Coronavirus: What does it mean for airlines?

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Coronavirus: What does it mean for airlines?

About the author

Nicholas Key, CEO, 15belowA long suffering airline passenger, baggage loser and flight delay regular, Nicholas Key co-founded 15below in 2000 in a bid to drive improved efficiency and customer service across the travel industry. Over 20 years, Nicholas has built the company to become a globally recognised ‘best-of-breed’ passenger communications provider, working with some of the world’s top airlines, including Ryanair, JetBlue, Cathay Pacific, SWISS, Qantas, and British Airways.


No airline in the world is immune from the coronavirus crisis. Even the most established, respected and popular brands in the industry – including Lufthansa, Cathay Pacific and British Airways – have been forced to cancel up to 90% of flights as passenger demand slumps. The impact will be felt far and wide for a long time.

But we’ve also seen success stories and glimmers of hope for an industry I have been part of for more than 20 years.

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads across the world and IATA talks of a potential $113 billion loss of revenue for the aviation sector (Update at 24 March 2020: IATA updated this figure to $252 billion), we’ve found ourselves in a unique position to be able help 50-plus airlines in our customer community tackle the monumental and unprecedented challenges facing the industry. 

Coronavirus and our customers

We first became aware of the coronavirus having serious consequences for our customers in late January as airlines across Asia responded to the outbreak with mass cancellations and significant changes to their schedules.

We were sad to see the impact this had on some world-class carriers in this region, but grateful that we were there to help our customers as they faced the daunting task of notifying tens of millions of passengers in a short space of time. It was an opportunity for the 15below platform to efficiently perform in exactly the way it was designed to do.

Three of our customers – Cathay Pacific, Cebu Pacific and China Airlines – combined increased the number of SMSs they sent via our platform by 102% in February compared with the previous month.

This is a trend we’ve since seen across Europe and, in more recent days, the Americas too. We’ve been able to apply what we learned from customers in the APAC region to help others around the world, offering best practice tips and advice on how to manage passenger communications on the largest scale the industry has ever seen. For example:

Ryanair sent an additional 2.1 million passenger notifications in the first 12 days of March to inform customers of changes to their trip.

British Airways recorded a 105% monthly increase in the number of emails sent to passengers in February.
The Lufthansa Group processed over one million PNRs in one bulk send to let passengers know of cancellations.

Sadly, we saw the collapse of Flybe this month. I am hopeful that governments will do what they can to support other vulnerable airlines in similar positions and minimise the impact across the industry.

As ever in these cases, the 15below platform and our Support Team remain on hand to help Flybe. This will ensure every remaining passenger is informed and stress for staff and passengers is as low as possible during such a difficult time.

What have we learnt from the past?

While disruption of the scale of the coronavirus outbreak is unprecedented, we have come through similar incidents on a smaller scale. Perhaps the most significant was the Icelandic ash cloud of 2011, which grounded all flights in Europe for about two weeks.

Despite this affecting only a fraction of the number of flights and passengers as we are currently seeing with the coronavirus, our processes and the way our platform functions were heavily influenced by the ash cloud and have remained the same to this day.

That’s why I’m so proud that many of our largest airline customers have been in touch recently to tell us that, from an operational perspective at least, it remains ‘business as usual’ thanks to our platform.

What should airlines do right now?

The initial objective for many airlines was to drive bookings despite the outbreak. However, as travel bans have been implemented by more countries, carriers are facing up to the reality of a period of inactivity.

Therefore, the most urgent priority for all airlines is now to deliver exceptional service to current customers. Most airlines will have millions of existing bookings and treating these people right will have a significant impact on how well an airline manages its reputation and bounces back.

One in three customers will leave a brand they love after just one bad experience, while 92% will abandon a company after two or three negative interactions.

I believe there are several simple steps airlines can take to stay connected with passengers and ultimately retain their loyalty in the medium to long term:

Provide proactive, clear communication that informs and empowers passengers and ensures they do not need to contact a call centre or talk to airport staff.

Give the right amount of information. Don’t overwhelm people with a detailed account of your airline’s operations, but make sure you are open and honest about what’s going on.
Offer vouchers, credits and refunds without being asked. This will win you trust among your passengers.

Passengers will remember how they felt during this crisis and the airlines that keep customers informed and empowered are the ones that are going to benefit from the greatest rise in re-bookings once the crisis has ended.

Mission-critical 15below solutions

Over the last 20 years, we’ve built a wide and varied range of solutions that enable travel companies to do everything from share flight status updates to drive revenue through personalised messages and provide bespoke itineraries that improve traveller experience.

When an industry-wide crisis occurs, it’s time to go back to basics and focus on mission-critical processes that you simply can’t do without.

That means automated disruption communications that allow you to tell passengers exactly where they stand. Benefits of taking an automated approach include:

  • Reaching everybody at once – the 15below platform allows airlines to process 100,000 PNRs in under an hour.
  • Achieving 100% reliability. At times of high stress, human error is enhanced. But automation eliminates this threat to your operations.
  • Minimising the time required to deal with disruption. Canadian airline Swoop reduced the time it takes to manage a single incident from four hours to 15 minutes after automating key processes.
  • Driving down costs and relieving your staff of stress.
  • Freeing up your team to handle more complex scenarios and deal with special service requests.

What does the future hold?

There’s no getting away from the fact the end to this crisis is not yet in sight. We are expecting many more weeks of disruption to the sector. But it’s important to emphasise that the airlines getting through this and even enhancing their reputation are the ones putting their passengers first.

If you treat your passengers (and staff) right when things are tough, they’ll stand by you in more prosperous times to come.

At 15below, we’ll continue to do all we can to help our customers. We know what a huge difference our platform makes to both airline teams and their passengers and we’re in this for the long haul.

We’ve spent 20 years building and refining the 15below platform and it’s never faced a greater challenge than managing the fallout of coronavirus, but it is proving it’s up to the test.


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