Tuesday, January 9, 2018

European airlines must embrace client-first tech to conquer crippling delays.

Photo credit: Sergey Svechnikov via Unsplash

In early December of 2017, a winter storm descended over northern Europe. Straight in its path, lay Brussels Airport. Left behind in its vicious wake were centimeters of slushy snow and hundreds of canceled flights.

How do I know this? I was one of the tens of thousands of passengers who had their trip canceled. After spending a long, joyful weekend with friends and family in Belgium, my wife and I were set to return home to (a much sunnier) Barcelona on Monday evening. Yet, the weather had other plans. No sooner did we finish our lunch than we received notification from Brussels Airlines that they were canceling our 6:30 p.m flight back to Spain.

I'm no stranger to canceled flights. Just last summer, I raced a fierce storm front across Wyoming and northern Colorado, beat it to the airport, only to have my flight out of Denver subsequently grounded due to multiple tornadoes (which, to be fair, was probably for the best).

In this case, I was able to rebook on the spot via a link provided by the airline and a subsequent callback from an agent confirming my new itinerary. After a quick night in a hotel, I got back home the next day. That said, this all took place in the U.S. - a country renowned for its client-first mentality - and I was flying with low-cost innovator Southwest airlines. By contrast, my most recent experience took place in Europe - a region where competition among commercial carriers is fierce, and customer service often gets lost in translation.

To make matters worse, the commercial aviation scene on the continent is in the midst of unprecedented disruption. Over the last half-decade, many factors combined to create an ultra-competitive environment for airlines. Oil prices have been relatively stable, sitting around 55.00 USD a barrel.

With plenty of supply on the market, this trend seems likely to continue. Likewise, cheap credit and an open market are driving both mergers and acquisitions - see Lufthansa Group consolidating their portfolio - and the expansion of new and existing brands such as IAG’s Level or Norwegian’s rapid growth.

Perhaps most importantly, though, are the state-of-the-art aircraft from both Boeing Co. and Airbus which, thanks to their composite material design, make operating an aircraft cheaper than ever before.

This so-called perfect storm is a boon for consumers with airfares at historic lows and capacities never before seen on the market. As a result, people are traveling more than ever, in a way validating the strategies of airlines across the continent. Carriers are quick to react to say how they're using this situation to engage travelers better and use tech to improve operations such as aircraft maintenance or through digital marketing techniques.

However, there's an underlying problem. Despite all of the rhetoric about how these factors improve the overall experience for travelers, the fact is that they still haven't found a way to help their clients when it counts: managing mass delays and cancellations.

Indeed, when our 6:30 p.m. flight got canceled around 2 p.m, despite our best efforts, we were unable to get through to anyone at the Airline until 24 hours later. As it would turn out, the airport, along with many other ones in the region went in an almost full shutdown, grounding entire airlines in the process.

It was only logical that customer support staff became overwhelmed with phone calls and requests since not only were they fielding direct bookings from clients, but also had to deal with the travel agents of other passengers.

However, thanks to misdirected tech investments, an already bad situation became made much worse. The affected passengers had to rely solely on getting through to an agent to make their booking. For those stranded at an airport, this meant queuing for hours with no guarantee of resolution.

Of course, this uncertainty meant that booking a hotel or other accommodation represented a risk, further adding to passenger stress. Combined, the result was clear: passenger frustration from a less-than-optimal situation inflicted considerable damage to the airline’s brand. And in an environment where a 5.00 EUR fare difference is a driving factor for booking a flight, airlines cannot afford to let lousy brand reputation push consumers to competitors.

Fortunately for both airlines and travelers, the fix is easier than it seems. First, European carriers must take note of how their American and Asian counterparts manage delays or cancelations and focus their tech investments with the passenger's needs first. To do so, they need to look at the entire passenger experience from when things go wrong, not right. Ideally, they should ask themselves: "without knowing how my airline works, how would I react in this situation and what would I need right now to fix it?"

Their answer should lead them to embrace technology that allows their direct customers - i.e., travelers who reserved directly with the airline via website or telephone - to rebook their travel themselves. In practice, doing so could very well mean building an option in the "manage my booking" section of their website that shows the stranded passenger all the choices they have to complete their travel within the allotted time frame.

The benefits are twofold. First, the passenger can directly manage their booking with the rules of travel already defined in the web portal. They more than likely know where they want to go and instead of getting frustrated and cursing the brand while on endless hold waiting for an agent, he or she can quickly adjust their itinerary (largely) stress-free.

Second, agents at the airline will be free to handle more special cases - be it passengers with particular needs - or assist travel agents in rebooking flights. Since they won't have to deal with angry clients who will barely hesitate to take it out on the first person from the airline they meet, morale during a crisis will remain high, leading to better service and quicker resolution times for the pending backlog.

Additionally, European airlines should better-anticipate weather delays. Before forecasted storms hit, they should contact all passengers traveling for leisure to inform them of potential perturbations and give them the information needed to rebook their travel should it become necessary.

Put together, these tools would transform delay and cancellation management for European airlines, helping protect the brand in the process. Further, as the market is exceptionally competitive with LCCs taking business from legacy carriers - forcing the latter to water down their hard product - it only makes that the established airlines develop innovative tools that leave passengers with a positive experience, helping to increase repeat travel.

The European commercial aviation market is in a unique position. Thanks to a ‘perfect storm' of low-interest rates, steady oil prices, and extremely fuel-efficient aircraft, airlines are free to focus on adding routes, competing more agilely, and building out their tech. That said, customer experience when the brand is on the line - such as mass delays and cancellations - should be the primary focus of all carriers on the continent: there's simply no reason not to do so already.

Our experience, while eye-opening, turned into a pleasant, if unexpected extended stay. We were able to visit with friends that we didn't think we'd have a chance to see, and, after spending 14 years living in Brussels, we reveled in the nostalgia that came with strolling down familiar, snow-covered streets. We returned to Barcelona two days later on Wednesday evening and, even then, it was via Zurich and on Lufthansa-owned Swiss, who coincidentally also owns Brussels Airlines  — not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

I can never say when I'll have my next delay or cancellation. My only hope is that when it happens, the airline that I'm flying on will make sure that I'm armed with the tools I need to get home; because that's the type of service that turns me into a loyal customer.  

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