Blue sky thinking

posted on 4th June 2020
Blue sky  thinking

In the wake of Covid-19, consumer attitudes to flying have changed greatly. Management consultancy EDIwave director Mark Finch considers the traveller’s mindset and what can be done to tempt them back into the air.

Anyone listening to aviation-related webinars since the Covid-19 outbreak will know the main theme at the moment is consumer confidence and what can be done to stimulate demand.

It seems before the pandemic, UK travellers didn’t want to think too much about air travel and felt well informed. Previous research carried out in the UK’s aviation sector by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) found that most consumers couldn’t identify any gaps in available information or wouldn’t want more, even if it’s beneficial.

The same study also found that people don’t want more information on safety as it may make them feel less safe, suggesting that although safety and security are important, consumers put them to the back of their minds when flying.

This might seem surprising, in terms of travellers not wanting to know more about flying despite the complexity air travel involves. Or is it a case of ignorance is bliss?

Despite the potential unease around safety and security, aviation has experienced consistent year-on-year global growth. Therefore, understanding how consumers deal with perceived safety and security concerns and make their decisions is of interest in the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on consumer demand.

Bill Franke, managing partner of private equity firm Indigo Partners, who appeared as a guest speaker on a recent Centre for Aviation Pacific Aviation (CAPA) Masterclass webinar, discussed the complexity of the aviation industry.

The issues surrounding demand in the current crisis clearly demonstrate this complexity and the detailed analysis needed to understand it.

The feeling among industry experts is that consumer demand is pent up and awaits confidence to return, although it’s unclear how and when the recovery will happen.

John Grant, senior aviation analyst with aviation data analysts OAG, has spoken of using of all available information as a reliable recovery tool, adding: “We need to trust our own intuition and data points.”
There is significant importance attached to understanding consumers’ insights which are now being tracked through a new tool called the Travel Recovery Insights Portal produced by Boston Consulting Group with data from ARC, 3Victors and OAG as part of a collaborative approach to understanding returning air travel demand.

Considering consumer sentiment as crucial data is encouraging. However, we’re still not able to explain the consumer’s mental, emotional and behavioural responses, in particular attitudes and decision-making that are fundamental to the industry.

Understanding instincts
Psychologically speaking, consumer insight provides in-depth understanding of the decision-making process, which can be used effectively to develop strategies for restoring confidence, stimulate demand and improve our understanding of future trends.

Conventional wisdom may suggest that we all think rationally about purchasing decisions but such choices are made more unconsciously and emotionally than we realise.
For instance, consumers may not rationally consider the facts about air-travel safety and security but still have attitudes towards them. Attitudes are formed through different components, including our emotional reactions, our thoughts and beliefs and through the actions or behaviour of others.

To make sense of the world we need to have the ability to decipher, filter and process information fast and mental short cuts, heuristics, help this. We simply can’t process all the information around us consciously, in fact the working memory can only cope with three to four pieces of new information at a time and research shows that 95 per cent of our decisions take place unconsciously.

This is important in understanding how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting consumer confidence by causing analysis paralysis or when missing information gaps are filled with heuristics.

Information that isn’t consistent with our beliefs causes psychological stress, cognitive dissonance, which could also be having an impact on confidence with consumers being reluctant to travel by air until Covid-19 is eliminated.

This uncertainty can be overwhelming, causing consumers to become more dependent on emotions which at the current time will negatively impact confidence.

Feeling safe
Heuristics and biases influence the way we perceive things around us and when communications are definitive and assertive, people tend to be more reassured and comply as they assume authority and leadership.
Unfortunately the advice for air travel during the pandemic hasn’t been complete enough and in some cases, it has been too confusing for consumers to be able to make decisions about safety concerns, leading to negative attitudes.

A recent survey on consumer sentiment carried out by Boston Consulting Group shows that consumers “cite virus safety measures as being nearly as critical as price”. Other factors that may sway consumers to travel included: a cheap price, health and safety measures, best-in-class hygiene, fewer crowds and enforced social distancing.

This would infer that rock-bottom prices alone aren’t enough to drive recovery, so the focus on safety and cleanliness is paramount.

Global integration
The good news is attitudes change with time and additional information. Also, long-lasting attitude change is more likely and more resistant to counter-arguments over time when it is formed by careful, conscious analysis.

A clear, concise and consistent narrative aligned with consumer beliefs on safety and the virus will be beneficial in restoring confidence by improving perception and attitudes towards air travel.

Franke expressed his grave concerns about the lack of global “integration around opportunities to process passengers” and the need for agreement where various methods are being applied internationally.

For instance, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued a Covid-19 aviation health safety protocol concerning management of airline passengers which is aligned with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Although not regulation, it at least offers a consistent approach, which is what consumer confidence desperately needs now. The consumer research carried out by the CAA also showed that 49 per cent of the travellers surveyed agreed that a lack of consistency in security procedures concerns them.
As time goes by in this crisis we’re starting to see consensus around risk factors which should help create some common ground across the industry. Effective aircraft cabin ventilation has been widely publicised and accepted for preventing the spread of contagion as it dilutes and limits airborne particles.

Face masks, hand sanitiser, thermal screening, cleaning and disinfection are some of the common and now increasingly familiar measures that the public expect to keep them safe on the ground and it will be the same factors that breed confidence once they are up in the air.

However, it’s important that aviation not only works towards adopting a common approach but also ensures that travellers are aware of the measures. Consumers need consistency and common ground is where it’ll be found.

Gradual return
Recent webinars held on Covid-19 have been cautiously optimistic. Grant points out that we need an international breakthrough and that “aviation is at the mercy of consumer confidence”.

Dr Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) in the US believes it is critical for everyone to understand the facts in order to prepare for and prevent viral pandemics like Covid-19 .

Agreeing the facts and making them easier for consumers to understand would be an optimal way forward. What is also becoming increasingly evident is the need to do this through an integrated approach and perhaps rallying a coalition of the willing across aviation will help this?

Progress is another vital component for consumers, with the perception of making progress being the most important thing for boosting our emotions, motivations and perceptions.

Recent news of easyJet resuming flights from 15 June, Japan ending its state of emergency and EU borders opening are all having a positive effect and airline share prices are rallying as a result. A recovery won’t happen overnight, but if the small wins continue then people will feel progress is being made.

Dr Simon Moore, a behavioural psychologist from behavioural science consultancy Innovation Bubble, believes that Europeans have been cautious in returning to the shops as they’re waiting for social proof. This means that there is still more of a reliance on gut feeling and emotion and that consumers are essentially observing the behaviour of others to see how safe it is before returning to the shops. The same behaviour applies to air travel.

Green shoots and good news will start to build momentum and work towards more positive attitudes. In the meantime there is an opportunity to work towards a long-term and resilient change in attitudes, leading to better-informed travellers and a more effective and stable recovery.

Reaching a recovery should not be the end of the traveller confidence conversation. Aviation is complex and consumers are one of the key moving parts and need to be understood at a deeper level. While this crisis has given us the opportunity to start focusing more on the consumer we need to build on this and ensure that it remains a crucial part of future strategy.

There are opportunities throughout the customer journey and across all touch points to develop the traveller proposition and improve experience while also increasing interest in techniques designed to understand consumer intuition.

Organisations with a deeper understanding of their brand perception will have the advantage, especially where the standard practices for customers include best-in-class health and safety measures, service delivery and value for money.

Wizz Air CEO Josef Varadi said in a CAPA Masterclass webinar on Covid-19 recovery that “robust measures” are needed to restore consumer confidence, while “convincing the consumers that we are efficient and doing the right thing” is crucial.

There couldn’t be a clearer way of putting this feeling into words and it is an urgent requirement for aviation right now. After all, by understanding how the traveller thinks, we could be acting on more than just instinct.