It seems the long-gone era of glamorous travel is fast diminishing, due to technological advances in the industry. Passengers are losing their connection to the airlines that they fly with, airlines are losing the communication points they used to have. ‘Tea? Coffee?” might be the only two words that a passenger could hear from their airline for the entire experience from booking to finishing their flight.

Where did it all go wrong? Or is it actually right? Are passengers actually wanting less interaction and want to carve their own experience. Do convenient schedules and price now mean more to a flyer than the personal interaction and smile of the staff serving them? How do we connect with our more favourable airlines anymore?

It seems that the web has dramatically changed the landscape of the airline industry, online booking and seat assignments have dramatically reduced the staffing costs for airlines head offices. Passengers can book at home, at their own convenience, even book upgrades, check in, or change contact details without even having to pick up a phone. Ryanair boasts that 99% of all bookings for flights are now done online. This may not be by choice, it’s just a matter of it being seen as the most convenient route for booking now. Virgin Atlantic did try to add a voice to their web experience, offering the ability to chat to an online advisor whilst booking your flights, but the service has either gone, or isn’t being advertised anymore. A question of it being successful, but too expensive to justify or just not required? I know I used it.

The whole check-in experience has now been automated. Online check-in, mobile check-in, even kiosk check-in, now mean there are more ways to check-in to your flight without speaking to someone than actually checking in face to face. There are a few exceptions, again Virgin Atlantic (Upper Class / Flying Club Gold passengers), and some American carriers offer curb-side check-in, where the whole experience is a little more intimate and personalised, but the industry’s perception of what is convenient for us is really driving the future of how we check-in.

Even Apple have taken to ‘up’ the convenience factor by launching Passbook. Now not only are your previously checked in boarding passes stored on your own device, any gate changes etc. are communicated to you by a nifty little message on your iPhone, rather than a personal announcement from the airline.

Gate Agents
With the cost cutting that is constantly being driven by the constant increase in fuel costs, airlines are finding it cheaper to use agents who are a third party. They act on behalf of the airline, but in many instances don’t even wear the uniform of the airline they are boarding. They don’t have the training that the airlines provide, meaning the vocabulary and tone and appearance can’t be controlled by the airline, therefore offering a disjointed customer experience.

Obviously security is now of prime importance, but it’s inadvertently made the flight crew of each flight invisible to the passengers. The days of the captain greeting the passengers as they step on-board are also gone, tight turn around times mean that the ground time is too busy for the Captain to greet, and well rehearsed scripts that airlines try to implement to standardise the experience mean that most personality in the barely-audible announcements are non-existent. Southwest are trying to stop this now though, with fun and personality encouraged within the cabin.

The On-board Experience
With the advent of the personal IFE players, magazines are slowly being phased out, newer ‘hybrid’ airlines are choosing hi-tech entertainment over magazines, such as Virgin America, who believe in super cool tech from the moment you step onboard to keep you entertained, and wow you with a familiar experience to playing on your laptop or watching Tivo. The magazine is actually a tone of voice, a two way conversation between airline and passenger, imparting information, inspiring their readers and creating a keepsake that will constantly remind the passenger of their (hopefully great) experience on the flight. Recently, it was commented by the director of a publishing company to me, that Virgin America are missing a trick. They had no idea about what routes Virgin flew once onboard, and when they flew with them the first time, they wanted to fly again, but without a magazine with a humble route map, wasn’t sure if they were able to take them for their next flight. Instead, they had to go back to the website to find out the information. Once again, no customer interaction, it seems we are almost becoming our own travel agents.

BYO inflight entertainment is now being touted at Air Asia, where instead of the hardware inflight players, with their branded interface, you would bring your own, what is familiar to you, again without the interaction of the airline’s voice. Then with the advent of ‘order at your seat’ inflight catering offerings that Virgin America’s ‘Red’ system, the term ‘Tea? Coffee?” might actually go altogether.

Perhaps soon it’ll become almost indistinguishable between the airlines we fly.

Posted by:Jonny Clark

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