The airline industry might take years to recover from the hit it took as a consequence of the pandemic – if it ever does. Most of us struggle to remember what it was like to fly regularly and carelessly, to sit in a crowded plane multiple times a year or even a month without feeling self-conscious about speaking, drinking, touching our arm-rest, and even breathing. Meanwhile, as restrictions come and go – only to come back stronger a few months later – airlines have had to try and find new ways of marketing themselves, implementing flexible cancellation and refund policies and focusing on certain destinations and target groups in an attempt to minimise their losses. Most of them are not doing particularly well, even though some of their marketing strategies at this time could provide excellent inspiration for future campaigns, once the market has bounced back from the current crisis.
Focusing on the passengers’ needs
The pandemic has radically changed the profile of the average traveller. First of all, because there is nothing “average” about travelling at this time, but also because those who do keep travelling by plane are now required to abide by different standards and rules than before. Moreover, cancellations no longer depend (entirely) on the passenger’s plans and decisions. And as needs change, so do the criteria the passengers use for choosing one airline over another: alongside price, which is still extremely important, passengers also care about refund policies, booking flexibility, and, of course, the level of safety guaranteed on board.
Some airlines are advertising their internal vaccination policies
A few months ago, Air Emirates announced its first “fully vaccinated” flight. It was a flight from Dubai to Los Angeles, in February, and it came as a result of the company’s rigorous internal vaccination policy. It may seem counterintuitive to describe this as a marketing effort when it has clearly more to do with HR and healthcare policies within the airline, but it is undeniable that, at a time like this, such an announcement is bound to affect the company’s marketing strategy. While having vaccinated staff on board does not make any plane necessarily Covid-free, the very fact that the airline chose to vaccinate all of its employees conveys an image of reliability and safety that is bound to have a positive effect on the passengers’ attitude towards the brand.
What passengers want
According to last year’s Best Airlines report by Edreams, passengers take a lot of elements into account when choosing an airline. Right now, cancellation and refund policies are among the most important criteria, together with customer care efficiency and safety measures. Price is much less important than it used to be: pretty much everyone who books an airline ticket nowadays knows prices can’t be expected to match 2019 levels and would rather make sure a refund will be provided if the journey needs to be cancelled than go for the cheapest option and risk losing their money entirely. On the other hand, sudden unexplained cancellations have started playing a part in brand perception: companies that cancel flights regardless of restrictions are perceived as much less reliable than those who keep flying at reduced capacity.
Airline marketing in 2021
Airline marketing in 2021 is probably one of the least coveted jobs in the world. Redemption on the endless promotions of low-cost companies is low and sudden changes in travel restrictions can make months’ worth of marketing efforts useless. Right now most companies are trying to focus on long-term plans, getting passengers to book flights for holidays that are far away enough in the future to provide reasonable certainty that they will take place in post-pandemic times. While this kind of conversion might not be enough to keep airlines afloat through the crisis, it is one of the few viable options and it plays on the strongest shared sentiment humanity has experienced in decades: the desire for the pandemic to be over.