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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.

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