Do you still remember the images of long queues and chaotic scenes at many airports last summer?

After months of lockdown, much more people than expected were ready to go abroad again for their vacation despite the health requirements and the paperwork required. But airlines and airports weren’t prepared. They were simply overwhelmed by demand and the need to cope with constantly changing regulations. In this situation, they couldn’t adapt their service levels fast enough.

Were they taken by surprise – or why did they not react properly?

I believe that the root cause is a cultural one: Many airlines are too slow to cope with changes and make decisions in a fast and flexible way. It takes them too long to develop and deliver innovations, especially when this touches multiple areas of their own organisation. They do not focus on their customers’ needs enough. There is no question: Airlines need to update their culture to meet todays but also tomorrows challenges.

In this blog post, I will discuss how airlines can better prepare themselves and their staff for a future that will continue to be unpredictable and require fast responses.

How should airlines move ahead? What are the building blocks of this new culture? Here’s our bucket list.

1. Build scalable solutions

The number of people eager to go abroad is rising and rising. This summer, we could see record numbers of travellers. Airlines need to prepare early. The patchwork of temporary solutions they had developed during the pandemic – such as simple travel rules checklists on their websites or upload forms for health documents – has reached its limit in terms of scalability, reliability, operations, and enterprise readiness.

Airlines now need to industrialize these solutions to keep up with rising demand. This will not only help them to keep costs down. It will also result in happier customers who feel they get the service they desire even at peak travel times.

2. Learn to act fast and take risks

Many airlines are paralyzed by their decision-making processes. They focus on risks and how to avoid them at all costs. They try to take into consideration as many factors as possible before they take a decision. This takes time and it requires a lot of resources.

In my view, airlines need to learn to take controlled risks and accept that failing is one possible option. It no longer makes sense to implement a long-term plan at all costs when the world is changing so quickly. Instead, they frequently need to adapt these plans and correct their course. Agility is key!

3. Focus on value for passengers

The current structures and processes at many airlines often hinder internal collaboration. Every unit seems to have their own goals and their own agenda. However, the only objective that counts is whether an airline creates value for its passengers or not.

Getting there requires not only a change in mindset but also of processes, policies, and structures. In addition, all stakeholders at an airline need to collaborate in a way that reflects the entire customer journey. Therefore, they need to partner across business and functional units. This will ultimately also require a new IT setup so customer data can be shared and used across the entire organization. The data marketing has on a customer is just as relevant for the customer service team, for example, and will allow for better and more seamless experiences.

4. Create powerful partnerships

The financial pressure on airlines is huge. They can no longer do everything alone. Closely working together with strong partners – not only other airlines but also airline service providers and technology firms – is without alternative. This will not only help to save costs but also create an ecosystem where innovations can be developed and implemented much faster.

The first step to creating such ecosystems is to move away from traditional provider management and procurement towards embracing partnerships on eye level. Focus on shared objectives with your partners and make them part of your success. Instead of forcing strict SLAs on them, agree on shared liabilities and jointly adopt and evolve commercial arrangements focussing on business value. Shorter and more flexible contracts are just as important. The most powerful partnerships are based on trust. It’s all about partnering at eye level.

The future will remain difficult to predict

Eventually, the COVID pandemic will end. What will remain, is a “new normal” in which the ability to constantly adopt to new circumstances will be part of the daily business for airlines. Their operating and service models are going to continue to be disrupted by new trends such as the need to become greener or new liquid customer expectations.

Therefore, airlines must rethink their structures and processes now. Understanding new developments fast, setting up agile structures and building an ecosystem of strong partners is what counts.

Christian Winter

Senior Manager – Travel Industry Consulting

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