The Airline Passenger of Tomorrow

Until January 2020, the aviation industry had had a strong decade. Passengers numbers had grown, driven by competitive ticket prices, expanding route networks, and social media trends inspiring holidays abroad.  However, even before the first signs of the coronavirus (COVID-19), there were challenges emerging in European markets, with customers turning their attention to the climate change movement, Scandinavian #flygscam (flight shaming), the growing popularity of staycations, and a renewed chic associated with ‘greener’ rail travel. Then, as the coronavirus spread, in the first quarter of 2020, the bottom fell out worldwide, with passenger air travel sustaining a drop of over 75%.

The financial downturn suffered by commercial airlines since January, as a result of the decline in passengers, has been dramatic, and, in many instances, further intensified by fuel hedging losses.  Whilst government bailouts and raising funds from shareholders are on the table, the only real solution for aviation is to get customers flying again.  As the media celebrates the unpolluted skies, and coronavirus cases continue to rise worldwide, we explore what will bring airline customers, around the world, back to flying again.  We’ve observed the resurgence of domestic air travel in China, since lockdown was lifted in April, and the intention to increase scheduled flights by Ryanair, EasyJet and British Airways in late June and July.  We’re also intrigued by recent media reports about the consideration of  ‘cash for clunkers’ schemes in which a government incentivises an airline to replace its older aircraft with less polluting newer models – would this appeal to the reticent traveller? 

Who is the airline passenger of tomorrow? 

High standards, high expectations, and high hopes

In the last decade, travel, leisure, and entertainment customers have had their expectations raised by the enticing offerings of disruptors:  same day delivery of goods; hot restaurant meals at the doorstep;  point to point taxi rides on demand;  contactless payment and contactless ticketing; and, millions of homes away from home to choose from for a holiday. Consumers have come to accept, expect and benefit from targeted advertisements with data-driven, machine-learned prescience – we buy not only what we know we want, but also what we realise we want after seeing it in an ad. Consumers have grown accustomed to the high speed at which new, enhanced, bold offerings materialise. 

Bringing aviation customers back will require a bold response that immediately adapts to the change in circumstance caused by the coronavirus.  Airports and airlines will need to transform at speed, aligned to the highest level of digital advertising with (machine) learning from every purchase going into shaping both the delivery and the marketing of air travel going forward, and allowing the subtle cultural differences in segments of the market to be exploited for the benefit of overall consumer confidence.  

The righteous aviation customer wants it all:  health confidence, safe airports, flexible tickets, and sustainability.  With so many alternatives to air travel, it will be up to the aviation sector to entice consumers back, and rebuild confidence by demonstrating that the expectation for health, safety, flexibility and sustainability are being met.  

It would appear in the media that consumers have high hopes. Ski holidays, Easter weekend getaways, honeymoon vacations, and summer trips have been ‘postponed’.  Destinations, including the country of Portugal, have launched ‘don’t cancel, postpone’ marketing campaigns, encouraging holiday travellers to plan their trips for the second half of this year. The mood is optimistic. After months of virtual meetings, vendors are eager to see clients in person, and leaders wish to re-assert their role at satellite locations by showing up in person. The media has captured the expression of longing, to be with friends in faraway locations, to check in on distant relatives, and to celebrate missed occasions. However, for the air traveller there is a caveat: the ticketing, airport, and inflight experience must adapt to the new normal. 

With this mind, we’ve looked at what passengers of the future might expect across the customer journey:

1. Planning and booking  

Booking a flight at the best price was a complex, drawn out exercise before coronavirus, with multiple suppliers offering different prices for the same flight on the same carrier. The future passenger will demand transparency and assurance that no matter which channel they are booking through, they are getting the best price for the product they’ve selected, much like Hilton have done with their ‘Price Match Guarantee’. This will require all distribution channels to be real-time priced, and synchronised – no tricks or surprises.

However, a more fundamental change will be the demand for flexibility. The old bugbear for many, the red tape around airline fare classes and steep charges to change or alter tickets that can no longer be used, will have to go. If airlines want to sell tickets, they must find innovative ways to protect their cashflow whilst making changes and cancellations easy for the customer, much like BA’s “book with confidence” scheme.  Provision of reseller markets, allowing passengers to recoup value from tickets in an organised way, could be part of the change.  Another innovative solution would be to offer flights on a service-based model, with customers purchasing blocks of flight hours that can be used flexibly, gifted, or saved, instead of being allocated to specific routes on specific dates. Skyhour is an example of this.  

Although paper ticketing was already on its way out, the customer of the future will require a completely paper-free, contactless ticketing e-solution. Services and add-on purchases should be able to be added with ease, providing co-revenue generating opportunities to airlines and convenience to consumers.  Hands-free luggage transfers, airport parking, onward mobility, lounge access, in-airport food and amenities purchases, in-flight services, food and beverage purchases, and even PPE (personal protective equipment) are among the many products and services that customers should be able to select, reserve and pay for electronically with ease and in conjunction with their ticket.  

Personalisation and choice will be expected from the time of booking, and throughout a journey, with optional add-ons targeted at a consumer’s past and expected behaviour. The future passenger will expect that data they share is used by the airline to offer relevant, appropriate and timely choices that are specific to their needs, in the same way that we have come to see ourselves in the purchase suggestions on Amazon. 

2. At the airport

From our own research, customers repeatedly cite three basic and fundamental needs that they wish to have provided for during their airport experience: easy access to clear flight information; limited idle time; and, sanitary and easily accessible food and facilities.  In the new normal, a place to social distance with clean air and surfaces is also essential.   

In a move that foreshadowed the need for people movement to ‘flow’, Apple removed much of the ‘queue to pay’ process in stores by deploying iPad-wielding floor walkers.  The customer of the future will expect innovations along these same lines.  Queuing, with two metres distance between customers, is impractical in airports, even at the slowest of times.  Instead, customers will expect to have e-tickets scanned curb-side, perhaps while still in an arrival vehicle, and to have luggage electronically tagged and deposited with no human contact.  Facial and eye recognition software will allow passengers to be uniquely associated with their e-ticket, and to move through the airport without stopping, whilst being scanned at checkpoints along the way. Boarding processes will change; push notifications via personal mobile devices will indicate when a specific seat can board the aircraft, reducing congestion at the gate and airbridge. Crammed buses to get to an off-pier stand will no longer be acceptable.  Government policy, global regulation, and technology development are key to the speed of adoption. These are not new ideas;  British Airways had already made a foray into this area before coronavirus, installing  biometric boarding at London’s Heathrow airport.

The technology for automatic baggage handling systems has been improved recently with a focus on luggage movement after tagging.  The aviation customer of the future will expect contactless tagging and tracking.  Luggage tagging will need to move away from paper tags that are physically placed onto bags, and toward an electronic chip system that automatically photographs, scans, and tags bags using basic automation and an RFID chip built in or 3D barcode in a plastic label that can be attached robotically. In association with their e-ticket, passengers will expect to be able to see the location of their bag in the system at all times from a smartphone or personal device.  

Baggage reclaim, the old way, from large conveyor belts surrounded by crowds standing together, may need to be replaced by a single passenger depositary system in which passengers are notified that their bags are available and then present themselves at an automated delivery window, where they will be ‘recognised’ and their bag will be delivered to them. When bags are meant to be sent onward, once a passenger has cleared immigration and security checks, this process will be done automatically.

Airports are already now installing body temperature check-points, which will provide customers with one layer of comfort in what will inevitably need to be a portfolio of health and sanitary measures aimed at improving aviation hygiene and raising consumer confidence. Although coronavirus pre-flight testing has been trialled by Emirates, it is unlikely that this will be possible at busier airports using conventional testing methods.  However, advances in airborne pathogen detection systems will in the future provide not only the ability to identify the presence of pathogens using a breathalyser that targets an individual passenger, but it will also allow for the testing of air quality and for the presence of pathogens in enclosed areas including waiting areas, gates, passenger boarding bridges, and airplane cabins. 

Attaching antibody test results or proof of vaccination to e-ticket data would add another dimension to transmission-risk reduction. If basic medical information is attached to e-ticket data, it would also be conceivable for an airline or airport to use the results of an independent coronavirus test, performed within 24-48 hours of flight, and attach certain privileges to a negative result, as well as barring any traveller with a positive result.  Potentially certain medical information, such as a negative coronavirus test result, could be used in a manner similar to that of a TSApre (a USA Transport Security Administration pre-screening programme) for example, by allowing the passenger to expedite further in-airport screening, or to access services or areas of the airport restricted to those with medical clearance.  

Customers will expect mobile integration at every step of their journey. RFID beacons and wifi connectors will guide customers to where they need to go, and push notifications for gate assignment, and boarding calls will become standard. Ticket-attached data will  trigger offers dependent on a passenger’s destination, class of travel, and other data the customer has opted to share.  In-airport purchases will be available electronically, eliminating crowded shops and restaurants, replaced with online, contactless payment of in-airport duty free, products, food and beverage, with passenger purchases being delivered or served to them at their location in the airport.  This is simply an extension of systems that are already operational, such as the @AtYourGate system in operation at major USA airports in partnership with airlines including British Airways. 

Terminal redesign, to accommodate social distancing and to shift away from at-till purchasing, will be all about ‘flow’ and ‘niche’ (private and semi-private spaces).  Redesign to better accommodate the diverse population of travellers, including those who are less able to walk long distances, was already underway, but should be accelerated and joined with redesign aimed at sanitary safety.   With the move toward electronic purchase of in-airport amenities, the need to eliminating bottle-necking and crowded areas, and the desire to limit walking, a natural move would be toward electronic pods that move people through airports in autonomous vehicles.  Autonomous pods could provide every customer with a seat and a location at which products and services could be delivered, and then deliver the passengers to their gate.  With automatic disinfection between use, this would solve mobility and sanitary issues, create ‘flow’ and ‘niche’.  An early version of autonomous pods, Ultra Global PRT, are in trial at Heathrow Terminal 5.  Further development is needed in the area of ‘flow’ and autonomous in-airport vehicles.  

3. In-flight

IATA has found relatively little evidence of in-flight transmission of coronavirus.   However, the fear of in-flight transmission could be one of the most important consumer deterrents and it should be addressed aggressively both in terms of real measures to protect passenger health onboard, and also in rebound marketing and advertising by airlines and travel companies.  The aviation customer of tomorrow will expect to be fully convinced and reassured that their in-flight experience will be ‘germ free’.  Whilst an obvious solution is to increase onboard distance between passengers, the decrease in revenue associated with flying less full is an unattractive option to already revenue-short airlines.  Instead, solutions that provide fast airflow circulation, barriers between passengers, and disinfection – particularly those solutions that are visible and demonstrable to passengers, will make more sense, both in terms of their actual and psychological benefit.  

In-cabin retrofit ideas include individual air filters installed above every seat, screens or shades that passengers slide down between seats once they have boarded, and the distribution of disinfecting surface wipes that allow each passenger to clean the area around their seat themselves.  Small gifts of hand sanitiser will also be appreciated by future passengers, as well as the option to purchase PPE before the flight as an add-on to the ticket.  In upper class, where pyjamas, eye shades, and cosmetic kits had been standard gifts in the past, PPE and personal disinfectant will be the gifts desired in the future.   

Food and beverage orders, going forward, will need to be made electronically and delivered to each passenger fully wrapped. In the future, robotic delivery of pre-ordered products and services would minimise risk to airline crew, and provide passengers with a higher perceived degree of sanitary safety.  The move is in this direction: Virgin Atlantic and Norwegian are among the airlines that have introduced electronic food and beverage ordering; and,  Boeing has already filed a USA patent application for an “Airplane Passenger Service Robot”.

The passenger of the future will expect to have a choice of how they spend the duration of their flight, whether this means remaining connected to the world for business reasons with fast and continuous internet access, entertainment options which update the classic seat back movie to a new virtual reality experience, or noise-cancelling relaxation options.

Data-driven personalisation will play a role, with the inflight experience suggested and  executed with a personal touch – whether this be seat back messaging, onboard food, or behaviour of cabin crew.  Virgin Atlantic has cabin crew iPads, as do many airlines, but recently capability has been added to view customer feedback scores from the outbound flight. If issues exist, the crew is given discretion to ‘win back’ the customer with a variety of approved gestures of goodwill, with the aim of turning detractors into fans before their round trip is completed – critically, this is 100% of customers, not just those in Upper Class.

If customers share data pre-boarding, then the set-up of the cabin for each passenger could be automatically pre-set, much like getting into a car and selecting your driving profile.  .

Passengers of the future will expect their arrival airport and onward travel requirements to be fully customised and resolved prior to landing.  Clearing immigration whilst still on-board, with facial recognition and video technology, and instant uploading of biometric data, will remove the bottlenecks at immigration, and allow for the arrival airport to check health data, including uploading a body temperature check completed whilst a customer is still in their seat.  Customers will expect onward travel issues resolved onboard in real-time, as part of a connected service, including real-time booking of onward connecting flights for the minimal transfer time possible.  Arrival airport autonomous pods will take passengers from their arrival gate, through required immigration, security controls, baggage reclaim and directly to their onward flight or to transfer to their airport exit onward mobility solution.   

4. Sustainability

People have been paying increasing attention to their own contributions to climate change and sustainable living.  Since January 2020, media attention has been particularly focused on the ‘clear skies’, with worldwide headlines such as one from CNN:  “People in India can see the Himalayas for the first time in 'decades,' as the lockdown eases air pollution”   How consumers spend their money on travel is increasingly connected to values and priorities in the area of CO2 reduction and sustainability.  

For the airline passenger of tomorrow, choosing to fly will likely include an assessment of the actions that airlines and airports are taking to reduce CO2 emissions, and how easy organisations make it for customers to meet their own personal commitments.  Consumers are increasingly paying attention to flight details for the purpose of evaluating the carbon footprint of their journey.  Specific details include the aircraft type, it’s fuel efficiency, and whether the airline will provide a guarantee not to swap the designated airplane type with an older more polluting variety.  Providing this type of information to customers is already becoming a standard practice. 

Availability and quality of carbon offset schemes will continue to increase in their importance to aviation consumers. British Airways has partnered with the charity Pure Leapfrog to provide passengers with a simple way to calculate the emissions of their flight and choose an offsetting option.  Several alternatives, such as VYVE and offer carbon usage tracking, as well as options for travellers who want to balance their impact with carbon offsetting. 

Although the option to offset may provide some reassurance to customers, the only long-term strategy to fully address the concerns of the aviation customer of tomorrow is to reduce the carbon footprint and make flying more sustainable.  Funding technology innovation research needs to be a priority of the industry and governments.  There is a catalogue of promising areas of research including substitution of alternative fuels, weight-reducing aircraft design, real-time data analysis to optimise in-flight fuel consumption, and electric aircraft development.  The events of the last several months have driven home the need to bring these options to market at an accelerated pace.  As governments consider the provision of aid packages for the aviation industry, the tie to green R&D is an opportunity to direct funding toward sustainability.   

There is no doubt that technology will allow many future customer expectations to be met, throughout the customer journey, starting with the choices that each aviation customer makes when purchasing a ticket. The most successful aviation businesses, will be those that:

  • - Adapt rapidly to the volatility and change that began in January 2020
  • - Accelerate the uptake of data-driven, technology-based solutions, that lesson the need for close human contact  
  • - Track evolving global and local trends, combining these with existing consumer insights, to form a strategic view based on customer needs
  • - Monitor and benchmark disruptors in other industries and foster opportunities to compliment and exploit new delivery and service models
  • - Listen to and continually test ideas with customers, potential customers, and the partners that are required to deliver services
  • - Align strategic insight with operational team strategy to deliver consistent services and experience
  • - Incentivise and reward collaboration and partnership across suppliers to deliver on service promises
  • - Invest in more capability and tooling for operational staff based on real-time data
  • - Heavily communicate and market adaptations that are being made to directly address the values of the airline passenger of tomorrow in the areas of health and sustainability. 

Moorhouse has a proven track record of turning customer strategy into action for major private and public sector organisations and has been working with many clients to accelerate and streamline their response to the impact of COVID-19.  Whether it’s identifying emerging customer trends, optimising the customer journey, developing business models that meet customer needs, or operationalising strategic aims – we help our clients understand and serve the Customer of Tomorrow.

To discuss how your organisation can meet the needs of its Customer of Tomorrow, please contact: Matt Coghlan or James Easterbrook


1. Flightradar24 Statistics

2. 15 May 2020, South China Morning Post

3. 23 April 2020, Euroweekly 

4. Skyhour

5. 27 April 2019, British Airways New Release 

6. 15 April 2020, Forbes 

7. 1 July 2020 release date, Volume 159, Biosensors and Bioelectronics, 112214

8. @AtYourGate

9. Ultra Global PRT autonomous pods

10. 25 May 2020, IATA Medical Advisory Group

11. 17 October 2019, USA Patent Application 20190314993

12. 9 April 2020, CNN

 13. Pure Leapfrog carbon offsetting

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