When we think about air travel there are a few things that immediately come to mind. The ‘oh-no-not-again’ reaction when getting the middle seat –  located far far away from your fellow traveller and always just in front of a crying baby. The struggle of fitting your slightly-oversized backpack under the seat – forget about finding any space in the overhead lockers. And the food, oh the food. The deep craving for something that’s, of course, already sold out. The fear of choosing a meal that’s absolutely not to your taste (#IdRatherStarve). And the constant worry about whether it’s true that flight attendants won’t drink tea or coffee on a flight, because they know how gross the plane’s tap water is. It’s a rather depressing picture and still quite prevalent in the low-cost carrier market. But it’s slowly beginning to change, particularly for long-haul and legacy airlines. In an industry where customers often have a choice of carriers, quality of experience matters, especially for long-haul flights, and food is one of the major drivers.

We’re now seeing a spike in innovations focused specifically on airline catering in terms of the in-flight customer experience, service quality and streamlining behind-the-scenes operations. British Airlines have recently announced a multi-million-pound investment in upgrading their catering options to offer more quantity – and quality – to catering and snacking options on their flights. But can the industry do more to ensure that customer experience is consistent with travellers’ growing expectations of food quality?

And what about airport lounges? They haven’t changed that much in the last few years, sticking to the tried-and-tested formula of well-kept showers, good old buffet food, all-you-can-muster drink stands, and a clean, comfortable area to make the hour(s) before the flight feel a little bit more manageable.

Customer experience starts at the airport: how digital technology is transforming lounge operations

Airports are gradually evolving to become hi-tech environments that speed up operations and deliver experiences that we wouldn’t believe were possible a decade ago. From versatile biometric touch points across check-in, bag drop, border control and boarding, to AR wayfinding apps guiding travellers to their gate, there are a number of best-in-class examples that are slowly changing the way people experience their travels.

But how can airports and lounge management companies make the customer experience stand out? Perhaps by thinking big – a robot concierge that can say hello on arrival, answer any question or even manage stock, replenish food and serve customers. A Swedish AI start-up, Furhat Robotics, has for instance developed a multi-lingual robot known as ‘FRAnny’ that’s currently being trialled by Deutsche Bahn and Fraport at Frankfurt Airport. It can provide departure information, give directions to specific areas within the airport, and help with the airport security experience by answering the most common questions about the process.

While a robot solution may still seem rather futuristic – or at least a bit gimmicky at this point in time – there are important lessons lounge management providers can learn from this example. AI has an immense power to streamline operations, add an extra layer of slickness to food ordering, aid accessibility with language translation capabilities and effectively answer common customer queries. Given a sociable nature and an entertaining tone of voice, it can even keep travellers company. Whether a full-blown robot or a more scalable solution like an AI-enabled chatbot or a new voice tech skill, AI could potentially uplift the customer experience and ensure digital transformation is fit for the future.

In-flight customer experience: is there a new (more delicious) era for airline catering providers?

There’s a huge gap between 1st, premium economy and economy class when it comes to food. Those at the top end of the scale often have a juicy steak on offer, food served whenever they feel hungry and drinks delivered before they even open their mouth to say ‘another Bloody Mary, please’. Of course, offering all passengers a similar level of experience would be too expensive and not operationally efficient. But how can airlines and catering providers use customer experience design to make premium and economy class feel a bit more special too, without a significant cost increase?

Personalisation is big for airlines – and catering is no exception. Using historical data for predictive analytics, the ability to capture customer preferences on board (or just before boarding) with a single click, or a more effective way of gathering their choices pre-flight, will help passengers feel they have more flexibility, choice and freedom, beyond the standard ‘I want the veggie option’.

This is something airlines are working hard on at the moment, but it seems the focus is still on the premium classes rather than striving to improve the customer experience for all passengers.

Qatar Airways have an award-winning catering service that leaves many other airlines behind. Aside from a wide variety of meals – both regional specialities, premium dining options (lobster anyone?), and healthy food and drink alternatives, there are a number of service-related activities they also do well. Their dine-on-demand for First and Business class passengers has just been complemented by a Pre-Select Dining service, giving travellers ‘a personalised à la carte dining experience every time they travel on long-haul flights from Doha’. Sounds fancy. Strip out the ‘à la carte dining experience’ and what you get is a personalised service that, if designed correctly, could be easily scaled up to all classes, allowing passengers to choose the food they want, and airlines to prepare better for the demand on board.

It’s quite common for airlines to offer food that represents local flavours, with complex food science techniques incorporated in creating each meal to ensure the taste remains relatively unchanged at 35,000 feet. But what if a passenger is happy with one element, but not with another?

Frankenberg, a German-based meal production company claims its chefs individually fill the portions of each meal item to allow them to be heated separately and arranged on the plate. It allows greater flexibility – if a passenger doesn’t like one part of the meal, the crew can easily replace it with something more to their taste. But while such an approach makes perfect sense in meeting customer needs, operational efficiency suffers greatly. Which leads to the next subject – logistics.

Digital transformation of catering logistics to boost operations

Ensuring the right quantity of food is the holy grail of airline catering. IATA’s study shows airlines generated 5.7 million tonnes of cabin waste in 2017, and this is set to double in the next 10 years due to the growth in passenger numbers. Streamlining logistical operations, improving employee experience to unlock greater productivity, and upgrading training material with more snackable information for airport and airline crew should be on the radar of airline catering providers.

Emirates Flight Catering (EKFC) is a great example of why transforming from top to bottom is key to ensure added value. Their digital transformation programme covered eight major priorities, including areas like people (to build a shared vision), governance (to aid policies, culture and performance reporting), positioning (to ensure thought leadership), and technologies (to boost efficiency and delivery).

This is an approach that resonates with us at BIO. We believe user-centricity is not enough on its own. Customer experience design needs to be backed up by solid customer research, the right company culture and operational structures. The employee experience is also key to ensuring transformation is effective and brings real, concrete results.

Check out these white papers and articles to learn more about delivering best-in-class customer experience in travel:

Interested to learn more about how we help brands improve their customer experience? Drop us an email at makesomething@thebioagency.com.

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