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Comment: Airport chaos is as much a reputation crisis as it is a travel crisis

James Mathews of CM.com says transparency is key for airports battling disruption

The UK travel sector is not having the summer many would have predicted. With 2021 not delivering the much-needed resurgence in passenger numbers due to the lingering impact of Covid-19 restrictions, 2022 was set up to be the golden return to a peak travel season. Airports were set to be full, flights packed and the British appetite for foreign travel truly reinstated after some time spent at home.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 restrictions do not have to be in full legal force to have a lasting impact. Challenges ranging from staff shortages to industrial actions have led to disruptions across UK airports, and photos of passengers queuing round airport terminals are spread across the front pages of newspapers. This has led to real anxiety amongst consumers which airline and airports must tackle head on.

This is a major problem for an industry still reeling from pandemic shutdowns, and not just because of the short-term loss of revenue inflicted via reduced capacity to run flights. When consumers lose faith in the ability of a travel operator to a service, then a reputation slide begins. This is not just a matter of short-term cancellations and capacity, but in fact points to a broader issue regarding the communication of basic travel information to consumers in a timely manner. Re-energising consumer faith in air travel will only come by seeing the events of this summer as a turning point for how the travel sector interacts and responds to its customer base.

The long-term cost of disruption  

There is nothing more costly for a business than the perception that it cannot continue to provide the services it claims through increases in demand. This is not to say that a business should never be stretched with capacity, or that an influx in demand might cause changes to services.

Such alterations to the expected course are all part of running a smooth operation, but how this is communicated with the customer is where value is either gained or lost. Airports are the case in point here and the chief reason being that too many passengers are being left uncertain about the status of their travel or baggage.

Fortunately for the industry, and down the line the consumer, there is already investment set aside for making necessary improvements. In a recent public spat with the aviation regulator, Heathrow airport publicly defended its calls to maintain passenger charges at the higher levels initiated through pandemic lows. Regardless of the level of passenger charges, Heathrow will still be sitting on an additional £3.6bn in funds for significant investment into improvements – and they, along with other airports making investment, must not squander this opportunity.

Overcoming the staff shortages is of course an initial priority, but longer-term resilience to future shocks must be safeguarded by moving beyond outdated processes and legacy technology. Digitisation and automation through the customer journey hold the key.

Investing in customer communications to improve resilience

By investing in cutting-edge technology that will improve efficiency, end backlogs and lead to an overall better customer experience, Heathrow and other airports can proactively tackle ongoing customer anxiety rebuilding lost customer trust.

The clearest example of where digitisation can add value is improved conversational AI tools. Such technology can be used to provide proactive alerts or answer customer queries accurately and efficiently, ensuring less worried passengers are stuck in queues at airports. This helps to engender the feeling that operators are taking proactive and innovative steps to solve issues.

Another step is widening the number of entry points with which your customers can access information. Gone are the days when consumers should be expected to huddle round a board in an airport waiting for a one-line summary of the status of their flight. It is relatively simple and highly cost-effective to allow customers to engage with your customer team via whichever channel they prefer – whether its SMS, Twitter, Facebook, or WhatsApp information should be shared via the medium choose, not what seems best for the operator.

Elsewhere, airports should consider adopting improved knowledge sharing tools. These are vastly complex organisation with huge workforces and constantly changing operations demands. Internal chatbots which provide status updates across entire airports would help reduce backlogs by channelling staff into the areas of most need. They also support the smooth transfer of information from the airport to the customer ensuring enquiries and issues are resolved at great speed.

Recent data published The Institute of Customer Service found the calls and complaints had hit their highest level on record costing UK companies more than £9bn a month in lost time. Whilst this is not unique to the air travel sector, unresponsive switchboards are an archaic way of dealing with customer complaints and queries. Better solutions which provide more concise answers exist, and ultimately drive value through the assurances they provide and long-term loyalty and trust they help to establish.

The bottom line for the UK’s airports is that had this technology already been in place, customers would have been faced with less uncertainty and smoother process even if capacity issues remained. It is obviously inconvenient if your flight is rescheduled, but an entirely different proposition standing in an airport lobby staring at a board with very little information. The same applies for reclaiming lost baggage or getting basic information about how to claim refunds. Consumers are, in the end, a forgiving bunch but only when high quality communication technology and transparency at every step pre-empts issues before they arise.

It’s down to airports to put these transparency procedures in place. Those that do will reap the benefits from regaining consumer trust.

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