SINGAPORE - Top officials from the airline industry are calling for more innovation and passenger-centric initiatives in an increasingly uncertain global landscape. They are meeting in Singapore this week for the inaugural World Passenger Symposium hosted by the International Air Transport Association.
"Carriers need to continue to innovate... Don't fall into old ways of business. Follow your innovations on your customers. Go and do!" said President and CEO of Air Canada Montie Brewer in his opening keynote address.
Mr Brewer pointed to carriers such as Ryanair and ValuJet as examples of airlines not afraid to innovate their business models to fit the immediate needs of their customers.
IATA Director of Passenger Eric Leopald also called for more passenger-friendly initiatives. He urged airlines to take the lead to address the time-consuming process of buying a ticket.
"On the passenger front, I see issues or challenges in the [process of buying] a ticket. You are a customer, you want to buy an air ticket, you know where you want to go and when you want to go. It, however, takes a long time for people to find the right flight at the right price."
Mr Leopald also said passengers spend far too much time at airports waiting for their flights.
"Another challenge is in the [management of] airports. The ground experience, the customer experience at the airports. You go there, you pack your baggage, you arrive at the airport, you need to unpack to go through security screenings. There may be lines in immigration. To solve that may be a challenge."
Going forward, Mr Leopald is optimistic about the role of technology in the aviation industry. With increased digitisation, customers are able to "self-serve" in and outside of airports with greater convenience.
The uncertain global economy and its impact on the aviation industry weighed heavily in panel discussions among delegates.
But Mr Damien Horth from UBS Securities Asia said that although a recession is not expected this year in the United States and Europe, a slow-moving global economy will present challenges to the airline industry.
"The uncertainty has not had a big impact. We have seen cargo volumes starting to slow down, and that would be the first indicator of a slowdown in the global economy ... The airline industry is economically sensitive and [a weak global economy] will present a number of challenges for the industry for this year and in 2012.
"The airline industry tends to be quite bad at adapting to slowdowns [due to] the capital-intensive nature of its business. Aircraft are twenty-year assets, so short-term fluctuations of demand will greatly impact the industry."
Mr Horth said airlines can mitigate losses by reducing capacity, retiring inefficient aircraft and consolidating their resources. But he noted that the industry will find it hard to "recession-proof" itself.
"The industry will struggle to recession-proof. The industry as a whole is so sensitive that it is difficult to avoid macro [implications]. For big airlines, it is particularly difficult. The bigger you are, the more economically sensitive you are. It ultimately comes down to your ability to drive market shares and satisfy customer needs," he said.
The five-day conference in Shangri-La Hotel brings together more than 500 industry leaders to set the direction for sustainable profitability and improved customer experience.