As passenger numbers pick up, airlines need to refocus on the passenger experience, says Nejib-ben Khedher, senior vice-president, consulting, of Sabre Airline Solutions.

Any traveller between Europe and North America since late 2003 can testify that the airline industry is recovering: flights are fuller, tempers are shorter and in most instances, the check-in process takes much longer today. In an effort to cut costs, airlines have reduced the number of airport staff and are relying on kiosks to handle the check-in requirements of many passengers. Because international check-in still requires document checks, passengers often still have to stand in line.

Infrastructure stress

As passengers pass through heightened security, the hapless traveller often rushes to the closing gate only to hear: "We regret to inform you that there will be a slight delay in today's flight." As passenger demand increases, these announcements become more frequent due to overstressed airport infrastructure, fewer airport employees, and higher equipment utilisation. Another dreaded announcement, much more frequent in these days of high passenger demand: "Today's flight is very full. If you have flexible travel plans, we are looking for volunteers willing to give up their seat."

The "bottom-line" is that air travel is much less convenient than it used to be, flights are increasingly fuller and the international travel experience can be a lot less pleasant. While passenger numbers are finally showing some improvements for the airlines, the frequent travellers are suffering a lack of service quality, convenience and punctuality. It is apparent, therefore, that the airlines able to make the travel experience more enjoyable and more convenient are the ones that will prosper during the coming period of increasing demand.

The industry has all the tools necessary to improve this travel experience, without causing costs to creep back to previously higher levels. But in the rush to squeeze every last possibility of cost savings from the operation, many airlines have forgotten to use them to make travel more enjoyable.

Tactically, the airline has additional tools that can be used to improve the current inadequate service provision. First and foremost, the airline's revenue management system and data need to be re-examined to ensure that denied boardings are properly protected against frequent occurrence. The international travellers who have to cross airline alliances today are the ones who are suffering the most from denied boardings.

Because the airlines flying from Europe are overbooking more aggressively, a tight connection from Cairo, Jeddah, Karachi, Mumbai and Nairobi often is a cause of considerable passenger stress. Even when passengers arrive at the scheduled time at a European gateway, they can be faced with a queue at the transit desk for a boarding pass that frequently cannot be issued because the connecting airline is overbooked. Since the passenger often has to use non-conjunctive tickets to make the travel happen, the overbooked airline is less than helpful in resolving the issues in a customer-friendly manner.

This is also the case for passengers connecting in the USA for Europe from Latin American destinations except that the problem of denied boarding is multiplied by the additional security requirements. The airlines have an obligation to deploy revenue management systems and data to ensure that aircraft are full without producing denied boardings on nearly every flight.

Clearing house

There is a further opportunity for carriers to improve their operational and service performance. Large airlines are joining a common electronic ticket database that operates as a clearing house for database participants. As airlines increase their involvement in this type of e-ticket clearing house, passengers flying with participating carriers will be able to be assured a seat on connecting flights even when they check in for flights in locations like Cairo, Jeddah or Nairobi.

Roving agent functionality can improve the service level at airports by putting customer service representatives in front of the travellers instead of the passengers having to stand in line to see the service personnel behind a counter. On-board CRM databases can ensure that personal service is provided to each individual passenger. One innovative airline is now able to print new boarding passes for misconnected passengers on board the delayed flight before the aircraft even lands. These examples of the operational deployment of data, technology and procedures provide a much higher level of service and do not greatly add to costs.

In this post-modern era of airline travel, however, technology is not viewed as the panacea it once was to improve all of the industry's commercial, financial, operational and service woes. Therefore, as cost-cutting exercises have taken precedence, airlines have increasingly reduced their costs of technology and data. Still, the use of good procedures coupled with data and technology can greatly ease the burden of the travel experience. The result for the airlines that deploy this approach to addressing the inconvenience of travel will be the reward of more passenger loyalty, a better service reputation and ultimately higher revenues and profits.

Sales story

I read with interest your article "Sales Channels" in the July issue of Airline Business and would like to point out that APG Association is in the leading group of airline representatives. APG was created in 1992 with the purpose of assisting airlines in developing their outsourcing capabilities and soon developed into a worldwide network of general sales and service agents.

Because of its large membership, APG was entrusted with the development and marketing of an IATA financial product, IBCS, to help airlines with billings and settlement. Some 75 airlines in 77 countries are part of the programme, which has generated over $50 million of incremental business for participating airlines

We have now 46 country members servicing over 100 airlines, and we are adding "allied members" to enhance the potential of the group to service cost-conscious airlines. The policy of the association is to appoint only one member per country.

Paolo Sani General Secretary APG Association Paris, France


Source: Airline Business