Shivaji Dasgupta
Guest Article

Flyers to be spoilt for choice again

With the launch of Akasa Air and the return of Jet Airways, India's airline sector is set for a reset, says our guest author.

Most diners have a designated favourite restaurant, yet they dine in many others for choice, cost and convenience. Exactly the same reasons why flyers in India will soon behave in an identical fashion, as the skies erupt with tempting choices.

Shivaji Dasgupta
Shivaji Dasgupta

Leading the pack, in market prolificity, is the formidable IndiGo, expanding rapidly with military consistency. Air India, now back with the Tatas, will surely put its best foot forward, while Vistara will aim to restore its admirable luxury credentials.

SpiceJet, in spite of recurring setbacks, will hang on resolutely, while Go First is definitely not in the business to end up last.

Most fascinating will be the the resurgence of Jet Airways, as its experienced management aims to gift its glorious past an equally compelling present. Akasa Air has also made its intentions rather clear, seemingly focussing on a tier two strategy to skirt the congested metros.

So, what do these tidings bear for the Indian domestic customer, spoilt for some rather serious choice, and I have not even talked about the regional aspirants? Most importantly, the definition of brand loyalty will change swiftly from singular choice to consideration set, as flyers figure out their primary drivers.

Which, as already demonstrated, is a thoughtful blend of choice, cost and convenience, and this applies equally for both the dominant business and the emerging leisure segments. For want of scalability, I am excluding the chronic business class cohort, insignificant domestically for sure.

As a recent study confirms, cost and convenience are the most crucial elements connected to airline choice. Convenience, in terms of timing of the connections, and, more importantly, direct (and not hopping) access to the destination - whether for business meetings or holiday check-ins.

Cost is a no-brainer, as not just individuals, but even corporates (including PSUs) are tightening the screws on excesses, L1 being the blue-eyed boys. Choice, the third element, is the sole element of indulgence, as when the stakes are even, some loyalty or experimental parameters may influence the ultimate selection. But one thing is most certain, flyers will no longer be chasing airline brands. Instead, they will be deciding on a merit-based evaluation of the above parameters.

In fact, airlines are already aligning their product strategies to the emerging realities, amply exemplified by the reported choice of Jet Airways to invest in the Airbus A220 range, a spinoff of the Bombardier C Series.

These are, typically, five (and not six) abreast narrow body jets capable of hosting about 150 souls and, thus, more efficient in running sharper point to point routes, to lower urban tiers. Akasa Air has already declared its ambitions to play in this ambit, albeit with the larger Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, catering to a mass audience. India may soon emulate global centres in activating the second airport opportunities in metros (like Kolkata and Andal) to further enhance customer access.

Indian customers are also well poised to embrace a fresh regime on air, as all excesses, including baggage and food, become chargeable, thus, keeping base fares low. Conventional loyalty programmes, except for business or when linked to foreign travel, will become passé as flexibility becomes the key decider.

Core metrics like timeliness, safety and service efficiencies (not luxuries) will become the highest priority, as players compete for the fundamentals in the quest for growth. Business Class travellers will be considered like their First Class peers in international travel - highly profitable and image driving, but limited in genuine business influence.

So, how must the communication strategies of the entities be forged in this 'collaborative loyalty' scenario? Collaborative loyalty being defined as a fluid, but tight consideration set, where each is truly desired, but only the situationally appropriate is chosen, just like restaurants. Instead of making lofty promises, brands must engage in building conversational relationships, through online, experiential and offline routes, which are empathetic, entertaining and occasionally educative.

The classic three Vs (voice, video and vernacular) must be sensibly applied, as archaic symbols of premium content are busted, like the e-commerce category. Which can also inspire innovate pricing models, customer profile driven, as opposed to Yield Management 1.0.

The Indian skies are in for some exciting times, quite like the dining industry. Flyers are surely destined to gain happily, but for the businesses to be successful, innovative new age thinking must be summarily applied. Brand management will be a persuasive differentiator, connected inextricably to consistently ample product experiences.

(Shivaji Dasgupta is an autonomous writer on brands and customer centricity)

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