemic, panelists agreed. In particular, the past year has accelerated the demand for digital; in a rapidly changing world, lockdowns have created even more digital customers by bringing older shoppers – who many considered lost to e-commerce – into the digital realm. But a greater reliance on digital means that platforms must be carefully crafted to combine multiple disparate services (and revenue streams) in one place – no one will accept multiple apps to organize one journey.

Exciting opportunities also abounded in the discussion. Frehner highlighted that digital implementation is not exclusively for customer-facing services. Marriott’s use of digital learning platforms has allowed staff to train and educate themselves on the way to work, putting them one step closer to a promotion or pay-rise while they commute. Making digital a seamless part of the team’s life will make it easier to deploy to customers.

Excellence in action

With engagement more important than ever, Ener cited the boundless opportunities for innovation provided if airlines to collaborate with digital platforms which can both support passengers and help them to engage with the airlines as a brand. 
The success of Singapore Airlines in creating an omnichannel e-commerce business which is now bigger than its inflight retail ever was, stood out as an excellent example of deploying digital to its greatest effect.

Food for thought

The panelists engaged in a lively discussion about the enormous potential of F&B, which offers one of the best opportunities for generating revenue, improving sustainability, reducing waste, and boosting customer satisfaction. With an innovative and targeted deployment of new digital processes and thinking outside the box on current practices, airlines could create an F&B service that enhances the traveler experience and boosts revenue. In this light, it seems criminal that the sector is not the primary short-term focus of airlines and travel or travel retail stakeholders around the world.
Gould demonstrated the opportunities the sector holds by outlining Omnevo’s work with air service provider dnata for a major Middle Eastern airline, where a digital pre-order service has helped to reduce waste by up to 80%, with opportunities for upselling also created; for example, passengers can opt to purchase a meal which is not immediately available with their ticket, thereby generating more revenue for airlines and more satisfaction for travelers.
Frehner took the possibilities for revenue generation one step further, explaining that Marriott has begun to sell everything they offer in the hotel to customers – including the beds and towels. The ability to buy the wine you drink in the restaurant – with a possible mark-up – and take it home extends the experience for customers and turns the whole stay into an experiential retail event. 

Evolving from a service provider to a brand

The incredible potential of this evolution led the panelists to one conclusion: Airlines must, as Dias argued, become lifestyle brands in their own right. They must offer a tailored service that shifts seamlessly from digital to physical, with the same brand values communicated throughout. Indeed, this is what the modern consumer has come to expect.
Deploying digital correctly in this regard, Dias added, would allow airlines to better manage customers in the event of a disruption. Using better digital processes such as chatbots would increase customers’ confidence in using such services, but they must be combined with effective on-site support.
Meanwhile, Transport for London has delivered an excellent in-person example of crisis management, with regular and comforting messaging throughout the pandemic regarding safety protocols. These made customers feel reassured at a time of great uncertainty.

Rewarding loyalty

To develop this concept, the panel dissected that airline industry favorite: The loyalty scheme. In many cases, Gould argued, these are worth more than the airlines themselves. But how does the industry make them valuable to travelers who do not fly regularly? 
With leisure travelers expected to return faster than their business counterparts, the panel argued that loyalty points should be made available for convenience items rather than just upgrades. This is another example of identifying and developing potential revenue sources for the industry as it recovers.

Short-term wins: A long-term view

The enriching discussion drew a raft of key takeaways. If the sector wants to make the most of digital as the business recovers it requires a fresh look at the use of both loyalty schemes and F&B, to make the most of untapped revenue and engagement. Digital must also be developed to help customers feel supported and comfortable throughout their journey. F&B in particular offers a unique opportunity to deliver what customers want, while also reducing costs and increasing sustainability.
The certainties that used to exist are no longer present so a new approach is needed; digital can provide the solutions, but short-term wins must be part of a long-term strategy.