As airline operations return to pre-pandemic levels, can airliners fill their flights?

SSR evaluates how legacy airliners are pitching their second act: global travel in a post-pandemic world.

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Ready for Take-Off

In the first quarter of 2021, global vaccination rates steadily rose, the CDC announced optimistic new travel guidelines, the EU released plans to reopen to American tourists, and Singapore and Hong Kong began preparations for an air-travel bubble that would connect two of Asia’s busiest hubs.

Where to next? New destinations for summer 2021

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All this was welcome news for the airline industry, dealt a staggering blow by Covid-19 with air passenger traffic in 2020 declined 69.5 percent against 2019.

Despite the new Delta variant, legacy airlines are now rushing to reactivate their fleets in hopes of a full summer 2021 travel season. Air Canada, British Airways, Delta, Fly Emirates, and Lufthansa have each added routes and destinations to their itineraries, signaling their confidence in consumer appetite for travel.

Lufthansa announced flights to more than 100 holiday destinations, “an absolute record in the group’s history,” according to Chief Executive Carsten Spohr. Emirates, meanwhile, plans to serve “100% of its destinations by summer 2021,” according to Chief Operating Officer Adel al-Redha.

By the Numbers

7 day average flights, 2021 against 2020

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By the Numbers

7 day average flights, 2021 against 2020

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By the Numbers

7 day average flights, 2021 against 2020

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By the Numbers

7 day average flights, 2021 against 2020

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By the Numbers

7 day average flights, 2021 against 2020

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By the Numbers

7 day average flights, 2021 against 2020

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Mike Kelley

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Turbulence Ahead

 

But will airlines manage to fill their flights? Air Canada, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Fly Emirates, and Lufthansa are fighting hard to reestablish consumer confidence and lure travelers back to the skies.

 

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Cutting through the noise: reassuring flyers and assuaging fears

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And yet, plenty of obstacles remain. Consumers need convincing: that air travel is safe, airliner brands are reputable, and even that pre-pandemic routines like business travel are worth revisiting. 

  • Health  

Even with the loosening restrictions, consumers and host countries alike are concerned about safety, cautious of reigniting a pandemic that is only just coming under control. 

Despite the Delta variant, the United Kingdom government announced at the end of July the end of quarantine of fully vaccinated travelers from Europe and the USA. But even so, industry professionals fear it will be too late to secure a full summer travel season. Italy, meanwhile, will only accept tourists from specific countries after multiple Covid tests.

Cathay Pacific has also been slow on the uptake, in part because of Hong Kong’s 3-week quarantine requirement for crews. As of March 2021, Cathay is serving only 18 destinations. Capacity is down 47% against February 2021, and 90% against March 2020. Making matters worse, the travel bubble between Hong Kong and Singapore has been delayed twice.

Consumer confidence, too, remains shaky, as more reports surface citing experts qualifying, complicating, or outright questioning the CDC’s earlier announcement that air travel was safe for vaccinated passengers.

 

Changing sentiments and lifestyle habits

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  • Brand Reputation 

Airliners are also reeling from long-standing consumer frustrations, which came to a head during the pandemic. Air Canada and Delta are suffering from customer service complaints that can linger on social media before being resolved, and British Airways has come under fire for questionable fueling practices driving emissions and has been accused of greenwashing.

Delta, too, faces trouble amid rising anti-corporate sentiment. The airliner drew backlash after first taking a neutral stance on a controversial voting law in Georgia, where the company is headquartered. The company eventually reversed course under mounting consumer pressure.

  • Business Travel  

Consumers are eager to vacation, but whether business travel will return in full force remains unclear. 

Business leaders are reevaluating whether travel is necessary after a year of Zoom meetings and amid ever-rising pressure to reduce their carbon emissions. 

At the same time, employees—after working from home for more than a year—are wondering whether business travel was ever necessary in the first place. 

All this spells trouble for airliners, which rely on business travelers for up to 75% of their profits.

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Airliners’ Second Act: Global Travel, Post-Pandemic

 

Facing a complicated path to recovery, airliners are trying to cut through the noise and convince customers to once again take to the skies. 

SSR unravels what’s working and what’s not, breaking down a flurry of new campaigns from Air Canada, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Fly Emirates, and Lufthansa.

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  • Channel Summary

–  Advertising

Each airliner we studied decreased advertising spending year-over-year, and each spent less than $100 million on advertising in 2020. 

Air Canada and Fly Emirates went big on traditional ads, taking out spots in digital, print, and national TV as well as investing in premium ad units like page takeovers.

British Airways and Lufthansa were most conservative when it came to ads. Lufthansa only ran digital and print, while British Airways stuck to digital-only.

Of the six, Delta was the only to run paid ads on Facebook and Instagram. Their “Rediscover the Joy of Travel Campaign” touted options and convenience: more destinations and an end to change fees and planning tools. Delta also pushed their Delta SkyMiles ® Platinum American Express Card program hard, offering up to 60,000 Bonus miles.

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–  Instagram

Covid-19 safety protocols dominated airliners’ Instagrams. Air Canada and British Airways were standouts in safety reassurance: Air Canada for their branded CleanCare+ campaign, and British Airways for lending a human touch with stories featuring senior staff answering Covid-19 travel questions.

Delta, British Airways, and Cathay add inspiration to reassurance, launching campaigns around user-generated content inviting travelers to dream of their next trip. Delta went heavy on scenic views of destinations, British Airways asked “where will you go next?” and Cathay pulled on heartstrings with content about community members’ hometowns. 

British Airways put their Covid relief efforts in India on centerstage, hoping—perhaps—to regain some social justice cachet after being accused of “greenwashing.

 

–  Website

We found all airliners’ dedicating space to reassuring customers with comprehensive lists of Covid-19 safety protocols. 

Emirates and Lufthansa also promoted flexibility and convenience, with content around ticket flexibility, rate-cuts, and open destinations.

Delta, Cathay, and British Airways again sought to gin up wanderlust: Delta stood out with an interactive discovery map, while Cathay and BA offered destination guides.

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Takeaways

The TL;DR.  Here’s what we think you should know.

The New Normal: Airliners are Healthy, Convenient, and Flexible

All the airliners studied had in common their focus on health, convenience, and booking flexibility as core brand messages. This may have differentiated an airliner in 2019—but now it’s only keeping up. 

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Social Media Campaigns > Traditional Ads

Delta is leading a shift from traditional advertising to social media advertising and user-engagement campaigns, and it’s working for them. Likewise, British Airways and Lufthansa don’t seem to be missing out for their pared down traditional ad campaigns.

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Business Travel: The Next New Thing?

Airliners have focused efforts on promoting leisure travel where demand is strong. But, appetite for business travel remains tepid: that market segment could belong to airliners that convince businesses to reboot their pre-pandemic travel routines.

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