Innovation is in the Air

Innovation is in the AirIn an attempt to get a competitive edge in a cutthroat industry, many airlines focus on cutting costs, rather than finding ways of consistently delighting their passengers and thereby generating sustainable premiums. It’s a trend that’s irked me for years (witness Exhibit A).

This is surprising as air travel becomes more and more indispensable in the modern world. The world is increasingly developing around airlines and airports rather than vice versa, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported. The ‘aerotropolis’ – the city that grows up around an airport and has more in common with global hubs than its immediate geography – is reshaping commerce and communities much like seaports and trading posts have in previous eras. Aerotropolises are fast springing up in places like Dubai, China, India and Africa, creating electric connections for people, resources and finished goods in a globalizing world. For aspiring airlines, the stakes are sky high.

The good news is that as the global market for air travel continues to heat up we can expect the truly creative, customer-focused airlines to emerge from the pack.’s report on 11 innovative airlines to keep an eye on in 2011 picks out a bunch that are blazing a trail to a better future. While not necessarily the ‘best’ in the industry when it comes to the whole package (though one or two would top that list too), these airlines are showing the kind of can-do instinct that generates true value for both customers and stockholders. Here’s the list, along with a few of the ideas that are setting them apart:

  1. Who else? Air New Zealand has long been leaving the competition in its jet stream. Its most stratospheric innovation of late is ‘cuddle-class’ (as I covered last year), an Economy Class feature that allows passengers to convert three seats into a comfortable bed. This is the tip of the innovation iceberg. More tomorrow.
  2. All Nippon Airways is getting creative closer to the nose-cone. The ‘welcome home’ helicopter or limousine transfer to Tokyo for first class and business class passengers making the round trip to North America or Europe gets a big thumbs up.
  3. Lufthansa comes in third with in-flight internet access and an uber-quiet first class cabin with sound-absorbing curtains and carpet. Wunderbar.
  4. Delta has introduced service agents with hand-held computers who are actually equipped to deal with numerous customer problems. A refreshing change from hapless attendants glued to a counter.
  5. Finnair was among the first to employ Mandarin-speaking staff to welcome passengers. Savvy. Traditional Finnish saunas next to the lounge get my vote too.
  6. Southwest (airline code: LUV) is showing passengers some warmth by bucking the industry trend towards charging for extras. Second bag? No problem.
  7. KLM – Royal Dutch Airlines is showing some True Blue-skies thinking by introducing sustainable fuels and catering. Way to go Dutch.
  8. Virgin America is setting the pace digitally, with an in-flight entertainment system that supports chat, gaming, live satellite TV, digital shopping and a food and beverage service that links to flight attendants’ tablet PCs.
  9. Cathay Pacific is discovering the power of participation by asking customers to submit ideas for an Asian-inspired dessert through Facebook. The winning dessert will feature on ex-North American flights.
  10. Emirates from Dubai is the biggest and one of the best airlines in the world, two things that often don’t go hand-in-hand. State of the art in-flight entertainment. Premium amenities. Providing crew with real-time customer information so they can provide better service. Brilliant. On my own ranking Emirates would swoop in at number two, I have written several times about its incomparable service, experience and the destination itself; and it would be matched by Abu Dhabi-based Etihad – another great experience and proud sponsors of the mighty Manchester City.
  11. Korea’s Asiana rounds out the list with services like PreMom and Happy Mom specifically for expecting mothers and families travelling with tots. A class act.

Image credit: Brian Joseph

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Kevin RobertsKevin Roberts is the CEO worldwide of The Lovemarks Company, Saatchi & Saatchi. For more information on Kevin, please go to To see this blog at its original source, please go to

Kevin Roberts




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