Frequent Flyers deserve less turbulence for their loyalty
29 June 2022
Georgette Mikhael

International travel only recently resumed for Australians. Some of the friction points of travel may have been forgotten for a time during the Covid19 pandemic, however, for a loyalty consultant (having recently travelled on a long-haul flight with Emirates) the glaring, barely-there attempt at personalisation offered to travellers by the airline industry is conspicuous and highly disconcerting.  

The customer experience (CX), may have been acceptable, for a time, however when compared to the current rate of emerging technology-driven trends, the airline industry, and their frequent flyer programs need to pick up velocity.

The opportunity for personalisation today

Anyone with any expertise in customer loyalty and engagement will concur that all the appropriate data for an elevated, personalised experience can be captured through frequent flyer membership accounts.

According to a report by McKinsey, the airline industry is all talk and no action where personalisation is concerned and displays weak efforts to improve the customer experience (the report titled Travel and logistics: data drives the race for customers).

While the online booking process does offer some level of personalisation, one might argue that there are obvious opportunities to optimise the process by capturing traveller preferences around WiFi usage and availability, legroom, inflight entertainment, meal and drink preferences (beyond dietary requirements) and availability of Live TV and plugs- all of which were listed by McKinsey as Google’s most searched airline information (that often are not displayed online).

McKinsey suggests “Advanced analytics will also give customers more transparency about features that are important to them, such as legroom or the availability of in-flight entertainment and Wi-Fi. These are among the product features most frequently searched for online, yet fewer than half of the metasearches we conducted offered such detail, and only a small number of airlines did so (Exhibit 20). This is partly due to a lack of data and shared standards for exchanging that data – something IATA aims to improve.”

Meal choice stands out as one of the most obvious pieces of information that can be obtained ahead of travel via the online check-in process, thus ensuring there is enough of the preferred meal choice available on board.

All benefits outlined could be provided exclusively to frequent flyers, as a loyalty incentive.

It certainly appears that only first-class, and to an extent, business class, is afforded any real customer-care or appropriate level of choice, particularly where meals are concerned.

The lack of investment in tailored, meaningful experiences during the in-journey treatment of frequent flyer members reflects poorly on the industry.

Furthermore, the distinction between frequent flyers and non-member customers could be further emphasised in customer care, engagement and delight.

Technology trends driving personalisation for the future

The airline industry needs to leverage loyalty data on hand to plan for the future by identifying and embracing the key technology-driven trends capable of transforming customers’ experiences.

McKinsey analysed emerging technologies and suggests areas that will be most impactful for the airline industry.

“In air travel, for example, products will become more personalised and offers increasingly transparent. Among others, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will drive this change. There will be greater use of digital ‘travel assistants’, capable of making and personalising suggestions by applying machine-learning technologies. And air travel companies will be able (and expected) to engage continuously with customers.”

Arguably the most obvious touch point for optimising customer experience during a journey is via the inflight screen available for passenger use, such as Emirates Ice which is an acronym for Information, Communication, Entertainment. To explore the opportunities and challenges that exist within inflight screen personalisation, read here.

McKinsey surveyed representatives of 50 airlines in order to identify which technology-driven trends would be most important and transformative to the customer experience.

They ranked them in the order below.

  1. virtual experiences
  2. product transparency and
  3. personalisation

The key to sustained loyalty in the airline industry is relevance and transparency.

McKinsey found that “transparency is already increasing, driven primarily by metasearches. Now, therefore, is the time for airlines to start making more data available on their own channels or sharing it with aggregators to differentiate themselves.”

An area explored within the report is the role travel assistants, or rather, digital assistants may play in making personalised suggestions. Comprehensive support throughout a trip will open revenue pools for airlines in the process with “already, 69 per cent of travellers more loyal to a travel company that personalises their online and offline customer experiences”.

Some airlines have begun experimentation with test-based travel assistants though it has been identified that the efficiency of voice-based digital assistants will contribute to an overall reduction in journey friction. According to Google (Feb 2022), more than a quarter (27 per cent) of the global online population is using the voice search feature on their mobile devices.

A neglectable number of airlines, however, are at the advanced stages of testing voice-based commands through frequent flyer programs. 

The industry needed voice search functionality three years ago. Will airlines continue to delay urgent enhancements as further emerging technology requirements emerge?

The final flight

There is a notable lag between airlines correctly identifying what enhancements need to be made to personalise passenger experience and the urgency with which they are being implemented.

Arguably, the economic impact of the Covid19 pandemic has stalled progress in air travel CX, which was already highly impersonalised and turbulent prior to the pandemic beginning.

While continuous customer engagement, pre, during and post-journey will deepen loyalty, a higher expectation for satisfaction will ensue from airline customers, particularly those that have become members of frequent flyer programs. Achieving a seamless single-view-of-customer across highly bureaucratic and siloed airline organisations will be the largest barrier to achieving optimum member experience.

Oscar Munoz, Chief Executive of United Continental Holdings Inc has expressed the opportunity for airlines to step up exceptionally, “We have enough data about who you are, where you fly, and more importantly, over the last period of time when we’ve delayed you, cancelled you, made you change your seat, spilled coffee on you—we have the points of failure and the points of success. I think our customers need better service and better personalisation today. And that’s what we’re focusing on.”

The loyalty consultants of the world will be eagerly observing if Munoz and his industry peers are all talk or fuelled for the flight.  

<a href="" target="_self">Georgette Mikhael</a>

Georgette Mikhael

Georgette Mikhael is a Senior Strategy Consultant at Loyalty & Reward Co, the leading loyalty consultancy. Loyalty & Reward Co design the world’s best loyalty programs for the world’s best brands. She has worked in the loyalty and member benefits space for over ten years with brands across the financial services, legal, travel, retail, automotive, hospitality, philanthropy and technology industries with brands such as Mastercard and the Westpac Group. Georgette has particular interest and expertise in commercial sales, strategic partnerships, business development and customer engagement successfully conceptualising, implementing and overseeing innovative strategies & campaigns for account and business growth.

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