IN FOCUS: What does changing consumer behaviour mean for air travel?

Hamburg
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There was plenty of food for thought on how changing consumer behaviour will impact the travel experience and air travellers’ expectations at the recent Hamburg Aviation Conference.

Here one of the conference organiser and aviation consultant Ursula Silling paints a picture of different personas to demonstrate how social media and mobile connectivity are reshaping the expectations of today’s passenger across their journey.

Suzanne, 38, consultant, two kids, spending her life in the air 

Suzanne lives in London but spends most of her business life on aircraft. Time is money for her, so schedule is of utmost importance when choosing an airline. But she also looks for piece of mind and tries to use the travel experience to do things she does not normally do. Her favourite airport offers a yoga room for reflection, a contemporary art museum and a cinema. She is happy to pay extra to avoid queues and will always take the self service option where available to clear the airport entry scan, passport control and boarding. This way it is clear there will be no unfriendly staff and less queues.

She cannot understand why there are hardly any clocks at airports and why she is not told her gate from the outset, nor how long it takes to get there and what she could do in the meantime. She likes to navigate her way through the airport via her mobile and control her own time. At one airport she recently travelled through, she was impressed to be able to instantly feedback through Twitter about long queues at security and dirty toilets - with a promise to act upon it immediately. And during a recent three-hour connection at an airport, she adored the experience of being able to book two-hour hotel cabin for a nap and wine-tasting – even being able to order the wines she liked for home delivery.

Free wifi at an airport is more important to her than food, as she compulsively checks email and communicates with her kids via Facebook on her mobile when travelling, and uses her smartphone for onward travel arrangements or if plans change.

Max, 14, geek 

Max loves his mother’s iPad and he adapts any new applications and features immediately. He shares almost everything instantly with his friends and is almost addicted to Facebook. He makes all the booking choices and proposals for the family holidays and normally compares at least five different offers. He engages with companies that have fun applications and where you can book with one click, easily find your last choice and get recommendations or offers in line with your expectations. Ideally he wants to see videos proving the case. Companies without social media applications or with cumbersome websites or only pseudo-mobile applications, or none at all, are not on his radar as he thinks they must be old fashioned and too serious. He loves commitments by companies such as planting trees to save the environment, having a fun fair at the airport and being able to charge his iPhone at various touch points whilst watching his videos. He cannot imagine not being connected.

His dad is a geek, too, and loves learning from his son about the latest
developments. Having some fun and getting a feeling for the local habits when traveling is important for the family. Max still remembers when many years ago they used this exotic airline offering child care during a flight, and he loves their funny security videos and their website and mobile application. And the airport with the theme park and movie theatre.

Monika, 20 from Hamburg, working as a nanny in Dublin

Monika trusts her friends on Facebook and recommendations via tripadvisor. They are very cost conscious and will book indirect flights because they are cheaper. In some airports, they love that they were met by airline staff to ensure they could make their connection. They hate nasty surprises like only finding out about extra bag fees at the check-in desk.

Monika normally has to carry a lot of luggage with her and wonder why they do not have permanent bag tags, self- service luggage check-in or smart annual luggage passes. She was really impressed to receive a text message on arriving in Dublin telling her that while her luggage was not there, she did not need to wait for it as it would be delivery to her the following day at a time that suited her.

She does not understand why security has to be such an awful process. It does not cost anything more to be friendly with people and would make everyone feel better. She prefers to use self-service for passport control and would use any biometric solution to ease the security process.

She and her friends do not understand why the customer experience cannot be improved more and thinks they should have discount vouchers for use at the airports. They think interactive computer displays and mobile phones, as well as Twitter and Facebook, are perfect tools to be kept updated in case of irregularities.

Anton, 75, pensioner with health problems 

Anton loves travelling but has various health problems which restrict his choice. Whenever possible he will try to fly where he can choose a pick up
service from home, including carriage of his luggage. He loves the aircraft where you can choose a wellness zone, with adjustable seats to take account of his back problems and a special diet he can pre-order.

Only his physical therapy is missing during the flight. He has tried once a tour operator which took care of the stressful parts of the journey, with personal care and pick up services, wheelchair availability, porter service, getting medicine and his oxygen mask through security and all the other problems he encountered. Airports and hotels were chosen with no stairs or easy access to lifts. They even had a special app with a virtual assistant accompanying him through his journey and answering  his questions just by verbally requesting them to his mobile. It also allowed for translations at airports and in restaurants as English is not his first language.

What does this mean for the air travel experience? 

Fit for the future customer? The future is faster than you think. Expect the unexpected, the FUBU (for us, by us) generation is coming, mobile lifestyle and social media have started off the era of the customer whilst populations are not only growing, but also ageing. This requires a complete rethink.

“They [companies] need to react now – or risk being left in the dust,” says Michael Solomon, author of several consumer behaviour books. “Many companies are threatened by empowered consumers. They have to recognise that their customers don’t just buy what they sell - they are also a potential goldmine as product designers, salespeople and marketing researchers. Forward-looking companies in many sectors harness the power of their customers.”

Turning these challenges into opportunities, engaging their customers instead of trying to own them and creating a unique customer experience is where travel companies can excel and achieve a sustainable competitive advantage. The efforts can be multiplied by using social media and other modern technologies.

If we only focus on the short term, we miss the bigger picture and may ignore the signals of change that may provide early indications of future risks and opportunities. Big decisions like building a terminal, buying an aircraft, redesigning existing airports or changing revenue models require long-term thinking. This needs to be shaped by insights into the future factors that could shape tomorrow’s operating environment.

Find out more about the recent Hamburg Aviation Conference and for details about next year’s event on 13-15 February 2013 here.