Airlines: Waiting for Takeoff
COVID-19 nearly crashed the airline industry, and it now faces a true existential crisis. In the US, air traffic is down more than 95%. As a result, the government stepped in and provided $50 billion dollars in support, to ensure a chance for airlines’ success. The disruption comes not only from air carriers’ approach and architecture, but also from the unwitting role they played in the spread of coronavirus globally. Things are so dire that Warren Buffet recently exited his four long-held airline stocks.
People. Airline employees, at least those directly related to flight operations, like flight crews (pilots, cabin crew), cleaning teams and baggage- and ground operations people, need to feel safe doing their jobs. Airlines must ensure that there are appropriate measures to protect and safeguard each group’s ability to work. For the cabin crew and in-plane associates, airlines are already employing PPE, regular cleaning (some with hospital-grade electrostatic cleaning capabilities) and appropriate distancing measures. This must, and will, continue. But even gate and ticketing agents and customer support professionals will require appropriate levels of support to feel secure in their jobs.
As for airline customers: Given the massive reduction in air travel, every customer, among the one-third of Americans planning to do so, who returns to the sky must feel safe and confident as they travel (not an easy task to manage in the spring of 2020). That said, it seems highly unlikely that people will flock to airlines anytime soon and recreate pre-pandemic air traffic, where flights were not only full, but generally over-booked by 10% or more.
Airlines will have to work incredibly hard to support their customers. They’ll have to find new and effective ways to boost confidence in travelers, especially the early ones. Expect airlines to offer additional multipliers in frequent flyer miles and other perks, especially for business travelers, upon whom the bulk of the airline business’ profitability was built and is dependent.
Platforms. When it comes to platforms, airlines can and should become Remote By Design™. They must rethink their end-to-end user experiences—starting with customer check-ins, which are currently dominated by kiosks. These machines will need a complete change. Customers won’t want to touch them, unless safety and health measures, like screen wipes, are available. The good news is that most airlines have invested in their mobile apps to ensure relatively straightforward check-in procedures. But other kiosk-based activities, like baggage printing and tags, still need to be addressed.
Airlines will look at automation technology as a critical part of the next normal for their platforms. One approach is the ubiquitous use of touchless technology. Several airlines have already extended their in-flight media options via individual devices rather than touchscreens in airplanes. In fact, due to the potential lack of interest and redundancy of touchscreens, and the overall weight they represent for an airplane, don’t be surprised if they are phased out completely over time.
Process. As previously mentioned, the number-one process airlines will focus on is updating and enhancing their cleaning regimen. Next, airlines will turn to the check-in process and airport counters. One example of a change likely to happen is temperature checks in terminals prior to entrance.
Airlines will need to provide adequate social distancing measures for check-in lines, luggage drop-off and other such procedures. All of this will mean redesigning their available space. This may result in repurposing existing space for lines and check-in, or perhaps extending their space outside the terminal to parking garages and other “approach” locations. Imagine if mobile devices, already used for boarding passes, coupled with Bluetooth or iBeacons, could route passengers through the airport to their gate and plane, while minimizing and limiting their exposure to others along their way. Digital wayfinding could be the way of the future.
Then there’s boarding itself. These procedures and processes will also undergo major changes. Southwest and Delta have already announced and implemented a number of changes, like back-to-front boarding or limiting boarding to smaller groups. These changes will not only limit interaction for passengers, but also enable maximum convenience for higher-paying business passengers, who tend to be seated in the front of the plane. Similar approaches, but in reverse, are likely to be observed for offboarding as well. Finally, in-flight operations will also likely change, with a reduction or removal of in-flight food service and reduced flight-crew interaction with passengers.
Partners. Airlines live within an ecosystem of partners. They will increasingly need to look to this channel to support their next normal. One way to do so: Create additional cash flow by turning to deep pocket partners and use assets like frequent flier miles as “currency” to acquire the ultimate currency in an economic downturn—cash. This resembles Hilton turning to American Express for $1 billion in cash through the advanced sale of its frequent customer program.
They should also focus on partnering with local establishments and in-market services, like restaurants and other businesses. While these too have suffered from COVID-19 restrictions, they’re likely to reopen sooner and recover faster than the anticipated time it will take for airlines to fully reopen and recover.
Places. Airlines must rethink the various “places” of their business: Airports, waiting areas, lounges, airplanes and baggage claim areas. In the next normal, activity in each area will be much slower. It will take more time to process arrivals, check in, drop off baggage, go through security, get to the waiting area, board the plane and then do the reverse upon arrival. Airport amenities and facilities—food service, bathrooms, lounges—will also operate in a lower gear. Watch for the inclusion of plexiglass at airport check in, customer service and people interaction areas.
We’re likely see structural changes to airplanes. Airlines might remove seats or block off middle seats, where parties are not traveling together. Limiting available seats will create social distance… but it will come with a price. Airlines traditionally required greater than 75% occupancy and made a small profit, $5-17 per passenger, in the “old” normal. Reducing plane seat availability could make flights unprofitable, which would be extremely dangerous for the long-term viability of airlines—perhaps another reason for Mr. Buffet’s departure from the business.
Finally, don’t expect to see a major pricing war for passengers until business volumes pick back up in the next few years—after COVID-19 is either permanently addressed or humanity finds a way to successfully coexist with it.
Airlines will certainly fly again, surely with a new set of capabilities and operating models. The key to their restart depends on their ability to shift their approach and remind the world of the allure of travel. The innate human need to explore the world has not changed, and likely won’t for the foreseeable future.