For the 10th year in a row, travel buyers rated Delta Air Lines as the top carrier in BTN’s Airline Survey, atop a tide of improved buyer satisfaction with airlines even as they faced a near total evaporation of corporate travel demand amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Delta earned a total score of 4.59 on a five-point scale and once again earned the highest score among its competitors in all criteria measured in the survey. BTN this year added three criteria specific to airlines’ Covid-19 response, but the rest of the categories were consistent with last year’s survey. Delta also improved its score year over year in all survey criteria.
Delta was not alone in its improvement, however. More than 60 percent of buyers in the survey indicated that their customer service had improved since last year. A third said customer service had stayed the same, leaving only a small percentage indicating it had gotten worse.
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines each improved across all comparable categories year over year, while United Airlines, which ranked second last year, fell a bit year over year. For American, that was enough to surpass United to rank second this year, and Southwest remained in fourth, though the spread between all three airlines was just 0.06 points.
As corporate air travel has recovered as yet only to a small fraction of where it was prior to the pandemic, much of the commentary in open-ended questions in the survey centered around two key areas: communication and flexibility.
Communication Removes Barriers
Hygiene and sanitization procedures have taken center stage amid the pandemic, and they also are playing a critical role in airline communication strategies they hope will lay the groundwork for a corporate travel rebound.
Both client communication and effective communication related to Covid were among Delta’s highest-scoring areas. Several buyers in open-ended questions praised the carrier’s response.
“Our Delta rep kept informing us about their plan and the situation of Covid-19,” one buyer wrote. “As a frontline industry, we are still heavily traveling, so it is a big help to have an account manager who cares about our business and travelers.”
Another buyer noted that Delta’s “communication and sales reps have been phenomenal during the pandemic,” with “everything from emails to airport and plane inspections.”
Delta VP of sales operations and development Kristen Shovlin said Delta has “hit every channel” in its communication strategy to provide a “constant flow of communication.” That has included producing videos to show the new traveler experience amid Covid-19 precautions, bringing in experts to answer questions, hosting town halls and talking one-on-one with corporate clients, she said.
Delta also has hosted more than 500 fam trips for more than 2,500 customers, so they can see firsthand the measures in place, SVP of global sales Bob Somers said.
American also has been conducting airport tours with clients and agencies, which helps “take the mystery out of the check-in experience,” managing director of strategic account sales Hank Benedetti said. The tours let buyers see such procedures as the cleaning of aircraft and application of the SurfaceWise antiviral treatment, he said.
For Southwest Airlines, the pandemic was an impetus to create “an industry-standard marketing automation tool,” which it previously did not have, Southwest Business VP Dave Harvey said. The resulting tool allows Southwest to message travel managers globally and equips account managers to customize their own communication, he said.
“It’s allowed us to be more timely and more tailored with our messaging,” Harvey said. “If we need to get something out about the Southwest promise or schedule changes, we can go through a decision tree about the most effective platform. Our communications muscle has been taken up a notch.”
In recent months, airlines have reported that all-out travel freezes have ended for most of their corporate clients, with a majority of them having at least some small level of travel. Having those communication strategies in place in turn is meant to help buyers who now need to gauge how to send their travelers back out on the road.
“Every day, all day, we’re on calls with customers,” Somers said. “It started with corporate travel managers, and now it’s chief medical officers and risk officers, and they’re sharing it with their traveling employees. Science and government will drive when people come back to work, but we’re making sure people have the confidence to travel.”
Airlines now are expanding that communication strategy to include other parts of the travel ecosystem. American, for example, is partnering with companies including Hyatt, Marriott and Avis to “showcase the entire journey,” chief customer officer Alison Taylor said. United has put together a “return-to-travel” toolkit for buyers with multiple resources from them to pass on to travelers, VP of sales strategy and effectiveness Glenn Hollister said.
“Air travel is not seen as the barrier to business travel at this point,” Hollister said. “The barriers we’re hearing about now have more to do with travel restrictions imposed by governments and the simple fact that, in reaction to those, many offices are closed.”
Making Changes for Flexibility
Since business travel grinded to a quick halt in March, flexibility has been the second crucial need for buyers from airlines, both in travel booking and in the contractual relationship.
In the early days of the crisis, airlines responded with change fee waivers, as they would have during a natural disaster. As it became clearer that this would be a more prolonged and global issue, unlike anything the industry has faced before, some of those changes have crystallized into something more permanent for the industry.
One of the biggest changes came this fall when airlines announced that the elimination of change fees would be permanent, at least for domestic travel. Policy changes have varied a bit across each airline. United, which was the first to announce the permanent elimination, also eliminated fees for same-day standby, Hollister said. American, meanwhile, so far has been the only carrier to enable refunds of price differentials when new tickets are booked at a lower price.
Southwest, of course, previously always had stood alone among the four largest U.S. carriers in not charging change fees—nor checked-bag fees—and “overall price value” continued to be its strongest area of performance this year.
The increased flexibility has presented an added challenge for buyers in dealing with unused tickets. Delta alone, for example, has issued about 4 million refunds, totaling about $2.8 billion in revenue, Somers said. The carrier worked to make sure agencies were able to manage name changes in global distribution systems without having to go through Delta and worked to create Universal Air Travel Plan accounts for customers to manage unused ticket funds as well, Shovlin said. Southwest also formed a partnership with UATP to form a process for buyers and travel management companies to aggregate unused funds, Harvey said.
American took an additional step to ensure travelers were not able to rebook unused tickets for corporate travel for personal use, making sure they had to go through authorized agencies so new tickets were used for business, Benedetti said.
As with the elimination in change fees, some structural changes will be permanent. For example, airlines worked with ATPCO to automate ticket changes for rules to match current information rather than what was the case at the time of booking. The change, which ATPCO head of global accounts Chris Phillips called “one of the most successful implementations ATPCO has done in quite a while,” will continue to benefit the industry beyond Covid for changes related to hurricanes or other natural disasters.
“We don’t want to build a single-use solution that will help us for a few months,” Phillips said. “The solutions we’re delivering are ones intended to be long-standing solutions for the industry that can be built on.”
Airlines have been flexible in other areas as well, such as extending loyalty program points beyond expiration dates and extending status into next year. They also have been extending corporate contracts, waiving requirements on current contracts and lowering thresholds for programs targeting small and midsize companies, which generally have been quicker to rebound to travel than larger companies.
While airlines report some recent increases in request-for-proposals activity, that flexibility with contracts will extend into next year.
American, for example, is extending all contracts set to expire before June 30, 2021, by an additional year, though corporate customers are also welcome to return to the negotiating table in lieu of an extension, Benedetti said. “What we did very early on was place the power of choice with the customers,” he said.
Industry analysts project true recovery in corporate air travel is unlikely to happen until at least later next year, pending widespread distribution of effective vaccines, and airlines are positioning themselves to take advantage when that recovery happens.
Delta has seen about 90 percent of its corporate customers return to travel, with such industries as entertainment and manufacturing leading the way, Somers said. It also has been leaning on its partnership with private aviation supplier Wheels Up to offer a charter option for companies returning to travel.
In the meantime, it has continued with investments in place prior to the pandemic, such as in its sustainability efforts and helping to build a better retail shopping experiences for air travel, Shovlin said.
American has announced several new partnerships over the past year, including working with both Alaska Airlines and JetBlue, which fills “obvious gaps in our Northwest and Northeast network,” Taylor said. In terms of global network, American also is working with Qatar Airways and is adding its own new services to Shanghai and Bangalore next year, she said.
“What’s next is making sure we have the right network in place,” Taylor said. “Demand for next year is really starting to improve, and that reassures corporate accounts, to see some normalcy returning.”
United is watching where demand rebounds to determine where to add routes, Hollister said. It recently extended its service to Africa, and major business travel routes on tap for next year include flying between Chicago and New Delhi and between San Francisco and Bangalore.
The carrier also has developed a new data reporting method for monitoring contract performance, working with ARC and Grasp Technologies to flow corporate travel program identification information from TMCs to ARC, enabling ARC to match that data with direct booking data. United will be moving all U.S. point-of-sale customers to the new system and plans to have its reporting available through its Jetstream portal next year.
Southwest this year delivered on its announcement last year to make its content available for corporate travel via global distribution systems without workarounds and has gone live in both Travelport and Amadeus’ systems. The carrier also is planning entry into two major airports—Chicago O’Hare and Houston Bush Intercontinental, complementing its service at Chicago Midway and Houston Hobby—which will open the door for some new potential corporate customers, Harvey said.
“We feel like a combination of pillars are going to make Southwest more attractive as we go into next year,” Harvey said. “Coupled with the flexibility of funds and duty of care, plus all of the GDS and channel investments we made, it’s going to be a dogfight for every customer.”
In recent weeks, airlines have been adding Covid testing programs to open up travel opportunities to Hawaii and some Caribbean destinations. Work is happening for key business destinations as well—United recently introduced a testing program for travelers from Newark to London, for example—and those efforts will continue to help business travel’s rebound.
Some buyers will have new relationships to build into the new year, however, as many airline employees, including on the sales side, will have left amid workforce reductions made necessary by the pandemic. Several buyers in the survey indicated they were worried about losing representatives they had worked with for years, though carriers said they have plans in place for continuity. For example, sales team members that were customer-facing “really had priority to remain at American” as it restructured, Taylor said.
“[Covid] did drive much more disruption in relationships we had with the customer than I’ve ever seen, which is not desirable from ours or the customer’s point of view,” United’s Hollister said. “We made sure we let customers going through the process … know ahead of time the outcome for them personally, so the person giving up a relationship can talk to the person picking up the relationship and do a warm handoff.”
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