Several years ago, I had the opportunity to talk with the CEO of a major low-cost airline. As we were discussing their in-flight customer experience, he stopped for a second and bemoaned the fact that the airline had spent so much on seat-back entertainment (the headrest video screens that some carriers provide on flights). “I’ve been on so many flights in the last several months,” he said, “but I haven’t seen a single person watching them. They’re all watching their laptops instead.”
What was true then (back in 2006, before iPhone and iPad became a part of our vocabulary) is certainly true today. Take a quick glance around any flight and you’ll see the vast majority of passengers head down in their personal screens. From a marketing perspective, with the potential FCC rulings allowing in-flight calling and new features such as Gogo’s Text and Talk, there seems to be a growing opportunity here. If passengers can access the internet and call or text in flight, how can marketers take advantage (and provide a better passenger experience in the process)?
Take Virgin America, for example. Today, Virgin America lets passengers order food and drinks from their seat-back screens. It’s a smart strategy that can have the side benefit of alleviating the awkward bathroom conga line that inevitably piles up behind the slow-moving food and drink cart. What if you took this idea a step further and let passengers text in an order (or order via the airline’s mobile app) — or even enable ordering via their in-flight internet confirmation page? Airlines could take this a step further and push discounts for food, drink, or entertainment via these channels as well.
This one-screen convenience and rethinking of the traditional, unloved in-flight experience (especially for frequent travelers) could help substantially differentiate an airline from the competition. And one of the primary targets for these kinds of enhancements — younger, Millennial business travelers — is eager to take advantage of new ways to deliver guest services like this.
EMarketer’s recent report on business travel and Millennials explains why this audience, in particular, might seek out airlines that offer a different experience. According to the report, 39% of airline passengers would “‘definitely use’ mobile devices to purchase ancillary services” like food and drinks. The report goes on to state that Millennial travelers are “surprisingly loyal” (though offering the right rewards is essential), and that they “expect brands to provide on-demand mobile services that let them simplify and improve their experience during the trip” (italics mine). In short, Millennials, in particular, want this type of service — and if they get it, they’re likely to stay loyal to the airlines that provide it.
The in-flight experience is primed for a change. With seats increasingly tighter, airports more crowded, and tempers more frayed, every chance to provide a better experience and differentiate should be explored. Now that technology and legal changes are finally paving the way to a more connected in-flight experience, there’s a tremendous opportunity for savvy airlines to lead the way and deliver for their passengers. Mobile has already changed so much about the way we shop in retail and other industries today; travel (and specifically the in-flight experience) may very well be the next frontier for transformation in 2015.