How Air Travel is Changing for Good - and for the Better — Photo by HospitalityRenu

I recently made the decision to relocate back to my old stomping grounds of Connecticut and begin looking for a new career opportunity. I'd had a great run working at an ultra-luxury resort in Utah, where I was responsible for creating memorable experiences, inspiring strong guest and employee relationships, and collaborating with other guest experience leaders. I'm now in the process of planning my next great move. In the meantime, relocating gave me the opportunity to see firsthand how airlines - a crucial part of the travel and leisure industry - are operating right now, and how they may change for the long-term. As someone who loves to travel and create incredible service experiences wherever I land, this shifting landscape is of particular interest to me.

The hospitality industry needs air travel to survive, and things look like they're going to improve this year. Studies show that close to one-third of employers expect their employees to resume in-person events and conferences in the second quarter of 2021, and more than half of Americans are now willing to hop on a plane for their next leisure travel endeavor.

Here are my thoughts on the current state of air travel, and how the flying experience may change as we move forward:

COVID will permanently up the ante for sanitation practices.

Hygiene and cleanliness took center stage as COVID-19 swept the world. Touchless check-in options are gaining traction in the industry and are already in trials in Abu Dhabi. Another recent discussion is around "sanitagging," a potential process in which passengers and their bags would walk through disinfection tunnels or thermal scanners to ensure everything that gets on the plane is fully cleaned. Frequent and thorough disinfecting of all touch points, limited food and drink offerings, and the continued use of masks even post-COVID will all help airlines and their customers stay safe.

The downside of these practices, of course, is the potential for longer wait times at airports before or between flights as every passenger participates in thorough sanitation. It may be a small price to pay for safety in the short term - and perhaps more importantly, increased customer satisfaction in the long run.

Customer service improvements can make big impacts.

This past year, customer service efforts made a huge difference when it came to retaining travelers. Studies show that although the travel industry took an unprecedented hit, top airlines actually improved their satisfaction ratings. In an era with slashed jobs, falling revenue, heightened anxieties, and frequently changing procedures, those increased ratings were really earned. Perks such as flexible booking and nixed change and cancellation fees were key tenets of happy customers this year and something airlines would be wise to consider keeping in some form.

Research also shows that airlines who leveraged AI in their customer service strategy saw great success this year. With such increased volume in help tickets - for some airlines, more than 1000% - AI customer service can solve common, oft-repeated problems and leave human agents with much more bandwidth, both physical and emotional, to efficiently deal with bigger or more complex issues.

We're also seeing airlines stepping up their game with more intuitively designed smartphone apps so fliers can have all the elements of their flight experience at their fingertips. At the end of the day, customers want control over their travel experience. Improving customer service offerings will make them feel listened to and valued along the way.

Both business and leisure travelers will see changes.

Business travelers accounted for nearly 70% of air travelers pre-COVID and used to be a major cornerstone of the air travel industry. In a post-COVID world, it remains to be seen how airlines will tempt business travelers back. With video conferencing and work-from-home now proven possibilities, temptation may well be necessary. Flight "bundles" may also become more common for business travelers, with flight tickets acting as more of a whole experience. At varying price points, bundles might include extra baggage allowances, lounge privileges, in-flight WiFi options, or other perks. Airlines may also consider revamping their business-class seating choices for more spaciousness or luxury.

In spite of business travel being so crucial to airlines, research suggests leisure travel may be more likely to experience a quick rebound post-COVID. With airports offering on-the-spot COVID testing and millions of people now being vaccinated, we could see leisure travel significantly climb in 2021. At the very least, leisure travelers are eager to fly domestically. Airlines would do well to consider how they can sweeten the pot for them as they do.

2020 may not have been kind to air travel, but air travel was kind to those who needed it. With increased safety practices, improved customer service, and attention to both business and leisure travelers, my hopes are high for this corner of the hospitality industry to see a well-deserved comeback in a post-COVID world.

Robert Reitknecht
Hospitality Leader and Guest Experience Expert
+1 203 733 6794