How the passenger experience has come full circle with the return of personalization

The shape of things to come,” proclaimed Imperial Airways, the colonial precursor to British Airways, in a 1936 advertisement for Short Empire Flying Boats. Its notice featured an artist’s impression of stately travelers boarding one of the revolutionary aircraft, which were due to enter service the following year. Imperial’s four-engine, double-decker Flying Boats had sleeping accommodation for 16 passengers, with cabin interiors comprising three large saloons, one kitchen, and one ever-essential smoking room. On day-time flights, its capacity stretched to 24.

Handling just 8,012 passengers in 1936/37, the airline’s idealistic vision of the future may have seemed reasonable at the time. Indeed, the travel norms of the time were factored into the fledgling air passenger experience. High-net-worth customers expected one-to-one service at all times, having become accustomed to such pampering on rail and sea transportation. 

Fast forward seven decades, however, to an age when 3 billion travelers take to the skies each year, and the prophecy of small-scale airborne luxury is hard to reconcile with modern-day reality. For a time it seemed the so-called Golden Age of aviation would become a distant memory as aviation experienced a gear-change from an era of extravagance to one of commoditization. But while economic realities have long since hit home in the airline industry, it is wrong to suggest the glory days of air travel are over. New technologies continue to evolve operational efficiency and on-board products, rekindling many of the more romanticized service propositions of yesteryear.

Back to the future

The airline industry has advanced leaps and bounds by nearly every conceivable metric; safety, speed, range, capacity, reliability, punctuality, choice, and price. Even the two perceived cornerstones of the Golden Age—comfort and convenience—have seen significant progress. Comfort has advanced profoundly when measured by turbulence, noise levels, cabin ergonomics, and seat design. Convenience cannot be disputed by anyone booking a flight, scheduled according to demand, with the swipe of a finger on their mobile phone. The challenge for airlines today is to accommodate the rose-tinted expectations of yesteryear without losing sight of practical cost constraints. Personalized service can create the illusion of VIP treatment, and technology is the key to unlocking its potential.

“Passengers tend to engage with airline businesses through the vertical stream,” explains Glenn Morgan, Head of Service Transformation at British Airways. “They start with the inspiration and selling stage, then they move to operational areas, and then they have a follow-up. But they go through individual silos. What we’re trying to do is look horizontally across the business—trying to join up the whole experience—so the customer has a single conversation all the way through the journey.”

British Airways has already issued 2,000 iPads to its cabin crew, enabling staff to personally greet passengers as they board the plane. “Previously, they were welcoming a blank face,” Morgan notes. “Now they know who they’re talking to, and what they should or shouldn’t be saying depending on customer feedback.” An in-house team of iPad developers has been tasked with creating apps tailored to the needs of employees looking to offer the best possible service to customers.

Although the devices are particularly useful in premium cabins, their potential for conflict resolution brings benefits to all categories of travelers.Baggage handlers can notify cabin crew of any mishandled luggage, for example, allowing staff to seek out and advise affected customers. This personal interaction fosters a sense of transparency and reassurance that can avert potential disputes. “Before, customers had to wait at a carousel for 45 minutes,” Morgan notes. “All the while the customer experience is steadily going downhill. Being proactive enlightens customers.”

Immediate impact

Similarly, by advancing standards for self-service options across the industry, IATA is helping to streamline process points and speed up the passenger experience, bringing back the immediacy of the early days of aviation. IATA’s Fast Travel program envisages that complete self-service suites will be available to 80% of global passengers by 2020. This will span the entire travel process: online, kiosk and mobile check-in; self-tagged bag drops; self-scanning document checks; kiosk flight re-booking; self-boarding; and missing bag notification. Removing the reliance on manned desks will empower customers to manage their own travel, much in the same way online banking revolutionized the personal finance industry. IATA is also part of a consortium examining intermodal products for the ultimate in seamless journeys.

Three other future developments are of note in the search for the perfect passenger experience. First, airlines are looking to become more agile at engineering their products and determining their offering to customers. Standards are being scrutinized that would enable dynamic product offerings based on multiple product components. New Distribution Capability is the catalyst to move away from a “one size fits all” seat price offer.

Second, a redesign of airline back office processes would enable a more effective and efficient customer ordering process that would help customer recognition and a consistent service offering. Despite the many advances in recent years, such as e-ticketing, the airline customer ordering process is still arranged around traditional, labor-intensive methods. 
Third is a proposal for a Universal Customer Travel Data Exchange. This would allow all stakeholders in the travel chain to recognize the customer through a unique customer identifier enabling better customer service, especially during disruption.

“Not all ideas will be brought to life and not all of those realized will transform the industry,” says Eric Léopold, IATA Director, Transformation, Financial and Distribution Services. “But some will. As an industry, we all need to consider every opportunity for setting standards and also challenging the norms. New customer behaviors are shaping the transformation in our industry.”

Convenience and cost

Challenges remain. The industry is still dominated by legacy systems and processes. And while there are also issues with the next generation of technologies such as mobile, a fundamental shift is underway. Ownership of the process is moving from the industry to the customer. The path to customer managed travel and true personalization has been set. And this modern version of personalization aligns convenience and cost, safeguarding the long-term health of the industry.

“Cost constraints are in the eye of the beholder,” says Jeff Foland, Executive Vice President of Marketing, Technology and Strategy at United Airlines. “If you earn a return on the investment, it makes sense to do it. For all of the features, benefits and services we’re layering on top of the core product, we have to do each of those on a disciplined basis.” In other words, the ever-rising tide of customer expectations in the modern era is actually a positive sign for an industry that relies on operational perfection and constant innovation. It is an opportunity for revenue and an opportunity to improve. “When people talk about the Golden Age of flying, it’s a lie,” concludes Thomas Winkelmann, Chief Executive Officer of Germanwings. “These were very slow, noisy aircraft, it was super expensive, and you were flying at 10,000ft through the clouds. Today is the Golden Age. What we need to do is just bring the humanity back to flying.”

The passenger journey

Prior to the Flying Boat, the air London to Sydney journey took 12.5 days. By 1938, the Flying Boat had reduced this to 9.5 days spanning 30 segments. The Sydney to Singapore leg alone required three overnight stops. Moreover, the single fare of £195 on the Kangaroo Route exceeded the average Briton’s annual salary.

Some loose parallels can perhaps be drawn between the service on Imperial’s Flying Boats and the flagship double-decker jets of a more contemporary operator. Emirates Airline was one of the first modern carriers to provide chauffeurs for all First Class and Business Class passengers, reviving a true sense of VIP treatment (although, today, drivers drop you off a little further from the aircraft). Its First Class Social Area—much like a bar offered by some of today’s airlines—embodies the spirit of Imperial’s smoking rooms.

A vision to the enable the perfect journey

Product Engineering

  • Innovative dynamic product determination capability
  • Total customer offer (ancillary & seat) Revenue Management
  • Faster and easier multi-channel product to market
  • Analytics and contextualized offering

Shop to Order

  • Modern data transmission standard between airlines and travel agents
  • Consistent multi-channel merchandising capability
  • Greater transparency and improved shopping experience for the customer

Order to Cash

  • New customer-centric architecture
  • Single record of order and purchase
  • Streamlined back-office processes