By Parker Davis
Interview: Expedia VP of Airline Partnerships On the Changing Game for Airlines, Travelers
Air travel was dead in late-2020. Airlines had slashed their schedules to fractions of 2019 levels, potential travelers had hunkered down to protect themselves from Covid-19 and airports had little to do but sit idly by.
But where travel had disappeared, hope still shined that the end of the pandemic would be just around the corner. And to keep feeding on that hope, airlines were forced to adapt, encouraging customers to book flights knowing their plans were far from certain.
As a part of that plan, airlines brought customers levels of flexibility that were all but unheard of in years prior. That flexibility — fewer restrictions on flight changes, especially for completely different destinations or dates — helped to keep cash flowing in during a time when it was desperately needed.
But as customers have came back in force in both last year and this year, the environment has changed dramatically. Airlines have struggled to manage the whipsaw in demand even as passengers are clamoring for seats at prices that are sometimes multiples higher than in 2020 or even 2019.
Though the situation today and two years ago could not be more different, many of the passenger trends that emerged in 2020 have stuck around. Expedia Vice President of Global Air Partnerships Julie Kyse is seeing that ring true in flyers’ search for flexibility in their bookings.
“Having more flexibility has become even more important for travelers since the pandemic,” Kyse said. “People know that you may have to cancel your trip at the last minute. Covid is still out there. People are making smart decisions, but they want to be able to have flexibility as far as that’s concerned. So we are seeing more and more of them choosing fares that have that flexibility attached to it. At this point in time most of the airlines have gotten away from their cancel for any reason-type policies back to more normalcy, so it’s part of the fare product.”
Along those lines, customers are searching for more control in their reservations, something the company is looking to accommodate.
“We’re trying to institute what we’re calling Smart Shopping, which I’m hoping will be launched by the end of the year in some shape or form whereby a customer can come in and indicate what their preferences are,” Kyse said. “‘I’m a traveler, and it’s important for me to have a carry-on bag.’ Well, I’m not going to show you flights that are the cheapest that don’t have a carry-on bag included. I’m going to show you the flights that have them.”
First on the list: seats.
“We’re doing more and more seat assignment sales,” Kyse said. “We recently moved the seat assignment process up in the funnel. It used to be buried at checkout, but a lot of customers want to know where they’re oging to sit before they get to the checkout stage of their purchase. When we did that, we saw a 94% uplift on customers choosing their seats.”
With regard to ticket prices, Kyse and Expedia have seen similar trends to direct airline purchases, which Kyse attributes to continued pent-up demand rolling through 2022. This has come despite the fact that online travel agencies like Expedia are often connecting airlines with a different type of customer than will search for flights on airline-specific websites.
Customers also continue to book flights further out than before. That, along with universal increases for domestic and international searches on Expedia’s platform, is contributing to Kyse’s optimism for the state of the industry moving into 2023, as customers continue to both anticipate and contribute themselves to strong demand in the months ahead.
“One of the trends that we’re seeing is that more and more are looking to book further out. In the last three years, we were seeing really close-in bookings, within 30 days,” she said. “Our searches for three to six months out and six to nine months out, those searches have doubled. And I think that’s tied to people wanting to make sure they secure great prices.”