"Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the need for smart digital transformation strategies is no longer just a nice to have feature. Instead, it is becoming essential. And there is no industry better positioned to capitalize on the benefits of digital-first processes than the travel and hospitality industry."
-- Skift

As countries ease travel restrictions, air traffic is slowly starting to pick up. How well airlines fare in this uncertain market depends on their ability to win back customer confidence by satisfying new expectations and flying habits with the help of digital solutions and touchless technologies. One survey shows that eight in 10 airline passengers will not return to their previous travel routines even after the crisis is over, and a third plan to fly less. Passengers also want fewer physical touchpoints and interactions. Contactless transactions, staggered security queues and digitally enhanced flight experiences were rated high by the respondents.

According to the 2021 global survey by WNS and Corinium Intelligence, 60 percent of travel companies accelerated the digitization of customer-facing operations in the wake of the pandemic. Another 10 percent are likely to follow suit in the next 1-2 years. Among the companies surveyed, 90 percent said they were ahead of schedule in automating back-office operations.

For airlines, this means adopting a more sustainable operating model, supported by data analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). Instead of holding onto their cash reserves, airlines should start investing in digital technologies that can help them glean sharper insights into preferences and habits in an evolving normal. COVID-19 has also eroded the purchasing power of customers. A more sustainable operating model that integrates advanced analytics, conversational AI and intelligent automation can help carriers manage disruptions, and enhance customer loyalty, retention and trust.

Going Touchless to Gain Lost Ground

Several airports and airlines around the globe are going full steam with touchless technology projects.  A European airport operator recently introduced an end-to-end touchless travel program that helps passengers check-in remotely using mobile phones at airports across its network. This includes baggage drop, passing through security checks, and even boarding without contact or the need to access a kiosk.

Another European airport offers a new cashless payment process for customers at airport stores, without the need for a mobile application, to reduce congestion and speed up the checkout process. A leading US airline is experimenting with touchless, in-flight digital payments on select routes out of its Denver hub. Biometric technologies are also beginning to play a significant role in the touchless travel experience and remain a key focus area for new aviation investments.

Human-centric Approach for Hassle-free Travel

While the pandemic compelled airlines to increase their efforts to gain customer trust, retaining it will require a blend of technologies and a human-centric mindset. This means exploring innovative ways to boost trust and confidence with the customer at the center. Airlines have amended booking policies to enable easier modifications and cancellations, increasing customer confidence to book flights. They have also introduced adjusted schemes to enable passengers to retain their loyalty status even with fewer points.

New complexities in documentation such as vaccine certifications and COVID-19 test results require the industry to opt for smart digital solutions that can enable travel that is hassle-free, fast and flawless. Several airlines are investing in mobile applications that make the documentation process smooth and seamless. Once passengers upload travel documents on these applications, the airline staff can remotely verify the genuineness of the documents and give the go-ahead or recommend changes to eliminate last-minute hassles. Such measures also help reduce processing time and health risks at check-in counters. 

Empowering Cabin Crew Digitally

Since the cabin crew interacts with passengers in close physical proximity, there are opportunities to use digital solutions to minimize contact and at the same time boost the quality of interactions. A North American airline is using a guest service tool that leverages big data for in-flight cabin crew effectiveness. The cabin crew has a dashboard that flashes data such as milestones achieved by a passenger on board, and preferences that help the staff anticipate requests and personalize interactions.

The road to recovery begins with customers. Delivering memorable ‘moments of truth’ to customers in these trying times is the key to airline recovery. At the center of this strategy is a digitally integrated CX model. Airlines can improve outcomes in customer interactions by utilizing human-assisted design, domain expertise and AI-driven conversational insights. They can also invest in automated, intelligent and touchless transactions that boost the trust of passengers.

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