A question that was top of mind for many attendees of the Aviation Festival Americas 2018 in Miami this month was, “what is this year’s biggest airline innovation?” I had the pleasure of attending this conference with a team from Sparkcentral. What’s been on my mind since may come as a surprise to you…

Aviation Festival Americas 2018 conference and attendees

Aviation Fest 2018 was attended by over 500 people working across the airline industry. From premium to low-cost carriers, many airlines were represented from across the globe. We met folks working on ticketing, trip, and yield management solutions and saw scrappy and innovative startups looking to make an impact on the space. Attendees and speakers included some of the top thought leaders from airlines, airports, OTAs, and others in the travel ecosystem.

Sparkcentral also had the pleasure of introducing our new CEO, Joe Gagnon. As a four million mile traveler (!), it was a great opportunity for Joe to speak and share some of his perspectives on the space. Overall, Aviation Fest 2018 was a positive experience and very well attended, but something struck me…

In sessions, at booths, and in conversation, we heard many interesting ideas and perspectives on a myriad of subjects — yield management, affinity marketing, new loyalty programs, backend IT systems integration, core operations, etc. However, it was notable that we didn’t see much new thinking or hear many fresh perspectives on how to improve the customer experience or customer service for travelers.

“It was striking that we didn’t see much new thinking or hear many fresh perspectives on how to improve the customer experience or customer service for travelers”

It was apparent at this event that airlines, airports, and travel companies have spent the last 10-15 years optimizing things the customer doesn’t directly see or feel. From an economic standpoint, it has been important for airlines to innovate in areas like fuel cost hedging, asset leasing, consolidation, yield management, smart materials, affinity credit cards, and loyalty points. But these have now become undifferentiated, “me-too” approaches. There is not much more work to be done in these areas to distinguish one brand or service from another. All of these cards have been played. Think about it: even being a status flyer on an airline doesn’t mean as much as it used to. (TSA Pre-Check is probably the best air travel innovation in passenger experience in recent years, and even that is becoming problematic!)

A new way of innovating

Passenger safety will always be the #1 goal and priority for airlines and travel companies, but my strong belief is the next major opportunity for differentiation in the marketplace is to focus on the customer experience and how we can best serve the traveler.

“The next major opportunity for differentiation in the marketplace is to focus on the customer experience and how we can best serve the traveler.”

Ask yourself: what would go into a customer experience that makes travelers feel good, feel safe, and creates memorable and personalized experiences with low effort? Don’t limit your thinking to a passenger’s experience on the plane — consider everything from researching, planning, booking, and baggage handling…including time spent at the airport before and after your flight.

A messaging-first strategy is the answer. These are communications technologies like social media, in-app and in-web messaging, WhatsApp, SMS, etc. And the best part? Travelers already use them today to communicate with family and friends!

The current state of airline apps

Have you used an airline app or website recently? Sure, they’ve come a long way since the early iterations only allowed you to do simple things like check flight status…but there remains something glaringly awful about most of them — the “contact us” capability. Often, you’ll find a handful of 800-numbers and email forms with two-day response times. Who wants to call, navigate the IVR, try to remember your loyalty or confirmation number and then sit on hold for five, 15, or 30 minutes? Or up to several HOURS with bad weather! Especially when you’re in the middle of your trip when your flight crew is telling you to put your phone away.

As a passenger, I can browse and book flights from my phone. I can make adjustments or change my preferences on the go — from seat changes to upgrades to purchasing wifi. Often, I can check into my flight and carry a boarding pass without talking to a human or using a printer. At many airports, I can find restaurants and lounges easily within an in-app map. But it’s so frustrating that anytime I need a question answered or help during my trip, I have to stand in line, wait on hold, or otherwise stop what I’m doing. There is a better way.

The future of travel CX and passenger-centric airline innovation

Some airlines are waking up to this new reality. Innovators in the space have begun using platforms like WhatsApp to provide options for European travelers who rely heavily on that application in their daily lives. They are moving beyond one-way SMS flight updates to bi-directional conversations with passengers. They are standing by on Facebook Messenger. This is the better way. But it’s also just the start of what’s possible.

There are so many opportunities to enhance the traveler experience by implementing messaging-first customer service. The benefits are obvious: provide an open means of communication via messaging between travelers and customer support agents to increase customer satisfaction and reduce customer effort. Create opportunities for more customer intimacy by using public and private, secure communication channels that customers choose. Give customer service representatives a chance to provide personalized and emotional care to passengers while increasing agent efficiency and multiplying the number of concurrent conversations they can handle.

Safeguard your brand’s reputation by addressing customer issues quickly. And, for those of you in operations or who prefer behind-the-scenes magic, these innovations don’t have to be directly customer-facing. At Sparkcentral, we help a major carrier power internal communications globally across operations centers, flight and ground crews. Through our messaging platform, we’ve helped them eliminate numerous dedicated phone numbers and reduce agent coverage, saving them millions of dollars a year. What are some wins messaging could bring to your customer experience this year?

Messaging is a worldwide communications shift

In the days since Aviation Fest 2018, I keep thinking about the challenges that airlines, airports, and other travel companies are undertaking. They are fighting to stand out in a crowded marketplace, while margins get tighter and the opportunity for differentiation becomes tougher. Of course, this isn’t unique to the air travel industry — as these dynamics are prevalent across all maturing industries. So, where to begin? At the end of the day, the contact center of yesterday looks nothing like the contact center of tomorrow.

Going back to the original question I posed: “what is this year’s biggest airline innovation?” This year’s biggest airline innovation is simple: it’s bringing your customer service experience into the 21st century. Digital messaging is the most cost-effective and customer-preferred way to accomplish this goal. You’ve pulled out all the bells and whistles for your brand’s mobile application and website, and now it’s time to roll out the red carpet for your customers with messaging-first service.

At Sparkcentral, we help leading global brands incorporate messaging-based interactions into their overall engagement and service strategy at scale. They have been able to transform their customer service function from a cost center into a competitive differentiator. We believe in making it easy for your customers to reach you and for you to provide them with amazing, memorable service. If you’d like to learn more about how to operationalize messaging for your customer service operation, get in touch!

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