The air travel experience is better today than ever before and will only improve moving forward. From an enhanced customer experience at the airport and onboard, increased value for loyalty members, and an improved booking experience, the competitive landscape for airlines looking to win new customers is more fierce than ever — and that’s great news for travelers and businesses alike.
Airlines were initially unsure how much corporate travel would return post-pandemic, but Navan’s proprietary data showed that business travel bookings starting between September 1 and November 19, 2022, increased nearly 6x year-over-year compared to an equivalent booking window and trip start date in 2021.
Airlines transformed the unprecedented pause into an opportunity. After hitting record demand in 2019, leaders reflected on protecting and meeting their business's needs, even as travelers' nature and composition changed. This shift in thinking has resulted in better experiences for travelers: more comfortable lounges, newer aircraft, a smoother booking experience, and expanded networks. Airline leaders also thought through how they could better support and drive value for travelers to become the preferred carrier, whether an individual was traveling for business or leisure – or both.
Airlines across the board are making major investments for both the short term and the coming decades. Aviation is more competitive than ever before, and the bar has been raised across the board in a very traveler-friendly way. Airlines have to do more today to stand out and win business than they did in the past.
While the airline business has long been a game of competing for higher market share based on factors like schedule and price, travelers today have higher expectations. Thus, airlines are more focused than ever on developing and rolling out programs and products directly to travelers or through partners like Navan. And while 2022 brought its fair share of headaches for travelers as airlines rebuilt and scaled their operations to support returning demand, 2023 looks to build on that momentum and continue raising the bar.
The fact that the competitive landscape is hotter than ever is an optimistic view. Consumer media tends to paint airlines as enemies that nickel and dime consumers, but this competition favors consumers. The public perspective tends to focus solely on price; yes, fares have risen over the past year. However, that’s more about simple supply and demand than airlines trying to take advantage of consumers. Frankly, there’s been a lot of pent-up demand, and airlines have the pricing power to charge more. But consumer media assumes that these airlines were bailed out during the pandemic and are now getting greedy on the pricing side of things.
The air travel experience has evolved in favor of business travelers.
Airlines are making huge capital investments and a big bet on the future. It’ll cost them in the near term, but money talks, and it’s clear that they’re betting big on the future of travel and building loyalty with customers. Let’s look at the hard and soft product experience.
An enhanced onboard experience manifests as nicer seats, newer aircraft, and having enough space in the overhead bin for everyone to bring a roller bag onboard. You wouldn’t believe the amount of planning and execution that goes into improving these experiences. Airlines are also retiring smaller regional jets and renewing their fleets to move toward a more customer-friendly and comfortable onboard experience.
We’re also seeing the opening of new lounges and airport terminals at an incredible pace. For example, in the New York area where I’m based, we’ve benefited in recent years from significant enhancements at all the major airports, with more to come in the next few years. This is ultimately good for everyone. It’s a high cost for airlines, but it results in a better customer experience in the long term.
Airlines are also committing to being net zero by 2025. This major investment to shift operations towards more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices is not easy. Still, it is important to a growing number of customers, especially younger generations, who are increasingly important to carriers.
We’ve seen a lot of enhancements in loyalty programs and earning structures that have benefited travelers. Overall, the trajectory of airline loyalty programs has been positive coming out of the pandemic. However, travelers were more easily able to qualify for status during the pandemic, when fewer people were traveling, and now there’s a right-sizing of those programs.
Travelers’ expectations of airlines and the air travel experience have evolved partly because carriers are willing to invest in these areas and raise the competitive stakes for everyone.
For example, there’s a higher expectation that because airlines are growing their networks and partnerships, travelers should be able to access any destination they wish on the airline of their choice.
The typical leisure traveler flies only once or twice a year. Hence, those travelers have a different perception and experience about what they’re getting from an airline than the typical corporate traveler who flies four to six times per year. This isn’t counting road warriors who are constantly on the road. From the lens of corporate travel, the typical business traveler has witnessed the benefits of airlines’ investments over time.
Aviation nerds are excited about where the business is headed — we’re finally getting to a point where we can look at year-over-year trends instead of benchmarking to 2019. After a full year of positive growth, airlines can start operating in a more normal environment.
On the traveler side, consumers can see the fruits of airlines’ investments in expanding networks, more direct connections, new lounges and terminals, and a better onboard experience. As travel returns to pre-pandemic levels, airlines must adapt to that demand and, for example, make sure that lounges are not overcrowded. These are unique challenges that teams would have been happy to have two years ago, but now demand sometimes exceeds capacity.
I’m excited to watch how airlines adapt to the continual changes in travel patterns, like having more teams traveling for offsites and events than in the past. It’ll be interesting to see the new products and programs they introduce to the market to meet the evolving needs of travelers and businesses alike.
Andrew Chase is the Director of Airline Partnerships at Navan and is the primary point of contact for Navan’s airline partners in North America. Throughout his three years at the organization, he’s been on the front lines of what transpired in the aviation industry during the pandemic. Chase worked directly with key partners to build mutually beneficial relationships between airlines and Navan.