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Understanding context in air travel

March 25th, 2015

Kinny Cheng

Where customers are concerned, context isn’t simply just about supply and demand — but the derivation of these through circumstances.

Travellers fly for different reasons, but generally for work and/or for pleasure. Based on either reason alone, circumstance would create a variety of customer needs and wants, with various overlap, which in turn creates opportunity for product or service providers to address and possibly capture.

Arguably, solutions are seemingly aplenty at airports. There are cafés that serve both food and drinks, bookstores that also sell magazines, and retail outlets offering a broad assortment of wares or just specialised categories of goods. In most cases, they exist simply because of a product or service provision that’s likely to be needed by passengers, while lacking a thorough understanding of their customers’ true needs and the bases of.

While part of the blame lies with product/service providers, airports are also to be held accountable for not fully appreciating how involving, and typically excruciating, the flying experience can be. The heightened competition within the commercial airline industry is not simply restricted to airlines, albeit the significance of these effects on an airport may be far lesser by comparison.

What makes airports go tick-tock?
Airports provide the ground-based infrastructure for airlines to operate their services. Besides the customer touch points with the airline, the airport becomes largely responsible for the passenger experience occurring within their walls.

At the basic level, the physical aspects of the passenger terminal plays the biggest part in the overall scheme of things. Ambience follows closely — and this is usually addressed by having various amenities around the airports. Retail specialty shops and duty free stores, food outlets and coffee shops, and even pay-per-use lounges with rest and shower facilities are the usual suspects.

While most major airports are devised and developed in this way, it is in the finer details that can make a difference context-wise.

Singapore’s Changi Airport is one of the more outstanding airports where consideration for the true needs of its customers — on both airside and landside — is concerned. With its broad range of food and retail spanning through all of its three terminals, and some being strategically located near the farther gates, it caters extremely well for anyone who may be spending more than just the usual hour-or-two there. The airport itself also provides various amenities, with some of these including free wireless Internet, charging stations and ports, and rest-cum-sleeping areas.

On the other hand, Sydney Airport, specifically the international terminal, has a greater desire for providing its occupants with an overdose of retail therapy. Whether you are arriving or departing, passengers have absolutely no choice but to walk through the duty free store, which has been meticulously designed around the route either leading to immigration (arrivals) or after leaving the security checkpoint (departures). Prior to remodelling several years ago, there were two entrances leading to airside — but now, there’s only the one, and it has created the need for a longer walking time for virtually half of all departing passengers.

Understandably, it all boils down to the numbers.

But how does creating inconveniences — and annoyances — achieve the goal of identifying and addressing customer context when all that’s being done is shoving it all down their throats?

…and airlines soar?
The aircraft is that one place — by comparison — where people have limited choices and freedoms. Depending on interpretation, it is opportunity for an airline to win customers over through the various, but limited, means available for product and service differentiation — while not forgetting about (the importance of) customer context.

Unsurprisingly, when the topic of conversation steers towards airlines, most people tend to share their own experiences relating to seat comfort, legroom, the food on-board, and service. That is because all these factors contribute greatly towards the overall passenger experience, given how the available stimuli is understandably limited.

For example, Singapore Airlines focus greatly on service excellence, followed by the quality of its in-flight products. While not every flight attendant may mirror the ‘Singapore Girl’ image (warm and attentive), the bar has been set significantly higher than those of its many competitors. Similarly, the airline places a similarly-greater emphasis on providing a pleasing environment in their respective classes, including comfortable seats with sufficient space, a good selection of palatable meals, and a well-catalogued, on-demand in-flight entertainment (IFE) system.

On the area of in-flight entertainment, this is a passenger experience aspect which Emirates Airline (or simply Emirates) invests very heavily upon. By heavily engaging an individual’s attention, through either audio and/or video, it hopes to temporarily numb the pain that is usually experienced whilst being stuck on a plane. In addition to Emirates’ ‘ice’ (the name for its in-flight entertainment system), which hosts over two thousand channels of content and also branded as the world’s best, the carrier has brought in-flight connectivity (or on-board Wi-Fi) to most of its long-haul aircraft and hopes to have it available throughout the fleet in the times to come.

What about their service and in-flight products? Emirates is generally good with its overall provisions, but seems to have a lesser focus on achieving similarly-high levels of customer satisfaction as those of Singapore Airlines — specifically not-as-attentive levels of service and not-as-outstanding seats. However, its near-perfect IFE system does seem to make up for this discrepancy (if it can be called that) — not simply because it is an inhibitor, but it directly addresses a passenger’s wants and needs (context!) given this space-and-time.

In a world where customisation and personalisation is being made increasingly possible through big data, there are still many organisations in virtually all industries choosing to ignore the telltale signs indicating lost opportunities, which in turn can also create consumer frustrations.

The ability to identify the underlying catalysts that determine customers’ true needs can make for far stronger cases. At the same time, it can be used to (in)validate any existing predispositions or strategies — while remembering the true driver for successful product and/or service development is less about the what, but more about the why, in the context of the customer.

In 2015, connectivity is about bandwidth

March 21st, 2015

Kinny Cheng

I’m curious about how high-level executives, at any relevant airline, can argue against the bases of what validates the general concept of in-flight connectivity.

In 2015.

Mary Kirby’s post, titled “Norwegian wants to move 737 health data over broadband”, was a generally-interesting read as far as discussing the airline’s intent and experience with their connectivity efforts was concerned.

But what was more interesting were the comments made by Norwegian’s head of business development, station and inflight solutions, Boris Bubresko.

…Boris Bubresko proclaimed that the airline is a “true believer in connectivity”, having already equipped 96% of its 737 fleet with Global Eagle’s Ku connectivity system.

That is an impressive number. Indeed, Norwegian was one of the earlier adopters of in-flight connectivity, where the airline began retrofitting their Boeing 737s with relevant hardware since 2011.

On the #PaxEx front, Norwegian on average sees “about 35-40%” take rates, and predictably higher usage on longer flights. The quality of this free service “depends on what passengers are doing on board. If everyone is doing emails; everybody is fine. If everybody is trying to download a movie; they all suffer,” admits Bubresko.

I’ve flown with Norwegian on several occasions, and I would always try to get online whenever the service was available. A general, non-systematic and -scientific head-count on most of my flights will agree to the 35-to-40% usage rates — mostly consisting users of smartphones, while lesser for tablets and laptops.

As it was free for everyone to use, the quality-of-service would always be questionable…

Thinking back to my most-positive usage experience, a passenger’s best bet would be to stick with apps that go easy on data consumption. Granted there can be a bit of wait time, which is an inherent issue with satellite-based Internet. Twitter, in most cases, would function reasonably well — but not so much for Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest, which can hog the connection with endless picture-loading requests!

Hence, Bubresko’s example of a scenario where “everybody is trying to download a movie” would be virtually impossible, because it could never really happen (good luck trying to even get to the page that hosts the video!)

Norwegian is rumored to have only contracted for half a transponder’s worth of Ku capacity [read: not a lot] to cover its connectivity needs, leading to mixed results for passengers.

That figures. But let’s not forget about the free-for-all nature of the service, which lends Norwegian an excuse of not having to meet any (realistic) levels of in-flight broadband expectations (not as if they have made any efforts to established these!)

Almost all passengers in the world have been conditioned with the premise that the Internet isn’t usually available on planes. So, when you give it to them, for free, many would be happy that it’s there for the using — and expectations are non-existent because it’s both nice-to-have and, most importantly, zero-cost.

But Bubresko insists that the conversation should not be about bandwidth. Rather, he says, it’s about “are passengers able to do what they would like to do?”

How is the conversation not about bandwidth when we are talking about connectivity?

It’s easy to say “let’s install Wi-Fi on all our aircraft so that everyone gets to surf the Web when they fly with us!” But without consideration for the overall fleet’s capacity requirements, measures to control data use on a per-aircraft basis, and appropriate service expectations for passengers, asking that subsequent question becomes a truly futile and senseless act.

But if I was to say “I’d like to watch my Netflix”, then how is Bubresko going to respond?

Not about bandwidth? In another world, perhaps.

Future-proofing #PaxEx

November 6th, 2014

Kinny Cheng

John Walton, writing for Runway Girl Network:

That’s something that the ‘passenger experience’ (#PaxEx) industry doesn’t do enough. Future-proofing seems to have be an afterthought, if considered at all.

I couldn’t possibly agree more.

Shortsightedness, intentional or not, by the various industry players will eventually — and have already — come full circle.

(But who am I to say so…)

Qantas continues its waning…

November 6th, 2014

Kinny Cheng

Via The National:

Qantas Airways is taking extreme measures to cut its planes’ weight and pack in more paying travellers as its chief executive Alan Joyce works to return the carrier to profit.

Begs the question: Why are these measures being enacted only now, and not before?

Whether it’s now, or since way before, such “measures” will only be seen as desperate — especially when multiple initiatives are being compounded, like the introduction of tray-less economy class meals on international flights.

And to rub salt in the wound, the Australian national carrier plans to open a new first class lounge at Los Angeles International Airport in January 2015. So much for cost reduction measures.

Yes, the airline is re-shuffling it’s priorities. But the appropriateness of these initiatives — like many others, I’m not so sure.

‘Bursting at the seams’

October 31st, 2014

Kinny Cheng

Via Kristine Owram, Financial Post:

Airport security systems are “bursting at the seams” and major changes need to be made if passenger screening is to keep up with ballooning demand for air travel, says the head of the International Air Transport Association.

Rhetoric much?

As per usual, the article reinforces the idea of “expensive” being the ultimate justification for a traveller’s inconvenience where security and/or checkpoint waiting times are concerned.

While travellers have to understand a need for heightened security, those who impose such processes on the travelling public need also to come up with more-innovative ways in dealing with this ongoing problem. I blame bureaucracy for this.

And then, there’s this:

To address this growing problem, IATA is proposing a program that it calls “smart security.”

Talk is cheap, Mr. Tyler.

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