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Three ways airlines are reinventing COVID travel

Airlines COVID travel

COVID-19 impacted every business this past year, but few industries as a whole were hit as hard as airlines. With many countries’ travel restrictions continuing on into 2021, millions of people worldwide continue to reschedule, cancel or delay even booking flights.

And airline companies are feeling it. In the U.S., the Department of Transportation reports that in July of 2020 there were 370,859 domestic flights recorded on U.S. airlines. Compare that to 717,684 flights in July of 2019. Not surprisingly, the global airline industry is expected to remain cash negative throughout 2021, and estimated to burn through $95 billion this year, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Although over 62 million Americans have now been fully vaccinated as of April 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still advising people to delay traveling until they are fully vaccinated, noting that it increases their chances of “getting and spreading COVID-19.” Still, some are choosing to travel, be it for leisure, business or familial obligations. To ensure the health and safety of customers and employees, airlines are developing agile recovery plans and implementing extra precautions.

As part of these efforts, they continue to rethink approaches to everything from check-in to in-flight service to pre- and post-flight customer care. It’s likely that the strategies and technologies they choose to embrace now will become critical to boosting business in the months — and years — to come.

Reducing the spread

One of the changes airlines are already making is providing rapid COVID-19 testing on-site. Through a partnership with XpresSpa Group, United Airlines is offering in-airport rapid testing at several international airports in the U.S., including in Houston, New Jersey, New York (JFK), Boston and the D.C. region.

Airlines such as United are making sure passengers know what to expect from air travel in the age of COVID. A new webpage explains the company’s modified check-in process, which now includes completing a personal health self-assessment. It also points passengers to a new automated assistant — accessible by texting “Clean” to FLYUA (35982) — that can answer questions about United’s enhanced cleaning protocols and its policy on face coverings.

North of the border in Canada, WestJet ran a pilot test in Vancouver with same-day, on-site COVID testing prior to the tightening of the country’s travel restrictions. It was intended to reduce the spread of the virus and enable consumers to safely carry out their travel plans.

Another way that airports and industry partners across North America are helping reduce the spread of the virus is by adopting low-touch and contactless services. Ranging from touchless airport parking check-in to contactless bag drop and fewer touchpoints at airport security, airports are taking the necessary steps to become exponentially safer.

Providing access to customer service on demand

Airlines have long been using mobile technology to simplify the booking and boarding process for travelers. The next step, and one that could make the customer experience (CX) even smoother, is customer service on demand.

Early on in the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for customers eager to change their flights and get a handle on COVID travel restrictions to experience excessive hold times. To remedy that issue, and to make sure customers can get help more easily, some airlines introduced self-service tools designed to connect passengers with airline representatives.

For example, United Airlines launched a mobile tool called Agent on Demand that provided “an easy, contact-free option to get real-time information and support” in the airline’s hub airports. The technology allows customers to scan a QR code on airport signage or at a self-service kiosk and immediately connect with a team member by phone, chat or video.

Airlines overall have begun to rely on self-serve options like chatbots to help them manage increased customer queries. According to reports, Juliet — WestJet’s chatbot — dealt with a support ticket increase of more than 1,600% during the first weeks of the pandemic. Notably, “Juliet was up to the task, resolving 87% of cases,” global non-profit airline association APEX reports.

Omnichannel digital tools like these have proven to be critical over the past year as they have helped increase efficiency and lower wait times while reducing the need for close contact with customer service representatives. They also serve as convenient and accessible ways to get in touch with the airlines, thereby helping to diminish customer stress and anxiety while traveling during the pandemic.

Moreover, safety policies are being updated in real-time, with new restrictions constantly emerging, and knowing they can reach customer service anytime, anywhere creates a more comforting brand — and travel — experience for passengers. Now more than ever, omnichannel customer care that’s efficient and accessible is crucial to maintaining customer affinity and ensuring they stay loyal to your brand.

Rolling out testing technology

Something else airlines are exploring is the ability to help passengers obtain the correct COVID-19 test documentation for the specific destination they are traveling to, as it can vary from country to country. American Airlines is looking to mobile technology for this purpose, having recently introduced a travel readiness app and biometric authentication and identity solution very aptly named, VeriFLY.

Launched in late 2020, VeriFLY guides passengers through the process of verifying their COVID-19 test documentation to ensure it meets entry guidelines for their destination. The app can be used in conjunction with LetsGetChecked, which offers coronavirus testing via an at-home test, or in-person and on-site rapid testing at select airports.

Mobile apps that leverage biometric technology can also be used to streamline flight check-ins and departures. “Travel and testing requirements can be complex,” Julie Rath, vice president of customer experience at American Airlines, said in a news release. “Using apps such as VeriFLY and offering testing through LetsGetChecked can make the process easier and more straightforward for our customers.”

Global travel industry resource Skift expects 2021 to be “a more positive year” for travel, but notes “it certainly won’t be back to business-as-usual any time soon.” In the meantime, preparing for an extended period of disruption by adopting digital technologies that prioritize these new elements of customer care can help airlines maintain positive brand relationships with travelers. Additionally, their collective efforts in this regard will build the overall consumer confidence in air travel to help expedite the industry’s recovery as a whole.

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