FlightPlan Recap: APEX Board Members Highlight Digital Innovation and Effective Communication as Keys to Recovery

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Anton Vidgen, Air Canada’s director of Brand Experience and APEX president, discussed the airline’s introduction of touchless bag check and referenced studies that show flying is safe. Image via FlightPlan

A total of 3,500 viewers tuned in for the second edition of FlightPlan yesterday, following the highly successful inaugural event in April.

Hosted by Inmarsat and APEX, the November FlightPlan advanced the conversation from April’s crisis mode to one of hopeful pragmatism. The event pinpointed the industry’s cautious steps towards a ‘new normal,’ whereby the passenger journey will be characterized by heightened focus on touchless travel through digital innovation and building passenger confidence through effective communication.

The Touchless Journey

For an industry which, pre-pandemic, thrived through creating touchpoints, the notion of touch has been turned on its head. Air Canada director of Brand Experience and APEX president Anton Vidgen, said that throughout the pandemic period there will be further evolution of sanitation measures.

Air Canada, he noted, “introduced touchless bag checks so you really don’t have to touch anything — just scan your boarding pass, and you’ll get a bag tag. You can then drop off your bag yourself.” The airline is currently evaluating biometrics and automatic gate boarding to ensure that there are more touchless technologies throughout the journey, “so that customers are able to feel confident and self-serve as much as possible.”

Andrés Castañeda, CMO and CXO, Aeromexico, said the airline had been looking at how its customers can get out of their cars and into the aircraft without touching anything. “And for that we have to implement cutting-edge technologies in different touchpoints and in airports that are not as developed as some of our hubs, in order to create these experiences for our customers.”

Japan Airlines (JAL) VP of Global Marketing Akira Mitsumasu explained that JAL has been testing solutions such as touchless kiosks where passengers just hover their fingers above the monitor: “It will read the movements and be able to perform check-in.” Mitsumasu added that the human touch comes in many forms, and a contactless passenger experience could still feel human if it’s done in a way the customer wants. “If I know the passenger prefers to have a contactless solution, my providing the passenger with that experience is in a way a very human response to a customer need.”

Castañeda believes digital innovation will be pivotal to restarting aviation, citing a 30% uplift in the use of digital channels in a matter of a few months, something that had previously taken a couple of years to attain. “Customers are demanding more functionalities and a touchless experience, so it’s our job as an industry to … have a more digital experience which will help personalize [the travel experience].”

But digitalizing processes won’t tick every box. Mitsumasu explained that “some of our elderly guests are not comfortable with digital devices, they would prefer human interaction. So we have agents serving them as well. It’s more about inclusiveness, and being in the customers’ shoes, and thinking what solutions work best for each customer.”

Building Passenger Confidence

Despite efforts across the industry to restore confidence through extensive hygiene measures and touchless tech, reinstating customer inclination to fly again is contingent on managing perceptions.

“There are some wonderful scientific studies out there around how flying is very safe – from a Harvard study to a US Department of Defence study – all suggesting that the risk of in-flight transmission is infinitesimally small,” Vidgen said. “We want to make sure that we’re communicating some of these great scientific studies out to our customers.” He added that it was imperative to communicate the extensive safety measures that airlines are enacting, concluding that “when it’s time, more and more of our customers will get that confidence to travel with us and we certainly will see our industry recovering faster.”

Juha Jarvinen, Virgin Atlantic’s chief commercial officer and APEX president emeritus, said that it is important to showcase examples of how travel has become more hygienic, in order to reinstate confidence to book. “It’s definitely the cleanest time ever in the world to travel … in terms of aircraft, hotels, everything. Every single stakeholder in the tourism industry and travel is focusing on this.”

Mitsumasu described the notion of trust as “something that requires us as an airline to do everything we can for customers, as we would do for our own family. It’s also customers helping themselves and their neighbours, for example, by something as simple as wearing a mask.”

Perry Cantarutti, SVP Alliances at Delta Air Lines, observed that “confidence in travel is coming back, certainly in the domestic US market. We see that happening and that’s encouraging.” The recovery of intercontinental long haul travel, he noted, is being hindered by complexities and restrictions.

“We’re working very hard to help customers understand what those travel requirements are and things like border restrictions and quarantine requirements.” Delta is liaising with governments as well as its partner airlines in order “to try and simplify and be upfront and clear with customers.” He added that while COVID will be with us for some time still, “we’re realizing that we can’t let it conquer our ability to go out and live our lives and also run our businesses, but we have to be able to do that in a safe way.”