Transport Brand Identity Brand Strategy

Turning delays into delight: how airlines can tap into brand power

By Nathan Freegard, Strategy Director, Customer Experience



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December 1, 2022 | 9 min read

Nathan Freegard proposes that airlines should learn from other leading brands in times of crisis (and dodge PR disasters) by investing in their brand image.

Airplane on blue background

Should airlines be doing more to ensure customer loyalty? / BP Miller via Unsplash

I’ve always been fascinated by the highly choreographed dance routine between airline and airport that ensures most flights get away on time and without incident. But performing the perfect tango with depleted staff, broken infrastructure, and weather extremes, is likely to test any dance partnership.

Tensions have been mounting all year. Former head at British Airways Willie Walsh said “a bleeding airport is music to my ears”, while a confident Emirates PR department wrote a strongly worded (and very entertaining) press release in the summer calling Heathrow execs ‘cavalier’.

Old errors, new spotlight

Delays, cancelations, and lost luggage: these problems aren’t new, but their frequency and visibility have been amplified by the industry’s poor Covid-19 recovery. In the US, air traveler complaints were up 270% in June compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Even before the crisis, a 2019 passenger survey found that delayed flights alone accounted for 37% of dissatisfaction, while 17% of respondents experienced luggage issues and 9% had a problem due to a flight cancelation.

Airline brands ultimately have very little control over the factors that influence day-to-day disruption, but both customers and governments are watching the response with intent. US Transport Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, said the situation is “unacceptable” and airlines need to provide better customer service when flights are canceled.

Dance smarter, not harder

Passengers remember a champion in a moment of chaos. The ability to recover from a service failure can help brands stand out, and command a premium over lower-cost rivals.

That said, there are few incentives for airlines and airports to ‘launch the lifeboats’ in a time of customer crisis. Profit margins are already tight, and cost-conscious consumers are eroding the link between service excellence and business performance. Despite insisting we’ll never fly with an airline again, we often find ourselves crawling back to the worst service for cheap seats.

Airports and airlines are clearly under pressure to diffuse delays, a key and escalating pain point in the customer experience. To find smart and cost-efficient solutions we need to get into the detail of the customer journey and coordinate the role of both airline and airport to match their relative strengths. We see three clear opportunities to turn delays into delight.

1. The aviation industry should tap into the power of brand

Strong brands have resilience. Apple, Coke and Nike have all overcome PR disasters relatively unscathed. Their success comes from building a long-standing connection with consumers that can sooth short-term shockwaves.

A creative brand strategy will be key in the travel industry, both now and in the future. Airlines and airports need to prepare themselves for the inevitable 'disasters' ahead by developing a clear point of difference and defining the moments that consumers will forever cherish.

At Landor & Fitch, we recently did some work with Air Japan, finding a way to differentiate their brand by taking a magnifying glass to their customer experience. The result? Bringing to life the subtlety of Japanese hospitality through a restful and thoughtful travel experience, enabled by technology.

2. Airports should distort delays with branded 'peak experiences'

It’s interesting how a 30-minute check-in or an hour-long delay can feel like an eternity. Time seems to slow down in the clinical and commercial airport setting. Studies show that when we’re not distracted, events 'dilate', and we notice our environment (and our feelings) with greater detail.

Most airports are a series of processing gates moving passengers at speed from pen to pen. But when the process fails, few have the fun-factor to distort delays. The airports bucking the trend are often 'layover airports', such as Singapore’s Changi or Ireland’s Shannon Airport. These airports populate a seamless journey with enjoyable 'peak experiences' that reinforce the airport brand and distort the delay for connecting passengers.

Changi Airport clearly stands out with its garden-inspired wellness facilities and butterfly farm, but not all airports have the space or finances for such grand gestures. Shannon Airport does it simply with a combination of children’s play, historical storytelling, and the offer of a quality (Irish) coffee.

The key is to pepper the classic steps of the airport experience (check-in, security, browsing and boarding) with unexpected distractions and moments of delight that build on the emotional highs of that airport destination.

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3. Airlines need to empower staff to deliver brand empathy

A brand’s immediate attitude to crisis is just as important as the final resolution. Brands (and staff) shouldn’t duck for cover in a time of crisis because a fast and seemingly personal response can mitigate negative sentiment.

Timing is critical. When airlines respond to Twitter complaints within five minutes it has an exponential impact on willingness to pay more for future tickets. But we also know that only one in 25 people will complain directly to a business, instead venting to their friends and followers. This is why ground staff need to be empowered to act before complaints hit the social airways.

With just a handful of staff at gates, mobile communications can be an extension of the team’s, and the brand’s, voice. At first, sharing a personal word of sympathy, but also offering tips on local facilities, or perhaps a QR code for a discounted coffee. In an industry full of billion-dollar investments, it is easy to undervalue a few well-timed, human gestures that elevate the brand’s empathy.

It takes two to tango

As we look to the future, airlines and airports must unite before the situation descends further. The answer is collaboration not conflict. Slight changes in choreography can make all the difference to the customer experience.

There is now a big opportunity to disrupt the state of play by turning delay into delight; the airlines and airports who get on board will be the ones who fly sky-high.

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