The Traveling Family

family

Image: Óscar Chávez

APEX Insight: Airlines will need to reconsider the solitary seating and refined cuisine that cater to adult passengers to win over parents who travel with their little ones in tow.

Despite laments for the days when families ostensibly boarded aircraft as the royal court did their chariot, recent government legislation indicates that parents and their young remain top of mind in the air travel industry. Over the past year alone, the Federal Aviation Agency approved a bill requiring airlines to seat families with children together without additional fees, and President Obama signed the Bottles and Breastfeeding Equipment Screening (BABES) Act into law, instructing the Transportation Security Administration to better accommodate parents traveling with breast milk, infant food and other feeding equipment. The regulations have been heralded as major victories for traveling families and as an assurance of the turning tides.

Families may not account for the most lucrative consumer group in the air travel industry, but they are perhaps one of the most reliable: “The average yield for families is lower than that for business travelers. However, as a large customer segment, families are also interesting for volume reasons,” a Lufthansa spokesperson explains. “Families mostly book further in advance, which is important for an airline in terms of its base load factor.” And with an estimated 60 million millennials expected to become parents in the next decade, traveling families are set to be one of the largest growth segments in the industry.

“Families mostly book further in advance, which is important for an airline in terms of its base load factor.” — Lufthansa Spokesperson

“With the advent of social media, millennial parents can find and be inspired by other parents who travel with their babies and children, thus dispelling a lot of the fear and anxiety that perhaps kept previous generations of parents closer to home,” says Marianne Perez de Fransius, CEO of Bébé Voyage, an online community of globe-trotting parents. “Millennials seek out experiences over stuff and so are more likely to spend on travel over products.” According to a recent survey by MMGY Global, this is especially the case for millennial families, who travel more often and more internationally than couples and singles of the same demographic.

Family First

Airlines looking to bring a family focus to their operations will need to question the assumptions that underpin their facilities and offerings. Aircraft cabin architecture prizes privacy and limits interaction, menu revamps veer toward refined cuisine and online booking platforms rarely support the unique demands of parents traveling with infants, such as booking a bassinet or purchasing a seat for a child under two. “Families have to call the airline and explain their situation to the customer service representative … I think families would greatly appreciate the ability to do all this online,” Perez de Fransius explains. The passenger experience industry hinges on the idea that the average customer is independent and of adult age, but parents are most concerned with how their younglings will fare. Six in 10 millennial families with children under 12 say their trips are entirely child-focused, compared with just a quarter of families with teenagers, reports MMGY Global. Airlines targeting these families, which the global marketing firm dubs “Brat Packs,” should appeal to the needs and preferences of their youngest members.

Lufthansa is a pioneer in this regard, having launched creative family-focused services and products in the early aughts. The German carrier’s children’s meals, of which over 40,000 are served in a given year, are designed by prominent chefs and selected by international juries of children between five and 12 years old to ensure that even the fussiest of eaters are satisfied. In February, the airline debuted a refreshed children’s menu comprising dishes such as “turtle muffins,” “snow-covered pasta mountain,” “rabbit cake” and “flying chicken.” Chef Cornelia Poletto, the mastermind behind the dishes, is herself a mother, a patron of the Altona Children’s Hospital, where she regularly cooks for patients, and a proponent of serving nutritious meals at primary school cafeterias. Leaving no stone unturned, even children’s buffets in Lufthansa lounges are measured to the appropriate height so that kids can serve themselves – with multicolored tableware,
of course.

“[Parents] cannot believe that such a service is so accessible and available to families across all classes of services.” — Linda Celestino, Etihad

Another family front-runner, Etihad Airways first introduced the world to the concept of flying nannies back in September 2013. The airline’s nannies are trained at reputable UK-based Norland College – the same institution attended by caretakers employed at Buckingham Palace. A rigorous two-month program teaches them how to warm up milk bottles, prepare bassinets and keep children entertained with origami airplanes, finger puppets and magic tricks. One or two nannies are on board all Etihad’s long-haul flights and in the airline’s family rooms in all lounges at Abu Dhabi International Airport. “The number one comment we receive from parents is that they cannot believe that such a service is so accessible and available to families across all classes of services – from first class to economy,” says Etihad’s vice-president of Guest Services, Linda Celestino. “When they see that orange apron – a signature part of the Flying Nanny uniform – they know a helping pair of hands is on the way.”

Curating Family Fun

We’ve all heard of captive audiences, but no audience is as captive as a child in flight. “For kids, often the plane ride is just as exciting, if not more so, than the destination,” Perez de Fransius says. Some airlines foster that excitement by reducing stressors with early boarding, parental controls on in-flight entertainment systems and seating families together; others go a step further, curating unforgettable experiences that highlight the magic of flight.

Asiana Airlines works its magic with “special in-flight services” on select flights departing from Seoul to London, Paris, New York and other major US and European cities. From flying magic shows and family photo ops in crewmember costumes to birthday celebrations and caricature sessions, Asiana’s offbeat services can be enjoyed in all cabin classes. And should passengers find themselves separated from their kin, they can participate in the carrier’s OZ Love Letter activity, what the carrier calls “a chance to write a handwritten letter to a loved one – an analog experience in the digital era!

“The airline industry could probably take a cue from the high-speed train in France, which … offers family cars.” — Marianne Perez de Fransius, Bébé Voyage

Notwithstanding Asiana’s successes, curating interactive family-friendly experiences on board can be difficult, given space constraints and rigid seating configurations. “The airline industry could probably take a cue from the high-speed train in France (the TGV), which, on many of its trains, especially during the holidays, offers family cars,” Perez de Fransius suggests. Industry stakeholders have met the challenge with designs that afford greater opportunities for togetherness. B/E Aerospace’s Family Zone concept, shortlisted for this year’s Crystal Cabin Award, is a dedicated family space featuring coloring surfaces, hygienic seat materials and easy-to-clean galley-style flooring, surrounded by noise-reducing curtains. For its part, Thomson Airways has floated the idea of family booth seating, which it plans to trial on its Boeing 757 fleet at an undisclosed date. Richard Branson famously proposed a designated kids’ cabin on Virgin Atlantic, but plans stagnated because of safety restrictions. Until regulatory hurdles are overcome, traveling families can revel in Air New Zealand’s Skycouch, a three-seat row that can be turned into a flat surface – so tots can stretch and play at will.

Whatever the case, millennial moms and dads are sure to take notice if the cabin environment provides an early start to the family vacation. Airlines can arrange quirky onboard activities or serve kid-approved culinary creations, but it’s the service mentality that makes families feel at home throughout their journey that’ll win their hearts. The appeal to passengers’ emotions is a cornerstone of Etihad’s philosophy. “We do not consider travelers who fly with Etihad Airways to simply be our passengers; they are our guests,” Celestino says. And it is this distinction between passenger and guest, between product and feeling, between service and hospitality that will undoubtedly resonate with this customer segment. After all, what passenger wouldn’t want to feel like one of the family?

“The Traveling Family” was originally published in the 7.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Valerie is the digital copy editor of APEX Media.