With coronavirus likely to have a lasting impact on aviation, what must agents be aware of when it comes to dealing with airlines in future? James Chapple reports on the World Aviation Festival’s latest Covid-19 webinar with SimpliFlying chief executive Shashank Nigam.
The simple answer, says Nigam, is yes – it really is. US airline traffic has slumped 50%; it’s five times lower than it was in during the 2008/09 financial crisis (-10.9%), and lower than after 9/11 (-18.9%). When will things recover? “It’s anyone’s guess,” says Nigam.
Airline advertising is down 99%, according to Nigam. “If no planes are taking off, why advertise?” he says. The question he feels is whether airlines should proactively seek to build brand confidence at this time, or save money now and spend later. Whatever they choose, airlines mustn’t “splutter” back into life.
Nigam believes airline marketing will revolve around three Ss – safety, sanitation and sustainability. Sanitation, he says, will quickly become passengers’ greatest concern. “People will not board a flight unless it is clean,” says Nigam, who believes sanitation will soon feature in flight safety videos.
Already, some airlines like Singapore Airlines and Emirates have strengthened PPE provisions for crew, while Delta Air Lines, says Nigam, has tried to “own” cleanliness.
Nigam also thinks cabin crew may even be given the power to delay take-off if they do not feel the aircraft is sufficiently clean. “Things are going to change dramatically.”
Show them the evidence. Nigam says Air New Zealand, in particular, did a good job highlighting its efforts to combat Covid-19 by putting its chief medical officer (CMO) in the spotlight, who was able to offer authentic and credible messages of reassurance.
“I believe in a post-coronavirus world, every airline will need a CMO – and will need to give them media training,” says Nigam.
These videos, many of which place cabin crew at the heart of their message, can be shared with clients too and are often available from airlines’ websites and social media accounts.
See who airlines put forward for comment and how they choose to comment – are chief executives and senior officers involved in this messaging, perhaps through social media, or putting themselves before the cameras?
Nigam says it will be vital in future for carriers to front up to their customers, employees and partners at times of crisis.
They will, says Nigam, but he warns it may be hard at first to assess which airlines are cleaner and healthier. Eventually, Nigam believes a major body such as Iata or the World Health Organization will step in and set standards, much like the measures introduced post-9/11 on weapons, to avoid “a mishmash of confusion”.
With carriers seeking state support and taxpayer cash to survive, Nigam says airlines must be able to show customers and trade partners – who may have to field questions from clients on the subject – that they are not only taking environmental action, but also in the communities they serve and throughout wider society. “How to be a better corporate citizen must be part of the brand conversation,” he says.
In some respects, yes. Nigam points to how Latam has turned its website into a “digital customer service centre”, while AirAsia has an animated “bot” through which customers can change, amend, move and cancel flights without fees, taking pressure off call centres.
He also urges airlines to “go beyond vouchers” by offering refunds alongside rebooking incentives.
Airlines will have to “be creative” to get cash in, says Nigam, and this could create opportunities for the trade. He praises easyJet for putting its winter 2020/21 and Easter 2021 programmes on sale early and giving passengers flexibility to change their plans.
He believes airlines will also look to incentivise customers to book now for future travel, such as buying a £1,000 voucher now that goes up in value as the sector recovers.
Covid-19 may also boost ancillary sales; Nigam, for instance, highlights the possibility of all-inclusive insurance protecting clients if they turn up for their flight only to be denied boarding due to having a high temperature.
Meanwhile, Nigam believes cleanliness and sanitation products could also be monetised – and who’s to say people won’t pay 50% extra to block off the middle seat?
No. Nigam believes this could be a short-term measure to meet social distancing requirements, but does not think airlines will forego a third of their capacity.
“Passengers will expect, and want, social distancing,” according to Nigam. This will extend to check-in, security and immigration queues, as well as on jet bridges.
The boarding process will change, and could go completely digital with passengers advised via an app to head to their gate. Nigam believes there are “lots of evolutions” of this yet to come.
Nigam says leisure travel’s “price elasticity” means it will likely resume first once travel restrictions are lifted, and predicts business travel models will likely change.
He thinks first and business class cabins may shrink, or disappear altogether, as carriers prioritise economy and premium economy, with low-cost carriers picking up short-haul point-to-point business travellers and video conferencing making some of these journeys unnecessary.
Airlines have cut almost all destination marketing, says Nigam, and any dates for the resumption of operations will vary greatly owing to geographical, political and medical factors. He does though expect booking windows to open up as soon as there is certainty.
No. “We can’t go back to a couple of months ago,” asserts Nigam, but airlines – and partners – can shape the future now by remapping the customer journey in the age of “sanitised travel”.
“Everyone will have to think this through – airlines, airports and vendors,” says Nigam.