MIAMI — The passenger experience was a hot topic in 2014 as airlines and airports worked to make the travel process better. But despite these efforts, industry observers interviewed by AirwaysNews feel there is still more work to be done and offered up trends they expect to see in 2015 and beyond.
Craig Stark is AirGate Solutions’ managing partner and Robert Cook is a co-founder and member of the advisory board of AirGate Solutions. Stark said he and Cook got together to look at strategies in vertical industries like travel. “We saw a need for data analytics and data in support of the passenger experience,” he said.
One trend is passengers are still being herded despite initiatives like IATA’s Fast Travel to simplify passenger travel, said Cook. “The primary focus is to get to the gate in the least amount of time, but there’s been no change on how to facilitate the process and make it easier for passengers,” he said. “There’s a disconnect between airlines and airports, because airlines don’t give enough information to airports to help passengers to the gate. I hope they will cooperate eventually.”
Another trend noticed by Cook is that airline loyalty program are becoming less valuable and less positive. “You see people having trouble redeeming travel awards, you see points being devalued and airlines moving toward how much you spend rather than how much you travel,” he said. “And there will be an increased focus on the top five percent of travelers, who will continue to get perks like early boarding and free checked bags.”
But the industry can improve the passenger experience by helping those in the back of the aircraft, said Cook. “There’s a huge opportunity for airports, like operating lounges because airlines only focus on the five percent,” he said. “We already see airports starting to do this with products like Priority Pass.”
A big pain point for travelers is airport security checkpoints. “I see an expanded trusted traveler program that will speed up checkpoints, which are a major choke point in the travel process,” said Cook. “Programs like PreCheck and Global Entry are a welcome change. If more countries agree to have similar processes, we’d see a much better passenger experience.”
Having healthy food available in airports is another trend. “We did a project in Canada on restaurants attempting to steer people to nutritional labeling so they can be aware of what they’re eating,” said Stark. “We spoke with officials at Toronto-Pearson International Airport as part of that research. They noted that they worked hard to have a balance of 40 to 50 percent of airport restaurants offering healthier food, and we see more airports doing that.”
Jeff Klee, the CEO of CheapAir.com, feels that the network airlines are looking at the passenger experience because they finally don’t want to be seen as just commodities. “When you look at United, Delta and American, they have been more profitable and are investing that money back into their products,” he said. “The large airlines are trying hard to create a differentiated experience, while low-cost carriers are taking a different approach by not adding bells and whistles.”
The network carriers have really been focusing on premium cabins, said Klee. “In first and business class, they have invested in things like lie-flat beds and upgraded food. It’s much better than its ever been,” he said. “And even in economy, inflight entertainment has been a big focus. We see things like carriers streaming movies and television to smartphones and tablets, adding personal video monitors with live TV and adding more WiFi access.”
With airports, there has been a big focus on improving food options, said Klee. “Options are much better, but there’s no pressure to offer free and better Wi-Fi,” he said. “Everything on the ground is getting better, which is good news, because passengers need it to get better.”
The airline industry will continue to split into two tiers — full-service and ultra-low-cost carriers, said Klee. “It used to be that passengers chose airlines based on who had the lowest fares, and the products and service available were pretty consistent,” he said. “But the rise of LCCs like Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines are giving passengers a lower fare never seen before without offering any extras, but with the ability to pay for an upgraded experience.”
Jason Rabinowitz, an AirwaysNews contributor, is the data research manager for travel data company Routehappy. “I think we’re finally at the tipping point with airlines, which have been making gradual changes over a number of years,” he said. “Enough passengers have experienced those changes first hand so they can offer an impression of the passenger experience and how it impacts them. They are finally aware of how these changes can help them find a better flight.”
A lot of the changes airlines have made have been on the technology side, said Rabinowitz. “For example, airports are finally offering free Wi-Fi that actually works,” he said. “We’re seeing airlines and airports investing in their terminals like what United is doing at Newark and what Delta has done at LaGuardia, with things like iPads, power outlets and USB chargers. There are even little things like Southwest putting cushy seats in its gate areas.”
With the airlines, passengers are seeing things like streaming Wi-Fi and internet connectivity that wasn’t possible two years ago, said Rabinowitz. “United has announced that its regional jets will be Wi-Fi capable, offering entertainment,” he said.
Jon Glick, director of transportation and logistics for Pricewaterousecooper, said the way to think about this is how travel is becoming increasingly stressful. “So some of the airlines feel if they can improve the passenger experience, it may translate into more loyalty and a willingness for a repeat purchase,” he said. “The idea is that if we can ease travelers’ stress, we’ll be able to gain more market share.”
If travel is stressful, airlines can differentiate their product to alleviate that pain, said Glick. “Looking inflight, inflight entertainment is something that can distract from their discomfort onboard. Customers live in an always connected world, and they are tied to their devices,” he said. “Business travelers are willing to pay to deliver that experience, but airlines are challenged to improve the quality of it. They are competing with terrestrial experiences, like streaming a movie.”
From an airport perspective, some people want to minimize their time in terminals, said Glick. “But others don’t want to feel rushed. If airports and airlines work together to help maximize the experience that a passenger has while in the airport, it’s a great opportunity to take the stress of travel away,” he said. “Whether that’s things like traditional airport lounges, separate lounges for families or shopping and food concessions, these amenities help travelers enjoy the airport.”
Looking ahead, Pricecooperwaterhouse’s Glick says he sees more airlines moving toward self-bag tagging and self-boarding. “Putting some of the tasks that have been traditionally done by airline and airport employees now puts it in the hands of customers,” he said. “It will help eliminate long lines and put passengers in control of their time.”
Onboard flights, airlines will continue to experiment with inflight entertainment and Wi-Fi connectivity products, said Glick. “They will begin to really answer whether these items are enhancers or revenue generators,” he said. “I think airlines will finally get the right balance.”
Looking at the past 20 years, the airlines have been a mess, said Klee. “But after bankruptcies and the basic struggle to survive, they now have a model that works. Fares are higher, capacity is lower and they’re making money,” he said. “Travelers prefer to see this returned in lower fares, but the airlines will continue to invest in their product.”