At the end of 2020, a report by IdeaWorks, sponsored by CarTrawler, estimated that 19 to 36% of airline travel would be replaced by technology. More extreme, Bill Gates predicted last November that “over 50% of business travel… will go away.” While insiders wait to see where those numbers actually shake out, the airline industry is capitalizing on the “pent up demand” for leisure travel.
Last-Minute Travel Trend Leads To Flexibility In Fares & Fees
Southwest Airlines, the leader in capacity in 2019, notably turned a profit in the first quarter of 2021. Though the profit was small, Southwest is the first among the major U.S. carriers to become profitable since the beginning of the pandemic.
The ease of the Southwest cancellation policy, which was the Southwest policy even before COVID-19, is likely a component to how they are wooing back travelers. “Make changes on the fly, without worrying about a fee,” says the Southwest website, as it details how travelers can change or cancel flights without fees.
Other big carriers have “adjusted their cancellation policies to be more flexible (and fee-free) than they were pre-pandemic,” said Shannon McMahon in The Washington Post last fall.
Airlines Adjusting Product Marketing Mix & Promotional Offers To Attract More Leisure Travelers
According to Rick Seaney, CEO of 3Victors, a travel analytics and AI platform, as of April, 20-25% more domestic travelers were “shopping for travel inside 30-days now compared to 2019.” Simultaneously and conversely, “20-25% fewer are looking 5+ months in advance compared to 2019.”
The shift to last-minute bookings creates a massive opportunity for airlines to innovate their messaging and marketing strategies. Email offers and social media content that appeals to price-conscious or last-minute travelers can encourage immediate action. Increased email sending cadence with better promotional fares may catch the eye of prospective travelers at the moments they’re ready to book.
Airlines Emphasize New Destinations To Capture Demand for Post-Pandemic Vacations
To capitalize on the rising interest among consumers who are vaccinated and ready to explore new destinations that feature outdoor recreation and wide open spaces, domestic airlines are aggressively adding more flights to leisure hotspots.
Delta, which relied heavily on business travel prior to the pandemic, has shifted its strategy toward “reclaiming the joy of travel” with new destinations that appeal to the broader leisure market. Additionally, the airline is focused on retaining fliers through new incentives, including additional rewards. For a limited time, Medallion Members, Delta’s most “loyal customers” can earn up to 75% more reward miles on qualifying flights, with additional benefits for Delta SkyMiles Reserve American Express card members.
“Delta Air Lines is adding nine new routes and stepping up nonstop flights to popular mountain, beach and leisure destinations in a bid to lure more travelers away from home as the pandemic wanes,” reported The Dallas Morning News. Similarly, United also added more flights this summer, with many to leisure destinations.
Health & Safety Messaging Remains Focus Of Content Marketing Initiatives
Continuing to reassure passengers that it is safe to fly remains a top priority in messaging to would-be travelers across airline websites, email content and social media.
- Delta’s CareStandardSM program highlights the addition of the industry’s first Chief Health Officer, new sanitization protocols and ongoing mask requirements.
- American Airlines’ Clean Commitment outlines upgrades to HEPA air filters in cabins, electrostatic spray cleaning processes, distancing efforts and touchless kiosks for scanning boarding passes.
- United’s CleanPlus Commitment outlines partnerships with Clorox and Cleveland Clinic to upgrade the cleaning procedures across the fleet in addition to using ultraviolet technology. Touchless lavatories are also a new innovation coming to select aircrafts.
- Southwest has a series of videos on YouTube to demonstrate their continued health and safety promises, while also setting travel expectations for customers.
To provide clarification on quickly changing travel requirements across the globe, new airline website features are popping up to help consumers navigate restrictions. Delta, United and American Airlines are all leveraging interactive maps – with American partnering with travel documentation company Sherpa on a “Travel restrictions map” – that help keep travelers up to speed on travel restrictions.
Airline marketers need to stay keenly aware of the appropriate balance between safety and fun in their leisure messaging. Multichannel airline advertising campaigns that highlight the overall customer experience from destination to booking and onboard amenities are likely to resonate as prospective travelers match their excitement for travel with their uncertainty about what is ahead.
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