Will Airlines Take Flight in 2021?
The Covid-19 pandemic has devasted many industries, but perhaps the most dramatically affected has been the air travel trade, whose wings have been truly clipped. Just this week there were reports that for the world’s airlines to make a comeback they would need $80 billion in funding. However, as countries around the world start to roll out vaccination programmes, there may well be a glimmer of hope on the horizon – though will the experience of lockdown leave consumers excited for the chance to travel? Cautious about germs? Adapted to reduced business and leisure travel?
However it shakes out, now is the time for airlines to come into their own and prove that they’ve listened to concerns and acted appropriately.
MullenLowe Profero’s managing director Louise Roberts, who heads up the Etihad account, explains how the airline has mixed things up in response to consumer concerns: “Many airlines have introduced technologies and processes to make the travel experience more seamless and efficient – reducing the need for human interaction. However, the replacement of human contact with touchscreens can increase travellers stress and anxiety. Etihad Airways have injected humanity back to their travel experiences by being the first to introduce specially trained ‘Wellness Ambassadors’ to provide multi-lingual travel health advice, and care for passengers at the airport and inflight 24/7.”
While Etihad is predominantly a brand in the UAE, where tourism provides a steady income for the region, one only has to look at the care Etihad and Emirates Airline gives to flyers to understand just how well the United Arab Emirates understands consumer concerns. In May 2020, when much of the world was still getting to grips with the pandemic, both airlines introduced a hygiene kit given complimentary to each passenger checking in at Dubai Airport containing a mask, gloves, hand sanitiser and anti-bacterial wipes.
This is something Singapore Airlines implemented too. Vice president of public affairs, Siva Govindasamy explains that health and safety is a top priority for both customers and staff. “High-touch surfaces in the cabin are also regularly treated with a long-lasting anti-microbial coating. On selected aircraft, electrostatic spraying machines containing a disinfecting agent are used to sanitise the cabin. New digital technologies help to ease the customer journey – we removed newspapers, magazines, and back-pocket literature, but our e-Library provides access to more than 150 publications which our customers can download before their flight.”
While these airlines are all well established and have a loyal client base, what of airlines that are tapping into new markets during uncertain times? Eithad and Wizz Air Europe are currently in the midst of launching Wizz Air Abu Dhabi as the only low-cost airline in the Middle East flying to Europe. Looking after the account is M&C Saatchi UAE and their CEO Scott Feasey explains that when the pandemic began his team worked with the brand to push back the launch so that when consumers were ready to fly again, Wizz would be ready.
When many business trips were cancelled, the agency channelled their energies into creating a campaign that would be fitting for both business travellers and those who were using technology to connect with loved ones. “We are playing on the personal connection that’s so important in business to build relationships – ‘Why Zoom, when you can Wizz!’,” explains Scott.
The rise of technology such as Zoom and the role virtual connections played when flights were not allowed is something that M&C Saatchi Sydney’s senior strategy director Vanessa Graham touches upon when pondering if the acceleration of ecommerce had an impact of the tourism industry. “I think for tourism, the biggest shift we have seen is not in ecommerce but broader tech experiences that have allowed travel and tourism to be enjoyed from the comfort of people’s homes.
“It is predicted we will travel less and as a result what people will want from travel will grow. With tech experiences such as Virtual Reality, brands can now offer prospective travellers a taste and flavour of what a destination has to offer. Some great examples of this were the Faroe Islands virtual tour and our Live from Aus live stream where you could watch live the Phillip Island penguin march, take virtual guided walks through the Blue Mountains, or do a workout with Chris Hemsworth.”
For Singapore Airlines this acceleration of new technologies meant that while flights were halted they were able to derive income from different places: “We announced the launch of Kris+, an all-new platform to further power growth for the KrisFlyer business, the trip-planning and booking platform Pelago, which will connect travellers to experiences in various destination cities, and the cargo logistics platform Parxl, which offers e-retailers a comprehensive shipping solution with end-to-end parcel tracking to their customers’ doorsteps, using blockchain technology.
“KrisShop continues to grow as an omni-channel retailer with both in-flight and online presence. These initiatives will complement the core airline operations and provide the SIA Group with more opportunities for stronger customer engagements.”
While some airlines have used the time to accelerate diversification and transformation projects, the overwhelming challenges have stalled many. In particular, British Airways, who were unable to provide comment here, have recently received a £2 billion bailout loan. The terms were agreed by parent company International Airlines Group and while this signalled a sigh of relief for the 12,000 members of staff who were almost made redundant, the issue the brand faces now is making themselves a consumer favourite despite the less than favourable press they’ve garnered.
British Airways is just one in a long list of airlines who faced trouble during 2020. Flybe filed for administration in early March – before the UK had even gone into a lockdown, followed by Air Mauritius and Cathay Dragon to name a few. Many brands paused operations during the pandemic due to low numbers of flyers and the knock-on effect this had on staff and livelihoods was devastating.
During this period of turmoil, the brands that kept customers engaged with the correct social media and campaigns were the ones who came out on top, such as Singapore Airlines: “We have regularly communicated through multiple channels – via our own social media channels through a combination of videos, infographics, and images, as well as through direct messages to our customers. We have also engaged the traditional media to ensure that they are aware of what we have done.”
However, the ones who didn’t get the tone right felt the brunt of it. Towards the end of 2020, Ryanair came up with the ‘Jab and Go’ campaign which urged flyers to book their summer holiday flights now that ‘Covid vaccines are coming’ accompanied by images of a syringe and glass bottle labelled ‘vaccine’. Getting the tone wrong of such a campaign backfired on the brand with news earlier this month that the ASA would be investigating after receiving over 1,600 complaints.
Louise says that reflecting Eithad’s sense of responsibility has been key to hitting the right tone. Etihad are finding ways to keep their most loyal customers engaged and reassured of any health and safety concerns and urges airlines to use their voices for the better: “Airlines have a responsibility to take a leadership role and provide transparent and clear information around the issues surrounding health and safety without appearing to be too commercially focused.”
With the hope that vaccines will roll out and (touch wood) the re-opening air travel across 2021, it would be easy to get over-excited and celebratory. However, Vanessa believes that a more mindful and purposeful approach will be more appropriate and in tune with the general mood of the public. Understanding that people will be looking to save up and make big trips count will be a key factor to how airlines will take off in 2021 and beyond.