While 2022 is already underway, it seems that airlines are starting to emerge from hibernation, and with it, bringing a wave of passenger experience improvements from new cabin classes to new amenities. But what are the emerging trends we expect to see through 2022?
Premium Economy wars
As well as seeing new premium economy products such as Finnair’s and Swiss’ new seats which will enter the market imminently – not forgetting the official launch of Emirates’ Premium Economy – we expect to see an upgrade in amenities and services to this most profitable of cabin classes.
Thanks to the increase in premium leisure traffic, passengers are more likely to seek premium seating for longer-haul trips. As airlines adjust to the depressed business travel sector, price points are being lowered to fill Business and Premium Economy Class cabins. While price point will immediately increase demand, the product must hold up to the valuation that passengers fundamentally pay in the long run.
We’ve already seen airlines such as British Airways recently upgrade certain elements, such as dedicated check-in lines, something that was desperately needed to remain competitive – as seat pitch alone is now a given, rather than a blessing.
Premium Economy itself can be fairly varied in its offering but expect these clear basics to be normalised over the months ahead: dedicated check-in, premium boarding, additional baggage, increased legroom, larger seats and dedicated toilets. Amenity kits should also be enhanced in offering, dedicated menus served on premium tableware, with welcome drinks and upgraded beverage selection.
Rise of the boutique carrier
An inadvertent benefit of the premium leisure market is that boutique carriers such as Oman Air, Gulf Air, Fiji Airways and Air Tahiti Nui et al with their lean management structure and mainly leisure market destinations – will see a much faster return to normality.
Being nimble has been the most important aspect to navigating COVID’s impact on the aviation market, and now that most borders are reopened or on the road to recovery, there’s a clear path to bring back a full network-wide service. It’s this speed to recover that will give these smaller, boutique carriers a competitive advantage.
While all these carriers offer decent hard products, we expect to see advancements to the soft products, quality of catering, and enhanced ground products to help maintain this lead, which thanks to the scale of the carriers won’t require significant cash outlay.
Many airlines have already launched sustainable amenities, from Delta and Virgin Atlantic to Finnair and Singapore Airlines’ unique approach to offering only the necessities, with other elements on request.
Sustainable is this year’s buzzword, as post-pandemic, the lens shifts from hygiene to environmental impact. Many companies are already upcycling old uniforms and aircraft parts, while other carriers like Etihad are going one step further, innovating with plastic-free flights, and using their eco-demonstrator to trial changes to catering, blankets and flight patterns to further reduce carbon emissions.
The sweet spot will be found between the balance of luxury and sustainable, demonstrated by Delta’s most recent approach. As sustainable doesn’t have to mean lower quality and doesn’t necessarily require a visual cue to represent the environmental benefits.
Narrow vs wide
With the re-emergence of long-haul narrow body aircraft, the race to provide equal passenger comfort in premium cabins has already begun. From Aer Lingus to JetBlue and FlyDubai to Singapore Airlines, flatbeds in A320 family aircraft and 737’s are becoming more commonplace.
While these provide clear economic and environmental benefits, passenger choice will dictate that a widebody would be more preferential, with more space, more toilets, and arguably greater passenger comfort winning over ticket sales. However, once sought-after long-haul widebodies are now being challenged, and in turn, will need to work harder to win enough passengers to fill these frames to a profitable level.
What does this mean to the future of widebodies? Expect design teams to create social spaces, such as Finnair’s recent walk-up bar or Virgin Atlantic’s Wonder Wall for Premium Economy. Smart reconfiguration of galleys and entryways, even emergency exit areas will create two clear passenger offerings. Larger, more spacious widebodies emphasising social areas with residentially inspired interiors and more practical seat-focussed narrow bodies, providing relative comfort at a more affordable price point.
The race to communicate
While passengers have been bombarded for the past two years with various boasts from airlines on their hygiene efforts, brand and product have taken an unfortunate backseat. There isn’t an airline out there that isn’t wanting to become a lifestyle brand, yet they haven’t had much of an opportunity to reflect that thanks to the never-ending COVID restrictions that these carriers have had to navigate.
As such, airlines must re-educate their brand positioning, and even worse, what their previously decimated route network now consists of. However COVID has stripped many carriers of their much beloved inflight magazines, and airline websites have been mutilated to provide COVID messaging – meaning there are only a handful of outlets airlines can rely on to educate their prospective travellers.
Airlines are going to have to work hard in winning back travellers with engaging content, and this will mean the return of inflight magazines (many are already coming back) more social content and potentially the launch of IFE-based airline content channels to entertain and inspire, especially during the depressed releases of Hollywood titles.