Staff cuts and self-service: As airlines slash costs, post-pandemic flying is set to look very different

Forget face-to-face customer service, in-flight magazines and hot meals, the future of flying could look just like booking an Uber, Australian’s leading aviation analysts have said.

The stark prediction comes as Qantas shocked the industry on Friday by announcing it would close it’s service and sales desks at airports and in lounges, resulting in about 100 redundancies among customer service staff.

But this is just the beginning, as airlines across the globe look for any cost-cutting measures to help survive the COVID-19 blowout and then bounce back, analysts say.

“I think what Qantas and most airlines will have to do is to strip as many costs as possible,” said UNSW lecturer and former chief economist of the Qantas Group Tony Webber.

“The major costs are fuel, labour, what we call capital costs, which are buying the aircraft or leasing it, and maintenance,” Dr Webber explained

“So if you look at those, the biggest one is labour, and to take cost out of the business they have to take an axe to that.”

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Airlines across the world have been grounded by the pandemic. Photo: Getty

It’s not just Qantas cutting staff. Back in July, Bloomberg calculated that 400,000 airline staff around the world had already lost their jobs as the pandemic put planes on the ground for the foreseeable future.

In May it was estimated over 30 per cent of the world’s 26,000 commercial jets were stuck on airport tarmacs worldwide.

As airlines struggle to bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic flyers can expect to have fewer in-person interactions with airline staff, Dr Webber said.

“They might have a couple of staff to manage through the process if something goes wrong, but aside from that they’ll try to minimise or reduce any contact with humans because they’re expensive,” he explained.

“I think they’ve got no other choice.”

From booking the flight too checking in luggage, and managing any issues, everything – except the pilot and some cabin crew – could soon be done via an app, Dr Webber said.

They’ll just try and get everything onto call centres and have people use their own time to do things rather than have someone serve them,” Dr Webber said.

It won’t just be ground staff disappearing either, said Greg Bamber, a professor at Monash University and co-author of the book Up in the Air: How Airlines Can Improve Performance by Engaging their Employees.

“We may be heading to a situation where throughout the whole flying experience the only humans who customers see could be the flight attendants,” Professor Bamber said.

Some airlines have already cancelled in-flight meals. Photo: Getty

Although there are strict safety laws about how many flight attendants must be on each aircraft, it is difficult, but not impossible, to stop aviation jobs from being automated, he said.

“Unfortunately, airlines seeking more automation is likely to be the way of the future. All airlines have lost a lot of money during the pandemic,” Professor Bamber said.

“They are scrambling to cut costs wherever they can.”

However, to persuade people to start flying again, airlines should work with their staff to try to improve customer service, not to remove it, he said.

“Automation merely to cut costs has the potential to create customer service nightmares, as unexpected events could lead to massive booking issues with no one on the ground to help mitigate customer concerns.

“When there are cancellations caused, for example, by bad weather, volcano eruptions or accidents, self-service kiosks will be swamped and might fail, while online systems and distant call centres may get jammed or go down when they are in high demand.”

Some routes will go, so will little luxuries

Airlines will also start experimenting with routes, cutting the ones that don’t break even, said Dr Webber.

“The challenge will be identifying those routes that will do well post-COVID and those that won’t,” he said. “That will be around trying to determine which countries and states will open up to travel first.”

Pre-COVID flyers – particularly those paying to sit in the premium cabin – were treated to little luxuries like pyjamas, amenities kits, and in some cases, in-flight chefs.

But those days are likely over as airlines across the world scramble to cut costs and reduce interaction time between cabin crew and flyers.

Airlines have been axing pre-COVID staples such as inflight magazines, pillows, and in some cases even meals, with Singapore Airlines recently suspending trolley service for flights in Asia and passengers instead given a snack bag during boarding.

Post-pandemic, airlines will have to find new ways to differentiate themselves as they cut costs, said Dr Webber.

“How you put passengers more at ease in terms of fear and worry about them catching COVID-19, that will be a point of difference,” he said.

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