Nearly two years after the declaration of a global pandemic, airports across the map are buzzing with travelers once again. Parking decks are fuller, security lines are longer, and planes are more crowded, testing passengers’ patience and airlines’ performance as they swiftly adapt to changing consumer expectations and demand.
The 2021 U.S. Thanksgiving holiday saw a drastic increase in air travel, with almost 2.5 million passengers being screened by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Sunday, November 28. While additional variants of the coronavirus disease may present renewed travel restrictions, airlines are poised to continue their ramp-up toward pre-pandemic numbers of bookings, flights and passengers.
From adopting and enforcing health and safety procedures to widespread staffing shortages and beyond, it has been a season of adaptation for the airline industry — and for travelers themselves. With this new era of travel comes new customer expectations that will define consumers’ experiences with travel and hospitality brands. By implementing an effective customer experience management strategy, airlines and online travel agencies can successfully navigate the challenges — and potential opportunities — to come.
The role of customer experience in the airline industry
For the airline industry, the customer experience plays an integral role in fostering a long-term, and in many cases, lifetime — travel brand allegiance and loyalty. Whether traveling for business or making frequent flights to visit family, friends or new destinations, airline customers consider many factors when booking their next trip, with customer experience quickly becoming a differentiator. In fact, Foundever™ research indicates that 83% of travel and hospitality consumers identify customer experience as one of their top three most important factors influencing their decision-making process.
People are slowly going back to their travel routines — and some have noticed a difference in their customer experience. In a 2021 survey by Skift Research, in partnership with McKinsey & Company, 47% of polled leisure travelers stated that the overall airline experience had improved compared to the pre-pandemic levels; 38% said it was similar to past experiences, and 15% said it had worsened. The survey also looked at how well airlines performed in specific categories such as loyalty benefits, airline communication, and check-in and booking processes. Most travelers reported little to no change across the board. With so many airlines to choose from, both in the U.S. and abroad, customers are likely to be more discerning when booking their next getaway, looking for factors such as cancellation flexibility, on-time departures and arrivals and enhanced health and safety procedures. The growing value of customer experience in a rebounding industry cannot be understated, particularly as airline loyalties and customer satisfaction are put to the test.
The new airline customer expectations: flexibility is key
With restrictions and plans constantly changing in today’s world, customers look to their travel reservations to be as flexible as possible. Before booking a flight, airline customers ask questions like, “Can I change my flight date?” or “Can I change my flight due to coronavirus?” Making last-minute changes or cancellations has historically resulted in high fees or penalties, though in the age of COVID-19, the omnipresent risk of infection and illness has in many cases caused airlines to adapt their policies to be more accommodating.
Airlines need to be prepared to answer customers’ questions and support them as they navigate the new realities of traveling during an ongoing pandemic. As travelers dust off their passports and unearth luggage that’s long since been stored away, airlines have an opportunity to re-examine and improve the customer experience as it stands today.
Overall, flexibility is crucial to airlines’ success. Customers who were more spontaneous travelers may be seeking more consistency in scheduling, safety protocols and other air flight aspects as they test travel waters in 2022 and beyond.
How airlines can implement an effective customer experience management strategy
Implementing a sound management strategy can make the difference for airline brands staging a comeback. Creating positive customer experiences is known to drive customer loyalty, and for airlines surrounded by competition, fostering lasting loyalty is vital.
Putting a strategy into action starts with reevaluating the current circumstances of the industry, the customers’ expectations, and the needs of the business. While these tips serve merely as building blocks for better customer experience, the concepts and strategies behind them can benefit travel brands long-term as they work to impress, grow and maintain their customer bases.
- Deliver experiences with empathy and care
Customers who experience travel mishaps can grow easily frustrated, so airline brands must meet their customers with empathy and understanding. From planning to booking to the traveler’s actual journey, airlines have many opportunities to create memorable touchpoints — and as indicated in our research, 25% of poor consumer experiences in travel and hospitality were driven by unfriendly staff. However, having a friendly staff was the most significant driver of customer loyalty, making it clear that consumers seek authentic, empathetic interactions along their travel journeys. In the end, the customer’s memories of their traveling experience are vastly improved by better customer experience, creating positive associations with airline or hospitality brands — and an increased likelihood of loyalty.
- Meet customers where they are
Particularly in an age of change and adaptation, customers look for brands to provide updates and information when they need it, where they need it. Airline brands can meet customers where they are by implementing features like chatbots, social media management or email customer service. Each of these channels play a key role in a well-defined omnichannel strategy, which provides customers with a consistent, unified journey and experience. Customers will continue to expect contactless options to be available in addition to more traditional customer service methods, making a diversified omnichannel strategy a tremendous advantage.
- Develop a knowledge base
While many situations warrant a call to customer service, some FAQs regarding flight cancellation policies, changes, and other common travel situations can be easily resolved by creating a knowledge base. These robust online resources serve as an all-in-one guide for customers to solve troubleshooting issues and understand airline policies so they can quickly resume their bookings or move on to the next step in their journey. This also contributes to streamlining the customer experience and allows for more effective agent conversations if the issue cannot be resolved and escalates to service interaction.
Where do we go from here?
Customer expectations are changing, and brands equipped with the best practices for travel and hospitality customer experience are in the best position to succeed in a challenging environment. As the travel industry continues to recover, adaptation will be a central theme for airline brands looking to win back customers and maintain long-term loyalty.
To learn more about how to connect with your customers in this new era and how to deliver best-in-class customer experience, download the travel and hospitality best practices guide from Foundever™ — Delivering best-in-class customer experience in travel and hospitality.