This is our last article before the World Aviation Festival in Amsterdam in a couple of weeks. We will end the series of articles with a reflection on airline payments, like a shopping experience usually ends with a payment transaction. Bref.
Should airline payments come as an after-thought of a retailing strategy, as a cost of doing business? What is the strategic dimension of payment for travel suppliers? As payment costs have grown bigger now than distribution costs for airlines, is there any new capability that could both enhance the customer experience and reduce costs?
The airline payment topic is closely related to the customer confidence topic and to the retailing topic which we discussed earlier. We also highlighted payments in our White Paper in proposal #6 (vouchers & e-money) and in proposal #16 (customer accounts). So what will digital airline payments look like?
A world of credit cards
Credit cards are still the ubiquitous method of payments for travel purchases, both in the leisure and corporate worlds. Notable exceptions, such as payment apps like WeChatPay and AliPay in China, or e-wallets like PayPal in the US or Lydia in France, show what the future of digital will look like.
The concept of linking a bank account to a 16-digit number was revolutionary when it was invented about a century ago… by airlines. Credit cards have improved a lot, for example in the physical card experience with the contactless payment, which became the norm during the pandemic. Mobile wallets, like Apple Pay, add an authentication layer on top of the card and enable contactless payment… without entering a PIN.
In the online world, paying with a credit card stored on a website is relatively seamless (as long as the real-time check on the card mobile app works smoothly). The issue remains when dealing with a new website, entering all the card payment details. The entire payment process, including the authorization, may still result in poor conversation rates.
If credit cards still work well, why change? It is a mix of convenience for customers and cost reduction for merchants (estimated at $20.3bn or 2% of the $1trn sales by McKinsey), with an evolution of technology.
The combined effects of Uber, Fintech and the pandemic
In the past few years, the perception of airline payments evolved from tactical considerations (credit cards work well, why bother?) to strategic thinking (payment options are a key differentiating factor for a travel business).
The Uber “seamless payment” experience, whereby the customer does not need to worry about paying a cab driver, was a catalyst in the change of perception. It became even more relevant and obvious for e-scooters, because users would not enter their credit card details for each ride, as there is no card reader on the e-scooter.
The Hopper “peace of mind” proposal, where customers don’t need worry about finding the cheapest fare or making changes to their bookings, extended the payment discussion to financial services. Indeed airlines imposed those constraints (non modifiable tickets, non refundable tickets, 10x price variation on one route…) with their revenue management practices, and it took the likes of Hopper’s fintech to compensate for the constraints and restore the confidence.
The Covid pandemic added uncertainty to travel planning and to health, with the effect of boosting travel insurance for changes and health. Insurances and other financial services have complemented the simple payment transaction, which would otherwise be definitive and risky from a customer perspective.
A customer-focused roadmap
The last decade has seen consumers opting for a variety of forms of payment (FOP) beyond credit cards. Airlines have faced at least three options: 1) adopt as many FOP as possible 2) steer customers to use cheaper FOP 3) promote their own FOP.
The proliferation of new FOP makes the payment market more fragmented. Airlines willing to reach more customers in every market need to support these FOP, without bearing the cost and complexity. Payment gateways enable airlines to reach customers in all markets.
Payment is not limited to the ticket purchase. It covers all the transactions during the booking process and the journey. What if a passenger could enter a lounge or go through a security fast track like they enter the subway (In London, not Paris)? The FOP should be convenient for customers’ online use as well as for a physical use, like access control.
If some FOP are cheaper for airlines to accept, it should be up to them to incentivize customers in using them. Indeed customers tend to have their preferred methods of payment (e.g. a bank credit card, a neobank card, a mobile app) which come with perks, and the perks are funded in part by merchant fees. Airlines have perks too (e.g. seat selection, priority boarding, loyalty points) which may be attractive to customers.
Promoting the airline’s own FOP may sound ambitious. Retailers like Amazon do it with Amazon Pay, or Alibaba with AliPay. In a corporate sale environment, the adoption of the FOP can be part of the airline’s contract negotiation. However in a leisure world, FOPs are ubiquitous and used by consumers daily, not only for air travel. Unless the airline can propose the same value as online retailers, they won’t be customers’ preferred option.
The future of digital airline payment
Air Asia is a pioneer in building a lifestyle brand, not only an airline. Many airline brands are household names, offering co-branded credit cards and loyalty programs, with the potential of becoming a “wallet”. The airline wallet can be used as a payment method for any type of physical and online purchases, while giving access to airline perks and other special offers.
Going one step further, airlines may reach out to communities that have moved beyond credit cards. For example Web3 communities in the metaverse may use crypto-currencies within their own environment and for the payment of physical goods and services.
While credit cards will continue to serve the airline industry for the coming years, digital payment alternatives pave the way to a more convenient and integrated experience for customers, and to more cost effective and flexible solutions for airlines.
The vast majority of flights currently follow a pay up front model. However, there are rising speculations that this could shift to towards a buy now pay later (BNPL) approach. Why?
Rising flight cancellations
This summer has been chaos for flights. On one day in July alone, London Heathrow cancelled 60 flights. According to FlightAware tracking data, that same day there were 1,700 flight cancellations around the world.
Demand for flights has grown as revenge travel moved the top of people’s lists but demand has proved hard to keep up with especially with current staff shortages.
A cancelled flight leads passengers down a tricky path of long call queues, bureaucracy, and sometimes months of waiting before payment is refunded. In the US, airlines are not even legally obligated to issue compensation. This summer, more than ever, has highlighted the shortcomings with the pay at booking system.
Following suit with the rest of the travel industry
According to Skift new forms of payment including BNPL are “empowering consumers” and “making travel more accessible.”
In the last few years, platforms including Booking.com and AirBnB offer their customers the option to reserve the service but differ full payment until arrival upon the property.
BNPL is standard practice in many retail settings, and it provides an opportunity for brand differentiation as the trend spreads further throughout the travel industry.
The Lufthansa precedent
Lufthansa introduced a ‘Pay As You Fly’ model in 1997, expanding this to their corporate customers in early 2021. This model ensures passengers are not charged until the last minute once there is a guarantee the scheduled flight will leave as planned. Departing from the pay at booking norm, the airline distinguishes itself from competitors and receives a little more per trip per customer.
The airline cancelled 800 flights on 2 September, impacting 130,000 passengers due a pilots’ union strike.
Representatives from Lufthansa will be speaking at this year’s World Aviation Festival on panels including: “How can airline CX teams keep up with the increased need for flexibility, sustainability, personalization, digital differentiation to create superior end-to-end experiences?” Additionally, Kai Schilb, Head of Payments at Lufthansa Group will be responding to questions such as “How can we adapt BNPL schemes to the needs of different countries and regions?”
A growing shift?
Responding to the increase in flight cancellations, the state government of Lower Saxony in Germany is calling to abolish prepayment for flights. Transport Minister Bernd Althusmann is advocating a ‘Pay As You Fly’ model for airlines insisting this is in line with consumer interests and will streamline the current refund process.
The evolution of payment systems especially after the sea of cancellations this summer is one to watch in the near future. BNPL will be discussed in the payments agenda at this year’s World Aviation Festival.
During the Aviation Festival in London, an expert panel of airlines and payment services providers discussed some of the challenges of retailing and payments during the COVID pandemic. They shared their views on payment strategies to encourage more people to fly while keeping up with the industry’s financial challenges.
The experts tackled how airlines can keep up with the power shift towards customers and offer more flexibility to give consumers that “Uber experience.” In the process, they provided an overview of the current marketplace opportunities and some predictions on trends that will take hold in payments over the coming years.
“Now we’re looking forward to shaping a new way of interacting with customers at different touchpoints”
Thomas Lindner, Senior Director IT Distribution, Payment and Order Management, Lufthansa, said of adapting to new technology trends: “With the time to reassess what change of behaviour the customer will see, and demand from us, and especially as an airline supported by state aid, we had to make up our mind so we’ll be able to repay those billions in loans. Therefore, we came up with more creative ways to offer services to the customer. On the overall industry side, we had issues in acquirers having risk-aversion to that exposure with the airlines. We had a multi-acquirer strategy to juggle that, but that, of course, was a shift in the styles as well. Now we’re looking forward to shaping a new way of interacting with customers at different touchpoints.”
Frank Gubba, Product Manager Loyalty and Payments, Icelandair, agreed with Lindner on the challenges of keeping up payments during COVID. “The problem was suddenly that refunds were higher than transactions. You went out also to have good discussions with our acquirers, looking into things and how can we bring this to a turn-around. We had a financial restructuring, then, in the latter part of 2019. And we were getting everything involved in negotiations with all the key stakeholders. What helped us was to look more strongly into the reporting to understand the new normal for airline travel. It helped to be upfront and very transparent with our partners. For us, the risk mitigation part moving forward is very critical—having various providers in place and the recalibration of our mix for forms of payments. Not be so much dependent on credit and debit cards. Looking ahead, for us, to ensure like a frictionless journey, being close to the customer.”
“I will tell you—buy now, pay later, or whatever name you want to give that flexibility option was nowhere on our radar two years ago.”
Keith Wallis, Senior Director Distribution and Payments, Air Canada, suggested that many solutions were already in the marketplace though airlines were slow to adapt. “I would say the pandemic just massively accelerated everything. As being in charge of payments in Canada, I will tell you—buy now, pay later, or whatever name you want to give that flexibility option was nowhere on our radar two years ago. And it is rapidly becoming the thing that our customers are very excited about. For something like travel, which is aspirational, inspirational, and typically has a larger than average cart size, I can’t believe that buy now, pay later options weren’t already in our industry. But some vendors approach us with solutions that I don’t believe had travel on their radar two years ago.” Wallis pointed out that consumers have built a habit of online purchasing during the pandemic and have new expectations of what merchants need to offer. “I think as an industry, we need to do better. If you didn’t have one of the three major cards, you weren’t doing business with us five years ago. I’m proud to say that’s not the case now, but our customers expect even more than that. Geographically, it’s different. By customer segment, it’s different. People want flexibility and choice in a frictionless experience. We need to do much better than we’ve done historically.”
Michiel Kossen, Partnerships and Business Development in Airline, Travel & Hospitality at Adyen, said the company had helped airlines manage those high refund balances caused by the lockdown. The company is focusing on flexibility as the market reopens. “We took the opportunity to start projects that have been on the shelf for a long time. We’re expecting that there will be differences in how customers are dealing with the situation. And [we’re trying to define] how, as an ally, we can be flexible—adding new payment methods in different markets.”
Chris Fendley, Executive Vice President, Enterprise Partnerships, Mastercard, suggested the pandemic has called attention to the importance of collaboration in finding new solutions which ensure greater flexibility on payments.
“As an industry, we’re now looking and seeing real change around how passengers are dealt with, how the different partners in the industry work together, transparency of data..the whole ecosystem and managing things like access to credit, which is key”
“As an industry, we’re now looking and seeing real change around how passengers are dealt with, how the different partners in the industry work together, transparency of data…the whole ecosystem and managing things like access to credit, which is key. Also, things like customer service, where you need customer chargebacks, we all learn how painful it was when the whole system got shut down. There are legacy payment systems that are not fit for purpose. They need to evolve, and the industry needs to work together. At MasterCard, we have some solutions, but it needs to be done collaboratively with everybody.” Fendley offered some examples. “We’ve been on a bit of an education campaign on virtual cards for B2B flows. In the last 12 months, we’ve found that the agencies are looking for protection around the payment flows. Traditional VSP cash doesn’t provide the same level of protection for them or the consumer at the end of the day. I’m fully supportive of multiple solutions…But however this evolves, you need to have protection on both sides of the fence.”
In terms of B2B transactions, Air Canada’s Wallis said, agencies’ preferences in different regions affected their ability to deal with the shutdown’s financial impact.
“In North America, my experience is those travel agencies are very keen to pass through the customer’s card and allow the airline to be the merchant. They’re not interested in the fees. They’re not interested in the liability. They just want to pass that through and let us do the work. In Europe, we find that agencies are much more interested in owning that customer experience. They will take the customer’s card and be the merchant of record, assuming the costs and liability to own all aspects of that customer relationship, including the payment. I think the pandemic highlighted that many agencies who didn’t do that were very much at the mercy of travel suppliers and whatever policies we had on refunds. They were struggling to get a refund from 10 or 20 different suppliers. Those who had decided to own that aspect of the relationship were completely in control of what they could do for their customers. So, sure there’s a cost. But it’s an interesting discussion now around what is the value you can generate as an agent by owning everything, including the payment aspect.”
“..half of the millennials and all of Gen Zed, that segment is very different. Cards are not nearly as important to them.”
Wallis also pointed out that the consumer preference for credit card payments is generational. That’s true even in North America, where credit cards are widely entrenched and encouraged by points earning schemes. He advised planning for the needs of the up-and-coming consumer.
“If you look at the data in time segments—so what has happened in the last 12 months—you can see the changes in consumer segments. The bottom half of the millennials and all of Gen Zed, that segment is very different. Cards are not nearly as important to them. They pay direct when they pay online. And buy now, pay later solutions are very strong in those segments. Those are the future buyers. That’s the segment we need. I don’t need to devise new solutions for people in my age bracket—we have to understand what’s coming and be prepared for it. So it’s really about finding out not what you need to do now, what you need to start now for what [is coming up over the next five] years.”
By Marisa Garcia
Panel: How can airlines keep up with the power shift towards customers, and offer more flexibility to give that Uber experience?