Star Alliance – Frictionless Flight

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the flight sector hard, but it’s also showing the way for the future of air travel.

Star Alliance is an organisation that started out in 1997 as a collaboration between five airlines on three continents: United Airlines, Scandinavian Airlines, Thai Airways, Air Canada, and Lufthansa. Over the last 20 years, its membership base has grown to encompass 26 airlines around the world. All that time the organisation’s ultimate goal has been to create a global network that allows a customer to seamlessly travel from any point on the Earth to any other.

As well as seamlessly connecting flights, Star Alliance has worked to unify the frequent flyer programmes of its membership, so that someone taking part in one member-airline frequent flyer scheme would accrue points or miles credit from any other member airline when travelling on that carrier.

Having accomplished its ambition to provide the largest global network of any airline alliance, three years ago, on the Alliance’s 20th anniversary, Star Alliance further expanded its goals.

“We decided to focus on making the customer experience and journey better within the Alliance, with a vision to become the most digitally advanced airline alliance, offering seamless travel experiences and a competitive loyalty proposition,” says Jeffrey Goh, CEO of Star Alliance. “Our focus was squarely on the customer experience. We asked how we could leverage digital technology and automation to align ourselves with a new norm of customer expectations.”

This shift in expectations has been driven by fundamental changes among air travellers. Unlike even five or ten years ago, modern customers are mobile-first, used to always being connected and expecting information on-demand and services at their fingertips.

“In 2017 when we started our focus and journey on the customers’ experience, we were clear that leveraging digital technology was the way forward,” Goh tells us. “As I talk about seamlessness, I don’t just mean the physical seamless experience of a smooth transfer, but that digital technology lets us create a seamless transactional experience as well.”

Anyone who’s booked a long-distance flight has had the experience. You book a flight from Heathrow to Perth through British Airways, but one leg of the journey is flown with Malaysia Airways. The first leg of the journey is fine, but there is no way to book a specific seat on the Malaysia Airways flight through British Airways, even if you’re willing to pay for it.

“What we’ve done is use digital technology to solve that problem,” Goh says. “Our first pairing back in 2017 was between United Airlines and Singapore Airlines. A United Airlines customer could go through its app or website, select the seat on Singapore Airlines through the United Airlines app or website without having to leave the app.”

But while Star Alliance has been working towards an industry transformation, the sector has seen an even greater impact arrive in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flight Path to Recovery

“The impact of the coronavirus crisis on the aviation industry has been devastating. It is the darkest and deepest crisis the industry has ever had to confront,” Goh says. “This is not just about the airline members of the Alliance but the industry in general. Collectively we’re looking at staggering financial losses and impact on people.”

With jobs, passengers and number of flights being slashed by half or more, and nearly 50 airlines shutting down altogether, it’s hard to overstate the crisis.

“We hoped for an early recovery back in April and May time. We were talking about ways to restore confidence in air travel, looking at incentive plans to drive the return of air travel, but very few of us could have predicted not only how deep this crisis would go, but how prolonged it would be, not just in aviation but in a global society as a whole,” Goh tells us. “Any plans we had on inspiring confidence all had to be shelved or put on the back burner for the time being because of the continuing crisis.”

However, Goh points out, the journey back has already begun, particularly with domestic travel.

“In markets with reasonably sized domestic travel, some green shoots are appearing. There’s a sizeable domestic air travel audience,” he says. “But many of our members who depend on international travel continue to be impacted by border controls and restrictions, whether in relation to testing requirements or quarantine impositions.”

The key to recovery for international flights, Goh argues, is a fundamental change to quarantining procedures towards screening and testing travellers to control COVID.

“The arrival of vaccines is a welcome development, but we don’t want to rely entirely on them as a means to reopen borders and rekindle travel,” Goh says. “If we wait for broad vaccination globally there will be not too much of an airline industry left.”

For Goh’s part, he is sure that when passengers do return to the airways in full, they will have new expectations of the industry.

As Goh tells us, “Customers will expect a hygienically safer experience. That expectation was there before the crisis and we expect it to continue going forward. We at Star Alliance are very focused on delivering on that. There will be greater hygiene safety and a more frictionless and touchless experience throughout the journey.”

Often, technologies that were already being applied before the pandemic are finding new relevance. Two years ago Star Alliance started looking at biometric facial recognition as part of its seamless promise.

“The idea was that you could register your digital identity once and use it multiple times in multiple places,” Goh says. “That idea is still there but has taken on a new dimension, offering that contactless experience, or at least reducing the amount of touch. With our solution, you don’t even have to remove your mask when you stand before the biometrics camera.”

This system is already being used at selected gates in Frankfurt and Munich, and Star Alliance is planning to roll it out further. At the same time, Star Alliance’s original goal of a unified, seamless travel experience remains core to their vision.

“There are many more places where we’ve used digital technology in this regard, so a Lufthansa customer travelling by United Airlines could check the status and location of their check-in bag without leaving the app,” Goh says.

This, and Star Alliance’s further digital developments, have only been possible thanks to the Alliance’s close work with a number of partners.

“We won’t be able to do this on our own,” Goh insists. “Collaboration has to be the key to unlocking customer promises.”

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