Today’s global middle class is bigger than at any point in history—so big, in fact, that it will comprise more than half the world’s population by next year, according to non-profit public policy research group The Brookings Institution. The report confirms that right now the middle class is the largest and most rapidly growing economic segment in the world.
The growth of global wealth around the world is unprecedented, and it brings with it new and interesting business opportunities. The commercial airline industry is already greeting more and more travelers from the developing world aboard its aircraft. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a record-breaking 4.1 billion passengers flew in 2017, representing a 7.3% increase over the previous year.
By 2037, IATA predicts that this figure will more than double, with China, India, Indonesia, and Thailand becoming key markets for airlines. Other markets in the developing world, including those in Latin America, are also seeing significant growth. Airbus predicts that Central and South America will see 520 million of its people take to the skies by 2037.
Many of these passengers are first-time flyers; people who’ve never had the pleasure of getting on a plane near home and, a few hours later, getting off in a totally foreign land. They’re also young, with nearly half of them falling in to the 25–44 age range.
Without a lifetime of air travel experiences behind them, these passengers are bringing fresh perspectives—and expectations. New air travelers expect their technology, security, and entertainment to align with their day-to-day experience, according to surveys by IATA and SITA, an air transport IT company.
It’s a new and exciting challenge for airlines. Let’s dive deeper into what it takes to win that challenge.
Identifying first-time flyer markets
When it comes to first-time travelers, there are uniting factors, like their origin economy, as well as whether they’re embarking on a short- or long-haul flight. Differentiating between first-time flyers in emerging markets and more established markets is particularly helpful, says travel writer and expert Eric Rosen.
According to Eric, travelers in emerging markets see domestic, short-haul flights as an inexpensive way to get from point A to point B. Their expectations, says Rosen, mostly revolve around a “somewhat spacious, comfortable coach seat for a couple of hours.”
Airline industry analyst and inflight connectivity expert Seth Miller says that lack of expectations makes for a great opportunity to surprise and delight unsuspecting first-time travelers. “There’s an opportunity to establish a relationship with a customer that’s going to extend well beyond what it otherwise would or should,” Miller says.
Meanwhile, Western consumers—especially those on long-haul flights—have higher standards for their inflight experiences, especially with regard to connectivity and entertainment. “There’s certainly the expectation of having a screen available, and they definitely expect to be provided with entertainment in some way,” Miller continues.
Let’s look at a few key factors that guide this new generation of travelers—and their expectations.
Free Wi-Fi and consistent connectivity is a big differentiator
Wi-Fi is the most popular complimentary service, with 55% of passengers availing themselves of free connectivity during dwell time, reported by SITA. It makes passengers happier, and it makes airline brands money.
For the newest travelers, free Wi-Fi is often considered fundamental. Asian travelers take more flights per year than any other regional travelers, and because they often fly long distances, they’re especially concerned about staying in close touch with family.
That’s why airlines need to work harder to adopt robust inflight Wi-Fi. “Expectations continue to grow so quickly, that it’s a problem for airlines to provide what passengers are expecting,” says Miller. He goes on to explain that the Asian market’s digital expectations are quite high, mostly because trains and buses in many parts of Asia have Wi-Fi, and 4G penetration is better than in the U.S.
Miller further reports Asian airlines see inflight connectivity as a big opportunity.
There’s certainly the expectation of having a screen available, and they definitely expect to be provided with entertainment in some waySETH MILLER
AIRLINE INDUSTRY ANALYST AND INFLIGHT CONNECTIVITY EXPERT
Inflight tech elevates the traveler experience at key points
Whether it’s Wi-Fi-enabled services, or some other key technology, those passengers that engage with tech during their travel experience are happier with their overall flying experience, but also in key moments of the journey. According to SITA, “the contrast in satisfaction between tech-enabled passengers and those who relied on face-to-face service is particularly marked at three key points in time—during dwell time (+5.8%), on board the aircraft (+8.1%), and when collecting luggage at the carousel (+8.6%).”
Providing technology that feels familiar can be a saving grace, especially for first-time travelers. “I almost would say that people expect that their first flight is going to be awful [because of negative passenger stories], and if it’s not, that’s a pleasant surprise,” says Miller.
Personalization improves the inflight experience
Indeed, for first-time flyers in an entirely new environment, familiarity is key. That’s where expectations around personalization come in, says Miller.
“I would argue that, especially on the longer flights, passengers expect to be entertained,” he explains. “Right now, that’s embedded screens, and it’s not just the screen. It’s building an interaction with the consumer that is easy and smooth and actually opens up all of the functionality of the system.”
Younger passengers (Millennials and Gen Z) are more likely to prefer the use of their own device over seatback entertainment systems, more likely to expect streaming access, and more likely to feel anxious if not connected, according to the SITA study.
Convenience and communication reduce anxiety
First-time travelers, particularly on long-haul flights, may not be used to surrendering control over their experience to carriers and airline/airport personnel for such a long time. Indeed, for those unfamiliar with the intricacies of air travel, airplane gadgetry, and security protocols, those factors can make getting to their destination downright intimidating. Miller believes that technology can be used to comfort passengers and help reduce their stress levels.
Mobile bag tracking, biometric digital identity management, and real-time flight updates rank as some of the most important features that differentiate a good flight from a bad flight, mentioned by SITA.
Reducing anxiety, speeding up onerous processes, and consistent communication are important to travelers, enabling them to enjoy their increasingly advanced inflight entertainment options. “No one’s expecting those, but there is something to be said for delivering those added-value features that give consumers the appearance of some control over their travel experience,” Miller says.
Airlines that focus on connection, convenience, and customization—especially the emerging bells and whistles of technology—will be the ones to delight first-time flyers. And if they do it right, they’ll be greeting those same passengers again on their future travels.