independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Travel: Flights of fancy return

Travelling by plane is becoming a glamorous experience once again, writes Graham Clifford

Back in style: The high-class service portrayed in ‘Pan Am’ is returning to airports. Photo: Bob D'Amico

For a while there it looked as though the once glamorous practice of taking to the skies was in danger of losing its charm. With the emergence of low-cost airlines it seemed as if the pampering passengers used to enjoy was being ebbed away in order to cut costs at every turn.

In the past number of years though, the sparkle has returned to the airline industry with even Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary promising to make customer service a priority in the years ahead. The change of emphasis can also be spotted on the ground.

In November 2010 Terminal 2 at Dublin Airport was opened, freeing up space across the entire airport for more high-quality restaurants, shops and lounges.

The expansion saw Dublin go from the bottom of the league in terms of customer satisfaction to third out of almost 40 main European airports.

Siobhan O'Donnell, the external communications manager at Dublin Airport, explained the methodology behind the reinvigorated customer satisfaction drive.

"In order to ensure our customers are satisfied we need to understand their needs and expectations and ask how we are performing as an airport in supporting them through their journey.

"This is achieved through a programme of research and feedback and includes ongoing tracking studies and international benchmarking."

As a result of listening carefully to customers, Dublin Airport has installed free wi-fi access and Parking Plus, which allows frequent customers to park for a fixed annual fee.

A site named theloop.ie allows passengers to shop before they reach the airport and a new shop and collect system, where bought items can be handed over on arrival at the destination airport, has been welcomed.

For those intent of experiencing some pre-flight luxury before taking their seat, Dublin Airport also provides a number of lounges. For €20 passengers can chill out in these air-conditioned facilities with complimentary drinks, snacks, newspapers and magazines on offer. There's also a children's play area in Terminal 1.

The emphasis on customer care has also been prioritised at Cork and Shannon airports, where surveys are constantly been carried out to find out what can be done to improve the entire experience for passengers.

Earlier this month in Dublin, British Airways (BA) was named as 'Best Long Haul Airline' at the third annual Blue Insurances Travel Media Awards and their Irish-based business account manager Graham Aldren believes treating passengers as people is key to their success.

"Flying can be a stressful experience for some people so we do everything we can to make it as calm and comfortable as possible. All of our cabin crews now have iPad technology so they can see if a particular person has flown before, we call people by their name and are fully aware if they are connecting to another flight when they land".

Since last year, BA has been flying from Dublin to London Heathrow and those taking connecting long-haul flights can avail of a range of services from spa treatments at Heathrow to flat beds onboard certain flights.

Top chefs provide a wide menu of dishes for passengers and in-flight entertainment packages are available.

In a hugely competitive sector, airlines are now investing heavily in research to find out how they can provide a more attractive service.

The Canadian airline WestJet, which will operate flights between Dublin and Canada from next June, had a novel marketing campaign recently to boost their reputation as an airline that cares.

Unsuspecting travellers checking in for two internal flights were asked to scan their boarding passes in front of a screen, which brought up a jovial Santa who asked what they'd like for Christmas.

While the flights were in the air, the airline's staff went to work, scrambling to stores to shop for all the presents.

Upon landing the wrapped and tagged gifts emerged from the baggage carousel. WestJet marketing staff recorded the whole thing and the mini-film has been viewed by millions across the globe.

Aer Lingus, too, have attempted to entice passengers with a range of offerings and customers can now pre-order their chicken noodle salads and Irish breakfasts before arriving at the airport while wi-fi is available on all transatlantic flights.

The task facing airlines today is increasing the entire 'in-flight experience' while keeping costs in check.

Inevitably many Irish customers will put price before experience but the days of cramped seating, sombre in-flight crews and long queues might just be coming to an end.

Irish Independent

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