How digital transformation will restore consumer confidence in airlines
by Rebecca Crook, Chief Growth Officer at Somo, a global digital product agency
Holidays – in theory – should be a time for escaping the stresses of everyday life and enjoying some rest and relaxation. Speak to anyone that’s travelled overseas in the last two months, however, and they would tell you their experience has been anything but. We’ve all seen the unbelievable stories in the news. Tens of thousands of passengers left stranded thanks to mass cancellations, airport security has descended into unbridled chaos with queues stretching out to car parks.
The airlines point the blame at Covid-enforced staff shortages and out-of-practice travellers. But the sad reality is that airlines’ end-to-end travel journey is in shambles, and this stems from them not understanding their customers and how to leverage technology to deliver digital experiences that help them.
It’s not enough anymore to presume how customers interact with your brand online, or make assumptions about what your digital experience should be. Travel brands should be anticipating pain points before they are even flagged by customers, and looking at how their services can be adapted according to new customer behaviours.
It’s important to remember that the holiday journey starts from the initial – even passive – search online, and only ends when they arrive back home. Think of how many points of interaction and how many different services customers deal with in this end-to-end journey.
These are all critical opportunities for airlines and travel brands to deliver the best-in-class digital experience that will not only help them in the short term, but also in the long run – generating revenue and keeping customers happy.
Slow & steady doesn’t win the race
Airlines only have to look out of sector to realise just how integral understanding these fundamental consumer expectations can impact – and benefit – your brand.
During the pandemic, digital experiences took on newfound importance, with FMCG and retail brands rolling out one-click purchase systems en masse, eliminating friction from the checkout journey. Bars and restaurants’ new booking systems cut down the amount of time the process requires. Websites and mobile apps have been revitalised in the wake of the pandemic.
The majority of airlines have a strong digital presence – but greater consistency is required. British Airways’ application – as recently as 2021 – consistently saw page time-outs, malfunctioning links and sub-standard user interface. Before that, Virgin Atlantic argued that Google Glass was the catalyst for improved checkout processes – before the technology was booted. This is the same airline that currently offers no self-serve option to amend bookings – leaving customers facing two hour+ call centre wait times to change flights, in an era where flexibility is a must. Rather than leveraging new technology for its own sake, airlines need to focus on getting the basics right.
Airlines must adapt their offering. Our research included in our latest whitepaper, ‘Search to sale: Bringing airlines’ digital experience up to speed’, found that 58% of British travellers already have airline apps downloaded – but only 38% of fliers use mobile apps for information, preferring instead to use it for searching and booking flights. Only by leveraging them to deliver timely, relevant information to consumers will they fulfil their full potential.
In the main, consumers are pretty savvy and adaptable – the pandemic saw them learn how to download Covd passes and use QR codes to purchase products. This is a tech-savvy population. But airlines need to tailor their approach towards an audience demanding convenience.
And this means dipping into their pockets and investing properly into digital.
Keeping eyes on the (mobile) prize
But there is some good news for airlines who invest more in customers. 77% of consumers acknowledge they would be willing to pay more if they could enjoy an easier online booking experience. And 83% conceded they would be more likely to travel abroad this year if airlines streamline their booking processes – and offered greater clarity around Covid.
With the financial incentive sorted, it is important to stress that investing in a high quality website won’t automatically solve all of airlines’ problems. Mobile applications need to be front and centre of future strategies. These can help gain a higher net promoter score (NPS) and drive greater revenue.
Jet2 was recently named Which? Recommended Provider for 2022. Its refund policy – coupled with flexibility around destinations’ ever-changing COVID restrictions – allowed it to shine. Its rivals had a number of problems:
- EasyJet: refund satisfaction score paled in comparison to Jet2 and Tui
- Ryanair: repeated refund policy changes – and the decision to refuse some claims altogether – caused its stock amongst consumers to plummet
Consumers value clarity and convenience. And UK airlines could learn a lot from looking across the pond to the US. A US study ranked airlines the lowest across all travel apps – with JetBlue being the exception. Its app featured boarding passes, holiday itineraries, a chat function and the ability to upgrade seat selection – all reasons it scored highest.
Virtual offerings can’t be ignored. Apps can be deployed as a ‘digital travel concierge’. User experience doesn’t just impact the retail sector – where 88% of online shoppers that suffer bad experiences won’t return. Customer retention has to be prioritised.
Providing flight time updates and information around Covid may seem simple – but it is what consumers are crying out for. Investing in a seamless digital consumer experience provides airlines with the perfect platform to maximise profitability – whilst delivering on new consumer expectations.
Climbing back to altitude
The horror stories surrounding airlines’ long delays will linger in the collective memory of consumers for some time – but this doesn’t mean there is no way back. Consumers will still want to travel abroad. Understanding consumer behaviours and delivering convenient digital experiences is key to securing their business.
JetBlue has already uncovered the recipe for best-in-class airline mobile applications: ample Covid information; booking adjustment capabilities; and easy access to customer service teams. Airlines that put user experience at the heart of future operations – and focus their attention on premium mobile applications – will be in a much stronger position to ride future turbulence.