For the 10th year in a row, travel buyers rated Delta Air
Lines as the top carrier in BTN’s Airline Survey, atop a tide of improved buyer
satisfaction with airlines even as they faced a near total evaporation of
corporate travel demand amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Delta earned a total score of 4.59 on a five-point scale and
once again earned the highest score among its competitors in all criteria
measured in the survey. BTN this year added three criteria specific to
airlines’ Covid-19 response, but the rest of the categories were consistent
with last year’s survey. Delta also improved its score year over year in all
Delta was not alone in its improvement, however. More than
60 percent of buyers in the survey indicated that their customer service had
improved since last year. A third said customer service had stayed the same,
leaving only a small percentage indicating it had gotten worse.
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines each improved
across all comparable categories year over year, while United Airlines, which
ranked second last year, fell a bit year over year. For American, that was
enough to surpass United to rank second this year, and Southwest remained in
fourth, though the spread between all three airlines was just 0.06 points.
As corporate air travel has recovered as yet only to a small
fraction of where it was prior to the pandemic, much of the commentary in
open-ended questions in the survey centered around two key areas: communication
Communication Removes Barriers
Hygiene and sanitization procedures have taken center stage
amid the pandemic, and they also are playing a critical role in airline communication
strategies they hope will lay the groundwork for a corporate travel rebound.
Both client communication and effective communication
related to Covid were among Delta’s highest-scoring areas. Several buyers in
open-ended questions praised the carrier’s response.
“Our Delta rep kept informing us about their plan and the
situation of Covid-19,” one buyer wrote. “As a frontline industry, we are still
heavily traveling, so it is a big help to have an account manager who cares
about our business and travelers.”
Another buyer noted that Delta’s “communication and sales
reps have been phenomenal during the pandemic,” with “everything from emails to
airport and plane inspections.”
Delta VP of sales operations and development Kristen Shovlin
said Delta has “hit every channel” in its communication strategy to provide a
“constant flow of communication.” That has included producing videos to show
the new traveler experience amid Covid-19 precautions, bringing in experts to
answer questions, hosting town halls and talking one-on-one with corporate
clients, she said.
Delta also has hosted more than 500 fam trips for more than
2,500 customers, so they can see firsthand the measures in place, SVP of global
sales Bob Somers said.
American also has been conducting airport tours with clients
and agencies, which helps “take the mystery out of the check-in experience,”
managing director of strategic account sales Hank Benedetti said. The tours let
buyers see such procedures as the cleaning of aircraft and application of the
SurfaceWise antiviral treatment, he said.
For Southwest Airlines, the pandemic was an impetus to
create “an industry-standard marketing automation tool,” which it previously
did not have, Southwest Business VP Dave Harvey said. The resulting tool allows
Southwest to message travel managers globally and equips account managers to
customize their own communication, he said.
“It’s allowed us to be more timely and more tailored with
our messaging,” Harvey said. “If we need to get something out about the Southwest
promise or schedule changes, we can go through a decision tree about the most
effective platform. Our communications muscle has been taken up a notch.”
In recent months, airlines have reported that all-out travel
freezes have ended for most of their corporate clients, with a majority of them
having at least some small level of travel. Having those communication
strategies in place in turn is meant to help buyers who now need to gauge how
to send their travelers back out on the road.
“Every day, all day, we’re on calls with customers,” Somers
said. “It started with corporate travel managers, and now it’s chief medical
officers and risk officers, and they’re sharing it with their traveling
employees. Science and government will drive when people come back to work, but
we’re making sure people have the confidence to travel.”
Airlines now are expanding that communication strategy to
include other parts of the travel ecosystem. American, for example, is
partnering with companies including Hyatt, Marriott and Avis to “showcase the
entire journey,” chief customer officer Alison Taylor said. United has put
together a “return-to-travel” toolkit for buyers with multiple resources from
them to pass on to travelers, VP of sales strategy and effectiveness Glenn Hollister
“Air travel is not seen as the barrier to business travel at
this point,” Hollister said. “The barriers we’re hearing about now have more to
do with travel restrictions imposed by governments and the simple fact that, in
reaction to those, many offices are closed.”
Making Changes for Flexibility
Since business travel grinded to a quick halt in March,
flexibility has been the second crucial need for buyers from airlines, both in
travel booking and in the contractual relationship.
In the early days of the crisis, airlines responded with
change fee waivers, as they would have during a natural disaster. As it became
clearer that this would be a more prolonged and global issue, unlike anything
the industry has faced before, some of those changes have crystallized into
something more permanent for the industry.
One of the biggest changes came this fall when airlines
announced that the elimination of change fees would be permanent, at least for
domestic travel. Policy changes have varied a bit across each airline. United,
which was the first to announce the permanent elimination, also eliminated fees
for same-day standby, Hollister said. American, meanwhile, so far has been the
only carrier to enable refunds of price differentials when new tickets are booked
at a lower price.
Southwest, of course, previously always had stood alone
among the four largest U.S. carriers in not charging change fees—nor
checked-bag fees—and “overall price value” continued to be its strongest area
of performance this year.
The increased flexibility has presented an added challenge
for buyers in dealing with unused tickets. Delta alone, for example, has issued
about 4 million refunds, totaling about $2.8 billion in revenue, Somers said.
The carrier worked to make sure agencies were able to manage name changes in
global distribution systems without having to go through Delta and worked to
create Universal Air Travel Plan accounts for customers to manage unused ticket
funds as well, Shovlin said. Southwest also formed a partnership with UATP to
form a process for buyers and travel management companies to aggregate unused
funds, Harvey said.
American took an additional step to ensure travelers were
not able to rebook unused tickets for corporate travel for personal use, making
sure they had to go through authorized agencies so new tickets were used for
business, Benedetti said.
As with the elimination in change fees, some structural
changes will be permanent. For example, airlines worked with ATPCO to automate
ticket changes for rules to match current information rather than what was the
case at the time of booking. The change, which ATPCO head of global accounts
Chris Phillips called “one of the most successful implementations ATPCO has
done in quite a while,” will continue to benefit the industry beyond Covid for
changes related to hurricanes or other natural disasters.
“We don’t want to build a single-use solution that will help
us for a few months,” Phillips said. “The solutions we’re delivering are ones
intended to be long-standing solutions for the industry that can be built on.”
Airlines have been flexible in other areas as well, such as
extending loyalty program points beyond expiration dates and extending status
into next year. They also have been extending corporate contracts, waiving
requirements on current contracts and lowering thresholds for programs
targeting small and midsize companies, which generally have been quicker to
rebound to travel than larger companies.
While airlines report some recent increases in request-for-proposals
activity, that flexibility with contracts will extend into next year.
American, for example, is extending all contracts set to
expire before June 30, 2021, by an additional year, though corporate customers
are also welcome to return to the negotiating table in lieu of an extension,
Benedetti said. “What we did very early on was place the power of choice with
the customers,” he said.
Industry analysts project true recovery in corporate air
travel is unlikely to happen until at least later next year, pending widespread
distribution of effective vaccines, and airlines are positioning themselves to
take advantage when that recovery happens.
Delta has seen about 90 percent of its corporate customers
return to travel, with such industries as entertainment and manufacturing
leading the way, Somers said. It also has been leaning on its partnership with
private aviation supplier Wheels Up to offer a charter option for companies
returning to travel.
In the meantime, it has continued with investments in place
prior to the pandemic, such as in its sustainability efforts and helping to
build a better retail shopping experiences for air travel, Shovlin said.
American has announced several new partnerships over the
past year, including working with both Alaska Airlines and JetBlue, which fills
“obvious gaps in our Northwest and Northeast network,” Taylor said. In terms of
global network, American also is working with Qatar Airways and is adding its
own new services to Shanghai and Bangalore next year, she said.
“What’s next is making sure we have the right network in
place,” Taylor said. “Demand for next year is really starting to improve, and
that reassures corporate accounts, to see some normalcy returning.”
United is watching where demand rebounds to determine where
to add routes, Hollister said. It recently extended its service to Africa, and
major business travel routes on tap for next year include flying between
Chicago and New Delhi and between San Francisco and Bangalore.
The carrier also has developed a new data reporting method
for monitoring contract performance, working with ARC and Grasp Technologies to
flow corporate travel program identification information from TMCs to ARC,
enabling ARC to match that data with direct booking data. United will be moving
all U.S. point-of-sale customers to the new system and plans to have its
reporting available through its Jetstream portal next year.
Southwest this year delivered on its announcement last year
to make its content available for corporate travel via global distribution
systems without workarounds and has gone live in both Travelport and Amadeus’
systems. The carrier also is planning entry into two major airports—Chicago
O’Hare and Houston Bush Intercontinental, complementing its service at Chicago
Midway and Houston Hobby—which will open the door for some new potential
corporate customers, Harvey said.
“We feel like a combination of pillars are going to make
Southwest more attractive as we go into next year,” Harvey said. “Coupled with
the flexibility of funds and duty of care, plus all of the GDS and channel
investments we made, it’s going to be a dogfight for every customer.”
In recent weeks, airlines have been adding Covid testing
programs to open up travel opportunities to Hawaii and some Caribbean
destinations. Work is happening for key business destinations as well—United
recently introduced a testing program for travelers from Newark to London, for
example—and those efforts will continue to help business travel’s rebound.
Some buyers will have new relationships to build into the
new year, however, as many airline employees, including on the sales side, will
have left amid workforce reductions made necessary by the pandemic. Several
buyers in the survey indicated they were worried about losing representatives
they had worked with for years, though carriers said they have plans in place
for continuity. For example, sales team members that were customer-facing
“really had priority to remain at American” as it restructured, Taylor said.
“[Covid] did drive much more disruption in relationships we
had with the customer than I’ve ever seen, which is not desirable from ours or
the customer’s point of view,” United’s Hollister said. “We made sure we let
customers going through the process … know ahead of time the outcome for them
personally, so the person giving up a relationship can talk to the person
picking up the relationship and do a warm handoff.”
Sept. 24 to Oct. 26, BTN collected 576 responses from travel manager and buyer
members of the BTN Research Council and subscribers of BTN and Travel
Procurement and 92 responses from travel agents. Nine percent of the travel
buyers spent less than $500,000 on U.S.-booked air volume in 2019, 12 percent
spent $500,000 to $1.9 million, 37 percent spent $2 million to $12 million, and
43 percent spent more. BTN developed the categories with travel buyers,
corporate travel agency managers and airline sales executives. The categories
were the same as the 2019 survey with three additional categories to
specifically address airlines’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic. BTN averaged
scores in each category to create an overall score for each carrier, weighing
each category equally. Respondents graded only those airlines with which they
negotiated a contract or booked a meaningful amount of business in the past
year. Participants who offered no response for a particular category or airline
were not included in that category or airline’s average rating. The survey
listed the largest domestic airlines as identified by the U.S. Department of
Transportation, excluding regional affiliates of major carriers. Alaska
Airlines, Frontier Airlines and JetBlue elicited responses from less than 30
percent of the final survey sample and therefore were excluded from this
report. Equation Research hosted the survey and tabulated the results.