Personal touch is highly prized

Mark Frary

Airlines plan to cater to premium passengers’ tastes

Whether it is personalised recommendations on Amazon or the chance to build a customised PC from Dell, consumers now expect to be treated as individuals and to receive bespoke service.

John Aves, chief executive of CP2 Consulting, a specialist in improving customer experience who has worked for many well-known brands, says companies demonstrating best practice in customer service are embracing personalisation.

He cites O2, the mobile network, as an example. Everyone, whether they work in a shop or call centre, can see a customer’s history in front of them. Staff do not stick to strict rules or scripts when dealing with customers but are taught desired outcomes and given latitude to give customers a more personal experience. This could mean giving a long-term customer the first opportunity to get an iPhone 4S at a discount or sending a new BlackBerry to a loyal customer whose handset has broken just before a trip.

The desire for personalised travel is no different, as witnessed by the rise in dynamic packaging. This is where you assemble the elements of a trip rather than let a tour operator do it.

Personalisation was picked up in a 2010 report from Oxford Economics and Amadeus, the travel technology company. The report predicted the end of airline cabin classes and their replacement by “virtual classes”. It said: “The future of the aircraft cabin is set to go through significant changes as customers are able to share their preferences with airlines, which will be expected to meet their individual needs, leading to the decline of traditional cabin classes.”

At a recent conference in Dallas, the technology company Sabre said it was working with airlines to analyse individual passengers more closely. They are looking at issues such as frequent flyer status but also calculating long-term customer value scores, showing travellers’ true worth over time and enabling airlines to create an individual experience based on it.

American Airlines is one travel company committed to personalised service. Maria Sebastian, vice-president, sales and marketing for Europe, says: “Premium passengers like all the bells and whistles of the seats and in-flight entertainment but there is much more that is similar about airline seats than is different. What passengers are seeking is flexibility and service that caters to their demands and that does not come in a box.”

The airline is hoping to differentiate itself with its check-in options. “You can check in at the airport but if you prefer to check in at a self-service kiosk or on your mobile phone that is fine. We have also opened a Flagship check-in at Los Angeles, similar to the curbside operation at Heathrow.”

VIP passengers can opt for American’s Five Star Service, which offers one-on-one assistance at the airport to smooth their passage. On board, premium passengers have the option to dine when they want.

The airline has also reworked the highest level of its AAdvantage frequent flyer scheme, offering lifetime membership for anyone notching up a million miles with the airline and benefits for each million after that.

The changes are not just at the pointy end of the plane. American is unbundling its economy fares so passengers can choose elements they want on top of the base fare.

Personal service looks set to remain the airline’s watchword. “Technology is providing better information and creating an expectation from customers that their needs will be better anticipated,” Sebastian says.

This article was originally featured in The Times.