The Airline Passenger of Tomorrow

The aviation industry has had a strong decade. Passengers numbers have grown, driven by competitive ticket prices, expanding route networks and social media content inspiring many more to go and see the world.  But with customer expectations for service and experience now being set by the likes of Uber and Amazon Prime, and with the Flygskam (flight shaming) movement emerging as an existential threat, what will the Airline Passenger of Tomorrow expect?

Where is the airline industry heading?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects 8.2 billion passengers to travel by air in 2037, more than doubling the 4 billion passengers in 20171.  A significant proportion of this growth is predicted to come from domestic and international routes in China and India. The UK should expect to see this manifest in new routes to these destinations, new airlines operating to and from the UK and more passengers from these regions arriving or connecting through the UK. 

This will likely shift the profile of UK aviation passengers, in turn introducing new needs to be met. For example, we will likely see wider introduction of regional technologies such as the Chinese payment provider AliPay in airports and onboard aircraft.

The UK Government predicts annual passenger numbers will grow from 280 million to 435 million by 20502, broadly in line with the industry. However, recent studies by bank UBS, have pointed to expected growth halving (to 1.5% in EU) due to climate change fears. An increasing number of passengers are choosing not to fly, perhaps as result of emerging movements such as Flygskam (flight shame) and Tagskryt (train bragging) in Northern Europe. What is clear is that the industry must change to cater for these new customer needs and indeed as part of a wider response to the existential threat of climate change.

So what might the airline passenger of the future expect?

Like other industries, aviation and travel brands are having to cater to consumers who have their expectations set by the offerings of disruptors in other parts of their daily life; whether this be the same day delivery of goods, on-demand local transport, real-time information, or mobile banking and payments. 

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

1. Planning and booking  

Booking a flight with the confidence that you’re getting the best price can be a complex, drawn out affair with multiple suppliers offering different prices for the same flight on the same carrier.  The future passenger will likely want 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, please! 

A more fundamental change may 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. Skyhour3, by JetBlue, is an early example of this, with opportunities to link into other mobility-as-a-service models for transport to and from each airport.  

A bugbear for many is the inflexibility and red tape around airline fare classes; customers often find themselves facing steep charges to change or alter tickets they can no longer use. Perhaps provision of reseller markets allowing passengers to recoup some value from tickets that are non-refundable could boost loyalty against airlines that don’t offer this.  

British Airways has hinted in this direction with their same day change option. More of these low risk, high win satisfaction moves can drive business. 

Personalisation and choice will be expected from the time of booking, from optional add-ons like a bottle of champagne in any cabin, to a set of pyjamas on a long-haul flight or lounge access for a long connection. The future passenger will expect that data they are happy to share is used by the airline and other providers to offer relevant, appropriate and timely choices that are specific to their needs.  

2. At the airport

From our own research, customers repeatedly cite three basic and fundamental needs during their airport experience:

  • Provide me with easy to access, clear and accurate information 
  • Give me control and choice, and don’t treat me as a part of a process
  • Limit my wasted and idle time

Quite simply, if the combined experience in an airport fails significantly on any one of these, then trying to meet expectations beyond them becomes an uphill struggle.

The number one complaint from airport passengers is idle time with nothing to do4. So, the concept of wasted time through queueing, waiting for information, and getting lost needs to be eradicated. 

Just as Apple removed much of the ‘queue to pay’ process in stores by deploying iPad wielding floor walkers, customers may expect a similar experience when dropping their bags or clearing security. 

Research indicates that digital touchpoints are favoured by many young customers both in economy and business, for transactional activities. Use of app check-in and auto-bag drop is growing and reduces customer idle time, when it works slickly.  

What does remain clear though, is that human contact still remains critical at certain times, and it appears in different guises. For example, during disruption to flights, having the option and reassurance from a human who has access to the latest information is invaluable. In a different scenario, the flying experience can be petrifying for some people and human contact is important to quell fears. Lastly, some customer demographics expect face to face service and interaction based on cultural norms.

In a survey of top ten customer complaints, security procedures featured three times. Expectations for both immigration and security in the future will be an optimal balance between safety and an easy, non-invasive experience. Of course, Government policy, global regulation and technology advances and adoption are all key to this. British Airways has made strides in this area with biometric boarding at London’s Heathrow airport, speeding up the final steps to get onboard and reducing idle time for the customer.

Customers will expect mobile integration at every step. RFID beacons and wifi connectors should guide customers to where they need to go, and perhaps trigger offers dependent on their destination, class of travel, and any other data the customer has opted to share. Push notifications for gate assignment, and fifteen-minute boarding calls will become standard. As aviation and travel commentator Gilbert Ott describes, “when I say 15 minutes to boarding, I mean it, none of this standing around in the gate malarkey”. 

Customers will want to continue about their day in the airport, not treat it as an inconvenience, whether this be for working, socialising, learning, shopping or wellbeing.

3. In-flight

Passengers will expect to have the choice of how they spend the duration of their flight, whether this means remaining connected to the world for business reasons, switching off completely in search of relaxation, or immersing in entertainment options which change the classic seat back movie to a new VR experience. Norwegian provides seat back ordering for food and beverages, removing the interminable wait for the trolley or the need to press the dreaded call bell. Virgin Atlantic has adopted this function onboard their new A350 aircraft. 

Personalisation will also play a key role. If a customer is willing to share their data, then the inflight experience can be planned 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 decide to share data pre-boarding, then the set-up of the cabin for each passenger could be automatically set, much like getting into a car and selecting your driving profile. Deliveroo is even able to get food to the gate at Dubai airport – so moving forward, customers may expect much wider menus on-board.

Customers will likely want to see any onward travel issue resolved onboard in real-time, as part of a connected service. This will be more widespread in flight re-booking for missed connections, just in time taxi ordering, or clearing immigration from the aircraft seat.  

Thinking further ahead, the rise of health and wellbeing will extend into the aircraft environment. Customer needs will transcend into maximising sleep quality, air quality, and nutrition, whilst reducing noise, light and radiation pollution.  A clear nod towards the more modern aircraft, such as Boeing’s 787 and the Airbus A350, where cabin pressurisation, air quality and noise pollution have been game changers for passengers, as well as burning less fuel and being more sustainable options.


People are paying increasing attention to their own contributions to climate change and sustainable living. As such, where they choose to spend their money will be a natural extension of these new priorities and needs.

For the Customer of Tomorrow, choosing to fly will likely include an assessment of what those organisations are doing to reduce CO2 emissions and how easy they make it to meet their own commitments.

Whilst the need to fly will not disappear; we can expect to customers to explore the following when making a decision to purchase and fly:

  • Information on the aircraft type they are flying on, its efficiency, and perhaps guarantees that the aircraft won’t be swapped last minute for an older more polluting variety. A new Boeing 787 burns roughly 30% less fuel than an old 747.
  • Availability of, and quality of carbon offset schemes. British Airways offsets all domestic passenger traffic, and for international traffic has partnered with leapfrog to provide the option to fund global initiatives.  Alternatively, offers a subscription style service for the frequent flyer who wants to balance their impact.
  • Innovation - for reducing weight and therefore fuel burn on aircraft, or for investing in alternative fuels made from existing waste, or for alternative propulsion such as easyJet’s electric aircraft programme, which aims to cover short haul routes by 2030.
  • The offering of connected intermodal transport options that save on flying, such as KLM which now sells train tickets between Brussels and Amsterdam Schiphol, replacing a flight.  The service standard remains the same, and the hub connectivity of Schiphol still serves the Belgian market. 

Can the aviation industry achieve what customers expect?  In short, yes if it is prepared to adapt faster than it has historically done. Delivering sustainable travel means burning less fuel, which is more directly linked to an airline balance sheet than any other travel business, and in a recent survey by British Airways, 43% of respondents cited they would pay more for an eco-friendlier flight.

 So, what does this mean for airports, airlines and the wider aviation supply chain?

As the end to end customer journey can be fragmented across multiple organisations, meeting customer expectations at each moment is very challenging. One single failure point can taint all involved.

‘No man is an island’ as they say, and neither should an airline, airport, or supply chain be. Those who can work seamlessly together, sharing data in order to make better decisions and incentivising and partnering to deliver optimal customer experience will lead the market. 

There is no doubt that technology will allow many future expectations to be met, but priority should always be given to understanding the customer needs as a first step, formulating the strategy to deliver at every touch point (starting with fixing the basics), and then building an operating model to support this. 

The most successful aviation businesses, will be those who:

  • Track global and local trends, combining these with existing customer insights to form a strategic view based on customer needs.
  • Monitor and benchmark disruptors in other industries, and the supply chain, and foster opportunities to compliment and exploit new delivery or service models.
  • Listen to and continually test ideas with customers, potential customers, and critically, the partners required to deliver services.
  • Better align strategic insight with operational team strategy and change plans to deliver consistent services and experience.
  • Understand that great customer experience is only as strong as the weakest link. Incentivise and reward collaboration and partnership across suppliers to deliver on the service promises.
  • Invest in more capability and tooling for operational staff based on real-time data.

Moorhouse has a proven track record of turning customer strategy into action for major private and public sector organisations. Whether it’s identifying emerging customer trends, optimising the customer journey, or developing business models that meet customer needs – 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. IATA 20 year passenger forecast
2. Department for Transport (2017): UK aviation forecasts, central forecast under Heathrow Northwest runway
4. McKinsey & Company – Top 10 Customer Airport Complaints

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Matt Coghlan Principal