Airlines are expanding in-flight entertainment options. // © 2015 iStock
Feature image (above): A profitable 2015 has led to a new focus on the passenger experience. // © 2015 iStock
Consumers have a love-hate relationship with airlines. When things go smoothly, flying is an easy and convenient way to travel. But overcrowded cabins, hidden (or not-so-hidden) baggage fees or a sluggish in-flight Wi-Fi connection may leave clients little choice but to flock to Twitter and unleash a 140-character rant upon landing.
Still, airlines have continued to focus on passenger satisfaction while striving to maximize efficiency and increase revenue. It’s been a challenge, but a profitable 2015 has led to a window of opportunity for the year ahead.
Six years post-recession, airlines have finally reached average U.S. profitability, thanks to plunging fuel prices that have led to an increase in revenue. What’s more, the industry has achieved its highest American Customer Satisfaction Index score since 1994.
Now, airlines are using the momentum to reinvest in their most important asset: passengers.
“In 2015, U.S. airlines have been investing, on average, $1.4 billion per month into the passenger experience,” said Melanie Hinton, managing director of airline industry public relations for Airlines for America. “They are realizing that passengers want more control over their entire travel experience.”
This could be anything from more on-demand, in-flight entertainment options to increasing amenities in economy class — both of which received upgrades in 2015 and have impressive improvements slated for the year to come.
Passengers’ reliance on technology, both on the ground and in the air, continues to rise. Several carriers made improvements to in-flight entertainment, mobile apps and e-ticketing this past year.
Some airlines are turning to apps to increase services that are available before a consumer boards. Delta Air Lines recently announced that passengers can book and pay for flights using Apple Pay and the Fly Delta app, while United Airlines’ app will show where to find an airport’s best burger or the closest ATM.
Once in the air, passengers have an expanding number of Internet-based in-flight entertainment options. JetBlue, rated the most satisfying U.S. airline in the low-cost segment according to J.D. Power’s “2015 North America Airlines Satisfaction Study,” intends to be the first airline
to offer free in-flight Wi-Fi to all passengers by fall 2016. This feature is a trend that Mike Boyd, president of airline consulting company Boyd Group International, believes will soon become mainstream across the board.
Additionally, United recently expanded its free personal device entertainment on select United Express regional jets, allowing passengers complimentary access to a library of movies and television shows available for streaming on their own devices. Expanded HBO programming and exclusive content from Vevo are also free to stream.
A New Class of Comfort
While many passengers associate benefits with the front cabin, several carriers are working on new initiatives to enhance a passenger’s experience in coach.
For example, travelers booking Singapore Airlines will have the opportunity to fly in “premium economy” seats from the U.S. beginning in January 2016.
Although passengers will pay up to 40 to 50 percent more for premium economy seats, this cushier product is designed for an “emerging market segment of main cabin travelers who are interested in some of the perks and amenities available in business class,” said James Boyd, vice president of public relations for the Americas for Singapore Airlines.
Those perks include greater seat width, more legroom, an 8-inch recline and a calf- and footrest.
But perhaps the most imaginative attempt comes from Delta, whose “Innovation Class” allows select travelers to reserve a seat next to thought leaders in business, art and technology on select flights — dubbed “a mentorship at 35,000 feet.” Passengers fly for free and can apply for these seats through LinkedIn.
But will these initiatives inspire fliers to continue to reevaluate their complex relationship with airlines in 2016?
Only time — and Twitter — will tell.