International Travel

Unexpected takeaways from global aviation events in 2023

Autumn jump-starts the travel industry with a number of global events that this month included the World Aviation Festival in Lisbon. Alongside the regular conference track, we asked a number of chief information officers and prominent thought leaders in operations to gauge the aviation space.

Aside from the trending talking points around artificial intelligence, sustainability, biometrics, disruption management and climate change, here are three themes we did not expect – the word on the conference floor, if you will. 

Technology – back to basics 

With the rise of ChatGPT in the past year, one might have expected any conversations about tech to be a celebration of all-things AI. And, while every respondent acknowledged how AI has improved specific processes and will continue to do so, most conceded a lack of use cases at this moment. 

Instead, the focus shifted to near-to-medium term problem statements facing airlines around dynamic pricing and distribution, data ecosystems and disruption management.  

The term “back to basics” was used more than once and was expanded into themes like: 

  • How to prioritize problem solving – navigating limited resources while identifying the significant problem statements facing the airline. 
  • The guiding principles to using technology effectively – ethics, regulating bodies, the court of public opinion and gauging customer readiness for adoption.
  • How to better employ the technology already available to airlines. 

“Too often airlines clutter their tech stacks and fall into tech-debt by acquiring a lot of tools but rarely using them to their full capacity,” Ted Hutchins, CIO of Norse Atlantic Airways, said during a session.

There was an emphasis on a greater need for due diligence when building out or acquiring solutions. This included simple advice around streamlining internal communications; avoiding silos (easier said than done – depending on the vintage and girth of the airline), keeping teams smaller and more agile; and being laser focused on solving problems not following trends. 

A renewed focus on helping passengers self-service was mentioned and aligns with recent reports about the consumer behavior of millennials and Gen Z that increasingly prioritizes technology over personal interactions on the day of travel.

Airline staff shortages

While staff shortages have been well documented, we were surprised how front-of-mind the topic was. Among airline executives, it was repeatedly flagged as a critical problem that regularly escalates nominal issues into a full-scale airline crisis. 

Airlines were heavily impacted by the pandemic due to a lack of custom, expensive leases and grounded fleets. Depending on federal regulations, many airlines pivoted into survival strategies that saw mass layoffs and early and partial retirement schemes.

As the industry continues to recover (currently at greater than 80% of pre-pandemic volumes), airlines – particularly large carriers in North America and Europe – are reporting staff shortages. 

To quote a senior cabin crew member at American Airlines: “We can’t hire people quick enough to meet demand.”

The problem is most of the roles – to some degree – require specialist training, and the roles that do not, “are manual and often difficult jobs that are not well paid – certainly not by today’s inflated standards,” said one Lufthansa executive. 

Staff shortages in the travel market have also been impacted by high employer demand in other industries, a trend that has only begun to soften in the last quarter. By comparison, employment levels in other industries have remained high through the pandemic — even buoyed due to the pandemic. This shift in the labor markets will make it difficult to attract a new generation of staff, which will likely protract the travel recovery period. 

Empathy — make travel human again

How to make the travel experience more human? Empathy. 

Empathy seems to be a catch-all term that signifies human connection and suggests an intentional approach from airlines and vendors servicing the passenger journey. 

In the debate between manual (human) and automated processes in an airline’s sales cycle, it is clear empathy means something different at each touchpoint and should not be assumed to simply revolve around human interaction. Greater empathy in travel should equally be determined by solving pain points efficiently; this may or may not involve speaking to an agent.  

For example, what does greater empathy look like in the case of an irregular operations (IROP) event – when passengers and staff are tired and tensions are running high?  

When you run sentiment analysis on travel reviews, more than a third focus on IROP events. Interestingly, the complaints do not center on the fact that IROPs happen, as recent studies show that most people expect some kind of day-of-travel disruption, but rather, how the disruption was handled. 

One of the dominant emotions is helplessness. During a disruption (e.g. flight cancellation) the passenger’s discomfort and irritation is often expressed in a lack of agency and information – they have limited understanding of the situation, nor do they have any say in the solution often provided. 

In an attempt to course correct, airlines typically bulk migrate the passengers to the next commercially viable flight. However, airlines have informed us that up to 70% still contact an agent because the revised itinerary does not suit their plans. Without knowing the ultimate value of the trip (why the passenger is traveling from A to B), it is impossible to understand the impact of the disruption on the passenger – the loss of time. And, for the airline above, 70% of the time, the solution does not solve the problem. 

Empathy should be more action than posture. At a bare minimum, the empathetic approach during an IROP event should provide solutions that are passenger-led, establishing agency and information (some have called the AI of IROPs) at a time most travelers are stressed.

About the author …

Matthew Walker is head of marketing at Plan3.

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