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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Thum, Ph.D., CCXP

Comfort is the Ticket: Getting Air Travel Customers Back Post-COVID-19

By Stephanie Thum, CCXP

Photo by Pixabay

Getting your customers back post-COVID-19 isn’t going to be about slick marketing slogans, discounts, perks, or free parking. It’s going to be about comfort.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the air travel industry—specifically, at the airports.

I recently met up for a virtual coffee with colleagues Gene Sutch, Director of Revenue Strategy and Analysis at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and David Johnston, head of social media for TSA, the Transportation Security Administration, in Washington, DC.

Gene oversees, among other things, the ongoing voice of the customer work for Dulles International and Reagan National Airports. If you’ve ever seen those happy-face kiosks in the airport terminal and wondered where the data collected from the kiosks goes, it goes to Gene’s team.

Same with the data collected via the airports’ online customer survey and wi-fi splash page, which most MWAA customers have probably seen at one time or another if they tried to access the airport wi-fi.

David manages 20 social media accounts for TSA, including the TSA Twitter and Instagram accounts, historically known for their jazzy exchanges with traveling customers.

Comfort is the Ticket. But What Does That Look Like? Check the Bathroom First.

Post-COVID-19, it is understood in the travel industry: comfort will be the experience airport customers are looking for.

If you want to get really specific, for starters, it’s about being comfortable with the cleanliness of the restrooms and avoiding the spread of the COVID virus.

Customers have already said so, even though they’re not traveling much right now. Airport traffic may have fallen off by more than 90%, but Gene’s team is still reaching out to customers for feedback via regular surveys.

And airport executives are listening. They have to in order to survive. Airports are funded through aircraft landing fees, rents, and revenues from concessions. Customers are needed to make it all go. In the Washington, D.C. area alone, more than 387,000 jobs are connected to the airports. There is a lot at stake.

Cleaning standards at the MWAA airports have become more rigorous. New happy-face kiosks in restrooms send an alert to airport operations whenever customers report that a restroom needs attention. Plus, Gene has started a dialogue with other U.S. airports about how to provide a consistent post-COVID experience across all airports.

At the Security Checkpoints: Next Customer! Boarding Pass, Please.

Bottom line: with boarding passes, identification, and carry-on bags in tow, it is darn near impossible to get through airport security checkpoints without touching something or someone. That high-contact process makes security screenings a compounded point of concern for customers.

Because even without COVID as a concern, David notes that travelers aren’t fans of occasional unpredictable security screening steps. To be fair, those steps are there to help avoid negative experiences further along in the customer's journey. Those unpredictable steps will not be going away.

But the point is: predictability equals comfort for traveling customers. Some customers' looming questions are, post-COVID, is social distancing even possible in airport security lines? Can boarding pass and ID checks ever go completely contactless? Are the screening belt surfaces and floors clean?

Comfortable Experiences in the Travel Ecosystem

There’s more. Being completely comfortable returning to travel will also be about getting to the airport.

That means a clean taxi, Lyft, bus, or Metro car all the way to the customer’s departure terminal. If customers aren’t comfortable getting to the airport, then they will never even have an experience at the airport.

The entire ecosystem must work toward the same goal: make customers feel comfortable.

Communication as the Glue

With all of the work being put into creating a comfortable experience for air travel customers post-COVID, there’s still a matter of making sure customers get the message.

“Two-way communication is important,” Gene says. “We need customers to tell us what is most important in making them feel comfortable, and we also have to tell them how we are responding and preparing for their return.”

MWAA is continually surveying customers and sending out e-mails that outline steps they’re taking to make customers feel comfortable. The TSA social media team’s job is to continue answering travelers’ online questions.

Landing on the New CX Normal

The customer experience world is filled right now with conversations about “the new normal.” Most organizations are still trying to figure that out.

One thing is certain: the new normal will mean letting go of some of the old ways of thinking about customer experience while holding onto the practices that keep companies and government organizations in tune with customers.

Listening, measuring experiences, monitoring progress, and sharing insights across the organization, no matter the industry, will always be important.

“It’s great to measure experiences, but always better to listen to customers,” David says.

“Because without customers,” Gene says, “we don’t have anything.”

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