How Airlines Can Stand Apart In A Post-Pandemic Travel World

Credit: Besiki Kavtaradze

Airline industry observers believe the pandemic has set the stage for a significant metamorphosis of global air travel and how companies respond to the changes will determine who survives and potentially even thrives.

With the ongoing impact of border closures and quarantines on business and international travel especially, “the upcoming fight for passenger preference will be fierce, and the survivors will determine the future passenger experience,” design and innovation company Teague senior director-airline experience Anthony Harcup said during the Red Cabin Innovation Summit. “The ability to do this is going to make the difference between the companies that will make it through the pandemic and those that won’t. The ones that will are making it their business to cut through the noise and find some focus here.”

Harcup believes the industry is witnessing a rebirth of air travel.

“In four years’ time I might be standing before you with a talk entitled: ‘2020-2024: The Years that Transformed Air Travel,’ and I will likely cite a chronology of innovations that helped to create a more relevant, more efficient and more resilient industry.”

In a post-pandemic environment, Harcup said, there will be new passenger experience expectations and behaviors. These include:

  •  A new design standard for cleanliness that will be prioritized in the same way that air travel comfort and safety standards have been prioritized historically. Cabin and airport products designed for hygiene and cleanliness will be preferred by passengers;
  • A different geopolitical climate in which new destinations are popular in certain areas for certain reasons;
  • New skills, expertise and departments needed within airlines and suppliers as companies start to rebuild;
  • A different global fleet. Efficiency, commonality requirements and commercial pressures will reshape the world’s airline fleet makeup.

Harcup said that with all these very different ingredients, it’s “highly unlikely” the landscape will look anything like the one that preceded it, but “having hit the bottom, we are able to plan some growth and recovery.

“We’re going to see domestic leisure in the US and China peak in the short term, with vaccines and travel passports. We’re going to see international travel restrictions easing a little. We’re going to see some international leisure and some international business return in 2021, but still, in total, it is not expected to exceed 60% of the baseline.”

Harcup believes the industry will be in a situation where airlines will be competing for diminished resources—passengers and funding.

“Many airlines will be switching focus to where the action is,” he said. “We’ve already seen some very innovative airlines in the US open up brand new routes and switch to different route models faster than ever. That’s very impressive innovation,” but Harcup thinks “we’re going to see a dogfight throughout this phase. And the notion of passenger value is going to evolve as we move through these next 18 months.”

Finally, he sees a full industry recovery by 2024, as “both international and business travel are likely to have returned, in one way or another.”

Cabin Changes

Harcup also predicts the industry will see a lot of advanced hardware and software solutions as part of that recovery.

“I certainly think we’re going to have a lot of innovation in the tube [cabin] that has been pushed forward with the pandemic as a catalyst—certainly along the lines of touchless. And I think we will see single-aisle aircraft proliferate and that will drive new product requirements,” he said.

Teague believes this means that longer-term cabin changes will focus on new materials and antimicrobial surfaces and that aesthetics, like color choices, will take on new meaning, with a desire for lighter cabin colors, more synthetic leathers with anti-microbial qualities and fewer dirt traps.

Technology will play a role in new solutions that enable a “touchless experience” for passengers. Biometric IDs, automated boarding lanes, QR-coded bag checks, contactless payments and smartphones connected to seatback screens will be accelerated by virus concerns but will ultimately also improve onboard workflow and the passenger experience.

Emirates Airline project lead Vivek Girdhar agreed.

“The fiercely competitive marketplace requires us all to innovate. It is so important for airlines to innovate during this tough time and companies must be careful not to cut costs on innovation because innovation could be key to survival,” he said.

Girdhar said there has been a paradigm shift in innovation. “We have moved from ‘what to innovate’ to ‘how to innovate.’ It used to be ‘ideation to business case;’ now it is ‘development and certification to product manufacturing,’ which is very important at this time.”

Harcup also warns airlines to focus on customer value.

“The North Star for the industry has to be to continually provide value in these highly dynamic conditions. So, if what we’re doing is no longer bringing value to our target customers, we should change what we’re doing. If you are purely focused on creating value for your customers, then the challenges become opportunities to innovate and inspire new ideas. And it creates a mindset of hope and optimism and resiliency within organizations that’s very powerful and where every challenge is welcomed as an opportunity to innovate and grow stronger.”

Harcup quoted Intel founder Andy Grove, who said bad companies are destroyed by a crisis; good companies survive a crisis; great companies are defined by a crisis.

“We want to be in that third bucket,” Harcup said.

Linda Blachly

Linda Blachly is Senior Associate Editor for Air Transport World and Aviation Week. She joined the company in July 2010 and is responsible for producing features for Air Transport World’s monthly magazine and engaging content for the She is based in the Washington DC office.