Travel recovery goes beyond planes in the sky. It’s a new exchange of empathy towards the customer.

by | Apr 6, 2021 | Airlines, News

Winning business is hard.

Most successful companies will tell you that retaining customers is far cheaper than acquiring new ones. There are a myriad of ways to retain a customer but the root is mostly the same – delight them! Make them feel valued, special. Anyone who has ever landed a second date knows this tactic well.

Cable TV providers had a habit of giving new customers better deals than existing ones when it came to the end of a contract. Similarly, insurance companies email your ‘best renewal deal’, only for you to get a better price by filling out the form on their website – you can challenge sincerity levels within a few clicks!

Then think of the opposite experience – magnetic brands like Apple or Amazon know how to make you feel loved. They work hard at doing one thing well – consistency in the product quality. With Amazon Prime, they bundle together so many layers of value for the consumer that the price almost doesn’t matter. The common ingredient between brands like Apple and Amazon is simple – they obsess over the customer.

So let’s consider air travel from the customer perspective, pandemic or no pandemic. The ‘product’ is reasonably consistent and predictable. Okay, maybe you encounter a flight attendant who is having a bad day, or the guy in front dumps his seat back into your lap minutes after take-off on an eight hour flight, but other than that it is not until a disruption that you see under the hood of the ‘product’. There is nothing like a disruption event to sample the true brand values of an airline, starting with how the frontline employees are equipped to resolve the issue.

Travellers report the number one reason they choose to not fly with an airline again is down to how they were treated during a disruption. A recent (and very smart) analysis from TNMT stated ‘flight irregularities surpass other topic clusters by a mile—20% of the 15,000 [analysed] reviews bring up the issue and express the need for travelers to be taken care of when something goes wrong’.

Any airline who runs a solid CX game knows this – but delivering a holistic, considered response to passenger disruption, one that accurately reflects the airline DNA, can be quite the challenge.

Imagine if Starbucks heard the number one reason customers don’t return for a grande triple shot peppermint mocha hold-the-whip was because of a poor experience while consuming that drink? You better believe they would be all over fixing that situation – and in fact they are – the unhappy customer can present their beverage to the barista, explain what is wrong and they won’t blink an eyelid at replacing it, and likely hit you up with a free voucher too. The result? A delighted customer, buzzed up on mediocre coffee and sugar, highly likely to return again and again.

So why don’t airlines seem to care about delighting their customers when things go wrong? Do revenue management not have the data? The underlying problem is not a lack of empathy towards the disrupted passenger, it is a lack of the available tools to fix the problem at scale.

Managing passenger disruption is an incredibly complex beast. There are many moving parts and stakeholder motives in play. Just a single cancelled flight can result in re-accommodating 180 passengers travelling to multiple destinations – some will quickly get bumped to the next flight within a few hours, while groups of passengers will require meal vouchers, multiple hotel rooms, ground transportation and of course a new onward flight the next day. The stinger? More often than not, this process is done manually, one passenger at a time, leading to those long lines of frustrated passengers at customer service desks ready to take matters into their own hands.

While there are passenger recovery tools out there, the all too common barriers remain at large – either the tools require a significant integration investment from the airline IT department before they can be trialled (not to mention clearing procurement), or they are just prohibitively expensive to run on a monthly basis. These barriers are significant when things are ‘normal’, but in a post-pandemic context when airlines focus on revenue recovery and increasing margins, these tools may just as well not exist.

However, the technology and business mindset does exist today to provide airlines with an out-of-the-box tool that automates each step of the passenger disruption lifecycle, with no up-front or monthly fees and no heavy IT integration with the passenger service system. Once we had expensive taxi fares, now we have Uber. We had 90-minute cassette tapes, now we have unlimited Spotify. Responding to what the passenger really needs when things go wrong, and positioning them front and centre is perhaps the greatest move in ‘retention innovation’ an airline can make.

The pandemic has been incredibly hard on airlines, and the road to recovery will be challenging to say the least. Airlines have a new mindset to tackle in the consumer – anxiety, shaped by long periods of lockdown and unpredictable travel. Demonstrating to passengers they will be taken care of when things go wrong is perhaps the greatest signal an airline can send to instill confidence in the traveller, and travel recovery.

First published on PhocusWire on March 25th 2021.

About the author: Simon Dempsey is Chief Commercial Officer at