Why business air travel is embracing personalisation

Business and leisure travellers have historically been offered the same customer service, despite their differing needs, requirements and expectations. But that could all be about to change…

Hans Christian Andersen once said, “to travel is to live”. He may not have had business class travellers in mind, but if you live your life travelling for work that life is set to improve, radically. In future, when it comes to business class, there won’t just be options to consider, you’ll enjoy a personalised experience based on price, convenience and comfort.

Within the next five years, business travel is predicted to show such rapid growth it will be worth £1.3 trillion to the global economy, up from £1 trillion in 2017, according to Allied Market Research.

“The business travel audience for an airline is super high value and that’s why they’re all challenging their business models to see who can win in this race,” explains Randel Darby, chief executive of luggage concierge service AirPortr. “If you look at BA, the business audience they cater for makes up the majority of their global revenue. So that gives you a feel for how important it is to come up with a good proposition for business travellers.”

By using data, with the traveller’s consent, we can identify traveller trends such as preferences, past trips, preferred airlines, airports, amenities and payment methods

Jason Wynn, chief commercial officer at Upside Business Travel, says: “Personalisation is the future and it’s coming quick.” The company is the first business air travel booking site which uses advanced tech and expert human support especially catered to their business class passengers.

“The exciting part is what becomes possible once you can afford to work on true transformation. Our system uses machine-learning and data to train our software to get smarter and smarter with every trip, and as a result each trip becomes more personalised than the last,” says Mr Wynn.

Upside Business Travel focuses on price as clients don’t have to pay additional fees for quality customer service and companies get 3 per cent cashback on their total travel spend. This brings the leisure market’s desire to compete on price to the business market too.

Different needs for business and leisure travellers

Another key to innovating is appreciating the difference between the two markets. Business air travel is driven by frequent flyers who don’t have the time to amble through the airport looking at the duty free or buying magazines to read on the plane. They are experts at moving through airports as fast as possible, so one way to personalise is to relieve them of any baggage that will slow the process down.

Business travellers don’t want to be queuing with leisure travellers, who are perhaps not as familiar with how to get through an airport as quickly as they are, Mr Darby points out. AirPortr intends to revolutionise this situation by removing the source of the frustration entirely. They offer priority check in, on the doorstep at a time determined by the business traveller.

“It cuts out all the ambiguity of how early am I going to have to get to the airport, how long are the queues going to be? You just go straight through. Business travellers want to be hands free and productive,” he says.

In the future, this personalised approach may be implemented across the whole of the journey, thanks to biometrics. Referring to London’s Heathrow Airport, Mr Darby adds: “In Terminal 5, they’re now testing fully automated self-serve boarding for customers so you no longer need to see, necessarily, an airline agent, because you are biometrically enrolled. What’s to say that we couldn’t build that into the doorstep too? Create fast track through security as a product.”

Personalised business travel driven by data

AirPortr and Upside Business Travel are already ahead of the game when it comes to making a name for themselves in pioneering personalisation, but many other travel companies are looking to the future and investigating how emerging technology will impact the way we think about business air travel.

“Generally, business travellers are more schedule driven as opposed to price driven,” says Rashesh Jethi, head of innovation for airlines at Amadeus, explaining how personalisation may help going forward. “By using data, with the traveller’s consent, we can identify traveller trends such as preferences, past trips, preferred airlines, airports, amenities and payment methods. This means we can dynamically build and present the right offer.” It’s not just a matter of choice, it’s about an experience that’s tailor made.

Sylvia Brune, founder of AHOY, a leading flight booking app for business travellers, says: “It’s hard to know ahead of time whether you will be stressing to catch the flight and therefore need fast track or will have to work on an important presentation and therefore need better ticket class where you can power your laptop.”

Change can happen in seconds, so responses must be made in minutes. Ultimately, it’s vital future business air travel becomes much more personalised because of the very nature of business itself.

Top personalisation trends

Food

A major source of frustration with airlines is the lack of personalisation when it comes to food. As a frequent flyer to North America, a new idea that has excited AirPortr’s chief executive Randel Darby are schemes such as American Airlines’ partnership with Zoës Kitchen, which launched in late-2017, to provide an impressive array of onboard dining options. “The whole personalised food and beverage space with airlines is an interesting one,” he says. “Business travellers are creatures of habit; they know the restaurants they love and it’s going to ease the pain of their journeys to have a little home comfort away from home.”

‘Alexa, book my flights’

Artificial intelligence (AI) innovations are set to revolutionise the way we live our lives in so many ways. In the future, AI will help direct the business traveller to the best business class fares, the best flat beds and so on. “In particular, the leverage of machine-learning and natural-language processing (NLP) can make the process of shopping, booking and on-boarding for a business trip much more frictionless and tailored to a business traveller,” says Rashesh Jethi at Amadeus. “NLP-aided bots can facilitate any real-time interaction or human assistance needed in the process, such as issues encountered with checking in or getting seat assignments.”

Eco-friendly flying

Climate change is a major concern when imagining the future, so personalisation concerning carbon missions is likely to become increasingly important. One travel company working on this is SAP Concur. “Through the use of our technology, companies can request and receive reports giving them their carbon footprint, as well as the footprint of individual journeys that employees are looking to book,” explains Darryl McGarvey, SAP Concur’s director of channel development. “This can be used as an advisory piece of data through to, in some cases, companies looking into excessively carbon-heavy journeys if a cleaner one is available.”

Business class seating

In the future, redesigning business class areas of the plane itself could enable spaces to dynamically adjust to configure with a passenger’s needs. “The on-board flight experience will become more tailored and reactive to the customer,” predicts Luke Miles, founder of the advanced transport architecture studio New Territory. “Products that register and respond to body temperature, eye movement and hydration levels will gradually be embedded into these new spaces, triggering lighting and entertainment changes within your seat space based on whether you’re awake and working or beginning to fall asleep while watching a film.”

Luggage

Baggage handling is one of the key sources of friction for air travel to the extent that the International Air Transport Association has published a resolution on baggage tracking is intended “to encourage airlines to further reduce mishandling by implementing cross-industry tracking for every baggage journey”. As a result, AirPortr is hopeful it will be able to introduce a service that will collect luggage from the doorstep and deliver it to the destination. If that happens, AirPortr’s Mr Darby concludes: “