From the latched doors on overhead bins to the professional dress and demeanor of flight attendants, the airline industry is well-versed in creating a cabin environment that feels safe and is safe.
The “new normal” of a global pandemic and fragile national economies has added a new wrinkle to this commitment. How can carriers convince their loyal customers that flying still offers the safest and most economical form of long-distance travel?
To meet this challenge, the industry is exploring new ideas and technologies to create an experience that will attract health-conscious passengers, provide new revenue streams for airlines, and move us closer to a worldwide fleet of digitally connected aircraft.
Possible reasons why not everyone on a plane is at high risk of catching COVID-19—even when flying with a carrier—include:
- Seats that all face the same direction.
- Seatbacks that create physical barriers between passengers.
- The direction of recirculated airflow.
- The use of hospital-grade HEPA air filtration systems.
However, the risk of getting COVID-19 on a flight still exists, so improvements to the cabin experience should serve to reassure passengers that all necessary steps are being taken to look after their health.
For instance, installing new onboard sensors, including biosensors, that could monitor the wellness of individual passengers and notify flight attendants if a passenger is not feeling well, Panasonic Avionics Director of Innovation and Design Sebastian Petry said at a recent FlightPlan event. “Think about how that supports the brand and safety of everyone,” he added.
Communicating the safe nature of existing cabin designs can also reassure passengers that health and safety is their carrier’s top priority. For instance, Emirates Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and budget carrier flydubai have publicly touted their cabins’ HEPA filters as evidence of their commitment to their customers.
There’s also a psychological reason for going above and beyond to share behind-the-scenes elements of airline cabin cleaning tech and procedures with passengers. Airlines must put themselves in the shoes of their customers, who will be wondering, “If we don’t see something happening, do we know it really happened?”
Explaining how cabins’ HEPA filters work can demonstrate evidence of airlines’ commitment to their customers, helping them to rebuild that trust. More “visible” cleaning technologies—as well as branding cleaning efforts to continually message their commitment—are more ways to reinforce new priorities.
There is a major need for technologies that address any reluctance on the part of passengers to physically touch printed matter or seatback screens. The use of personal electronic devices (PED) will increase in popularity, with customers perceiving their own phone, tablet, or laptop as safer to handle than cabin devices.
One promising concept is the touchless seatback screen, activated remotely via personal electronic device, voice, or stylus. Singapore Airlines is already promoting its Companion App, which allows customers to use their PED to control the IFE system without having the touch the screen itself.
This may be a critical concern in the short term, but airlines also need to consider that passengers won’t forever have an aversion to touching their seatback IFE screens—especially if they are certain the airline is taking steps to clean them between flights, and assuming most passengers have access to hand sanitizing products. Simplified IFE touchscreen designs can help reduce touchpoints, as well, which means passengers have fewer on-screen buttons to touch to access inflight content.
New Income Streams
Some enhanced safety procedures—such as slowing turnarounds to deep-clean cabins, or blocking middle seats—increase financial stress on an industry that lives on razor-thin profit margins. However, opportunities exist to monetize the new normal and create ancillary sources of revenue.
Communicating the safe nature of existing cabin designs can also reassure passengers that health and safety is their carrier’s top priority.
Replacing printed matter with electronic content moves customers closer to using the inflight entertainment system as an e-commerce portal and also saves on fuel costs with reduced onboard weight. The more they use seatback screens and PEDs for information and guidance during their trip, the more likely they are to perceive them as a safe way to shop, book hotel rooms and purchase entertainment packages. New forms of content will also arise to meet evolving consumer demands, such as health and wellness videos.
Airlines such as British Airways and Lufthansa are using the downturn in passenger traffic to make upgrades to their parked aircraft. As a result, the world’s current fleet of 18,000 digitally connected airliners is expected to grow this year.
When and how much to spend on upgrades will, of course, vary from carrier to carrier. Japan Airlines has postponed new projects to free up funds that are “close to completion and are related to customer experience,” Japan Airlines VP of Global Marketing Akira Mitsumasu said during the same Future Travel Experience webinar. He added that airlines’ interest in touchless solutions is growing rapidly.
Expanding the digital aircraft concept to include health and safety benefits may indeed prove to be the industry’s savior. Airbus has experimented with designs for touchless overhead bins and lavatory fixtures, as well as sensors that inform passengers via their IFE display when the lavatory is available to avoid crowding around the door.
“We have seen some pullback on capital expenditure, but one of the things I have asked airline executives is whether they will use the fleet downtime to upgrade their aircraft to use more connectivity and the answer is ‘yes,'” says Leader.
Throughout its history, the airline industry has met critical challenges with new ideas, services and technologies. Likewise, we can move forward from today’s pandemic to tomorrow’s recovery. Digitizing and monetizing content and connectivity, developing new health-related electronic products for the cabin, and embracing the digital aircraft concept will create a better “new normal” that creates new income streams, reassures loyal customers, and keeps planes full, flying and profitable.
In order to help airlines augment their efforts to create a safe and healthy travel experience, reduce costs, and reinforce their commitment to stagy and care, we have created Welcome Aboard, a collection of solutions to help address post-COVID travel. For more information, check out our Welcome Aboard Collection page.