The air traffic struggles we read about and experience today have their roots in the collapse of demand triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left airports and airlines ill-equipped to field today’s surge in traffic.
As is the case with today’s release of pent up demand, the impact of the pandemic on airports around the globe was both sudden and dramatic. Only months before, 2019 air passenger traffic in the 4,000+ airports worldwide had grown to 9 billion: suddenly, years of steady expansion stalled dramatically, as the impact of COVID-19 saw a 90% decrease in traffic in the first 90 days of the pandemic. In the U.S., airline passenger volume decreased 96% in 2020, the worst year in the history of air travel performance. Over $100 billion in federal assistance helped keep flights going, and keep the aviation industry from collapse. In the wake of these downturns, expansion paused.
By the end of 2021, passenger traffic on U.S. airlines had returned by 83%: a recovery, but still 27% shy of pre-COVID levels. Domestic travel recovered faster in 2021 than international travel, as continued COVID-19 flare-ups and variants abroad extended travel and testing restrictions. Now, midway through 2022, U.S. passenger traffic continues to rebound (while remaining short of 2019 levels): encouragingly, IATA (the International Air Transport Association) reports global passenger volumes could finally increase beyond pre-pandemic levels in 2023—a year earlier than previously projected.
However, as witnessed by the current surge in flight cancellations and delays, industry infrastructure and personnel have yet to recover. Today, airports struggle with the hangover of COVID: its impact on hard earned brand positions, now suffering under the bumpy rebound from pandemic lows.
For U.S. airports, the last 27 months have been tumultuous. The industry had rallied together in addressing the early health and safety concerns of employees and passengers—but such small victories were quickly overshadowed by the harsh impact of ongoing, unplanned revenue loss. Budgets cuts, staff reductions and service reductions became a bleak reality. But it did not take long for thoughts to shift to recovery, and the crucial question of how to market airports in the post-pandemic era.
In 2021, even as vaccinations helped ease COVID-19 case numbers across the country, consumers continued to look for reassurance that travel would once again be safe. An AXIOS/IPSOS poll (June 14, 2022) found more than a third of Americans surveyed feel that their lives have “returned to normal.” Another third remain “somewhat concerned,” while the final third believes normalcy is a year or more distant. For airport marketers, this means that—as we continue to grow our way out from the pandemic—messaging must address audiences with three unique sets of concerns.
So what might effective airport marketing look like? Consumers will be increasingly interested in touchless travel, as well as innovations that decrease or eliminate standing in lines with many people. Improvements in automation will provide touchless check-in and contactless baggage check. Security screening will evolve to biometrics and secure ID tokens. As marketers, we must communicate and educate about these newly implemented tools for safer travel.
And let us not forget the impact of COVID-19’s dramatic impact on the acceptance and use of video conferencing as a business norm which may reduce the need for business travel over time. If this behavioral change to tech-enabled conferencing remains, increasing the share of leisure traffic will require an expanded focus on the marketing of formally business-heavy routes and services with pleasure travel in mind.
As the travel industry struggles with the rebound from COVID-19—and experiences brand degradation on a daily basis, in the form of cancelled flights, long lines, and reduced consumer confidence—airport marketers must act as a trusted source of information.We should strive to proactively control the narrative, as we work to:
- Rebuild trust and confidence on a foundation of safety, consumer attention, and the aspirations of travelers.
- Focus on trumpeting the benefits of innovation to the travel experience.
- Always reinforce the basics: service, convenience, safety and reliability.
More than ever, as we work to help the travel industry recover and move forward, airports must foster a person-to-person connection with travelers, and demonstrate this connection across airport brand communications. Regardless of pendulum swing of COVID surge and recovery, travel will always be about people interacting with people. As airport marketers, we have the opportunity to bring the best of these interactions to life for the benefit of travelers, our airline clients, and our community.