With fluctuations in oil prices, increased competition, and the consistent rise in the number of Australians travelling, the airline industry is clearly facing some tough challenging times. Like all business leaders, airline CxOs are under pressure to improve operational efficiency and simultaneously enhance customer experience to reduce costs and deliver on customers’ digital expectations.
How airlines actually achieve this is not so straightforward. With such complex and large-scale businesses in a very public industry – one that is heavily-watched and frequently-criticised – knowing where to start can be daunting. Boards are often grounded by their inability to agree on a starting point, leaving decision makers reluctant to pilot new customer experience programs.
After all, airlines need to create experiences that extend beyond one transaction. Think of an enterprise which sells a product or service to a customer. The customer’s experience begins in the initial search and evaluation stage and arguably never ends; following the initial transaction, there’s years of post-sales support, and if the experience was a success, the customer’s loyalty will be retained.
This means airlines have a wide spectrum of areas on which to focus.
One area that is in particular need of attention is the check-in and boarding process to ensure flights meet their take-off schedules. Why is this so important? Well, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, delayed flights cost the airline industry US$8 billion and passengers nearly US$17 billion per year in the US alone.
Fortunately, the industry has already made some good progress. Most major airlines have rolled out mobile applications, allowing remote check-in by mobile device. Others have implemented RFID tags so they can locate bags both on planes and in the airport before take-off to try and find out exactly where passengers are before they board.
But more can be done.
Flights are often delayed by passengers who are checked in on time but late getting to the gate, most commonly when they’re distracted by restaurants or duty free shopping. Rather than relying on just airport intercoms, airlines could develop a two-way communications channel within their mobile applications that automatically sends a notification when it’s time to board, and allows passengers to relay their location if required. This can be supplement by the provision of resources (such as a map) to speed up the boarding process. Customers who are unable to make a flight due to unforeseen circumstances can also advise the airline using tap-to-call functionality, connecting them to an agent who deals with flight re-bookings. This would not only improve the customer experience, it also improves operational efficiency.
These days there are also many passengers that arrive at the airport so early they could actually catch a prior flight, on which there well may be empty seats. While some airlines allow early birds to occupy an earlier flight without penalty, this process could be automated through an app that can run them through a pre-defined process. As well as providing an enhanced customer experience, this app would also improve seat management for the airline.
The examples above demonstrate the increasingly-critical role that technology has on the flying experience. However, in order for these apps to work and to ensure their development is cost-effective, airlines need an appropriate technology platform, that can adapt and scale to today’s requirements. Unfortunately, instances of archaic architectures are all too common, severely limiting the wide-scale implementation of innovative projects. This creates disparity between end-user applications, inhibiting the potential for streamlining customer experiences. Leading airlines (and airports) have or are migrating to standardised architectures to ensure the services they deliver work together, and can also be integrated with other initiatives already in place, such as RFID tags, for instance.
Like most enterprise CxOs, airline bosses are at a crucial point in the digital transformation of their operations. Technology-enabled customer experience can have a real impact on the bottom line and not just in terms of expanding a passenger base. What’s more, as other industries roll-out smart apps for both operations and customer relations, employees and passengers alike will begin to expect a similar service from their airline.