If there is one surefire way to design products wrong, it is to try to design products for millennials.
Remember Toyota’s Scion, targeted toward young people? The average customer age was mid-forties. How about Pivot, the TV network with the slogan, “It’s your turn”? It closed after less than three years. Against that backdrop, I have been especially curious about the launch of Air France’s new brand designed to woo young travelers.
The company has positioned Joon (like jeune, French for “young”) as a new “fashion brand, a rooftop bar, an entertainment channel, [and] a personal assistant” that “does flying too.” Seeing as the airline will launch with some of Air France’s least-efficient aircraft and the grudging participation of a strong pilots’ union, it is understandable why the company would focus attention on brand appeal rather than rock-bottom prices.
The millennial generation makes up 83 million individuals in the U.S. Getting travel right for the millennials could be the difference between success and failure for airlines and airports over the next decade. Articles come out every week telling us that young people seek experiences, orient toward value products, and demand instant connection.
The thing is, who doesn’t?
The reality is that young people have advanced our culture in every generation, whether it was flappers ushering women into social independence, the so-called greatest generation building a new suburban order, or boomers blasting open social norms at Woodstock. These influences may be led by the younger generations, but they permeate society and change expectations for all of us.
This is especially true with technology and its effects. Young people might be quick to try the newest tools, but sooner or later the technology either fails or becomes commonplace. Millennials are always on, but now so is everyone else. According to Apple (AAPL) , iPhone users unlock their phones 80 times per day. That’s not just millennials; 74% of middle-aged Americans (50 to 64 year olds) own smartphones. Mobile connectivity is no longer a young person’s monopoly.
One thing is certain: We all breathe digital air now. Thanks to millennial consumerism, we expect to have communication tailored to us in real-time and products delivered today. Marketing to only one generation alienates the rest. Further, ignoring large populations of people can have significant impacts on bottom lines for businesses across industries.
What does that mean for successful travel companies? I believe airlines and airports need to master the connected experience for millennials just as much as they do for all customers.
First, Wi-Fi is no longer an optional service. Consider how it played out in hotels. From the time that hotels first started offering Wi-Fi around 2000, it was less than three years before Wi-Fi became as standard as hot running water. Five years after that, the majority of hotels offered it for free to most of their customers.
Within the next few years, high-capacity satellite networks will enable all airlines to offer onboard broadband. As most airlines rush to equip their aircraft with traditional pay-for-service setups, JetBlue (JBLU) has established the future standard: free broadband for all customers, available from gate to gate. Other airlines and airports will be forced to follow suit, not just for millennials, but for all customers.
A lot of money is at stake. For a major airline, the cost of equipping a fleet of aircraft with broadband can approach $100 million. At most airlines today, wifi revenue, at less than $1 per passenger, doesn’t even cover the satellite costs. Compare that to the way airlines have learned to merchandise other services to the tune of $80 billion per year, now making up more than 10% of total airline revenue, more than double the amount from just five years ago.
Second, with a connected smartphone in every pocket, passengers expect instant communication and instant service to get the small stuff right. It’s the travel equivalent of Disney’s Magic Bands, which serves as your ride pass, your hotel key, your lunch ticket, and your connection for missing children.
Similarly, my phone knows where I am, so my airline should too. Delta recently announced a new feature to its iOS mobile app that will automatically check you into your flight. You can expect that others will be following suit before long.
The same mobile connection can also enable airports to address what today are small but frequent annoyances: arriving passengers waiting for taxis to be sent over from the taxi hold area, for example; or people who have recently landed struggling to find the pickup zone for Uber and Lyft. Meanwhile, airports struggle to bring wheelchairs to the right passengers at the right time. Either airlines and airports will communicate directly with each passenger or they will use beacons to track them through the airport and predict their needs. Or both.
Social media has already raised the stakes. If there is one area where millennials are out in front of society, it is how they interact on social. It is not so much that younger people participate more in social media—69% of all Americans use social media—it is that they are more likely to get their news and form their opinions from social media. That applies as much to viral videos of dragging passengers off the plane as it does to Yelp reviews and Facebook (FB) posts.
I’m looking forward to flying Joon. I don’t need my airline to be a fashion brand or entertainment channel. Still, if the new airline really knows how to target millennials, then they will make a great experience for all customers. If successful, the airline’s rollout is certain to raise the bar in how airlines communicate and engage with connected passengers of all ages.
Samuel Engel is the global managing director of aviation at ICF.