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Airports dominate the air travel shopping spend, but there are opportunities for airlines to exploit

The global airline industry has seen a nine year run of profits according to the IATA. Unfortunately rising costs have meant that 2018 will see diminished profit growth compared to 2017. With this in mind the need for airlines to maximise revenue in the face of rising fuel prices and other cost drivers, is very important. Many airlines have turned to baggage and boarding upgrades but there is a source of in-flight revenue that some have turned away from, shopping.

STR’s tourism research team, Tourism Consumer Insights, set out to gauge shopping behaviour both in-flight and at the airport among STR’s Traveller Panel – a proprietary research community of engaged global travellers.

On the surface, the shopping engagement and spend during the air travel journey is positive. Only 6% of participants didn’t spend any money during their last international flight. However, this figure is dominated by airports expenditure behaviour as nine out of ten passengers spent before they boarded the plane.

Amongst our travellers, under one in three actually spent during the flight itself.  This supports the assumption amongst most in the airline industry that the shopping mall like experience of the airport terminal has become the destination for passengers to do their shopping.

We asked passengers about three areas of their air travel spend: in-flight food and drink, in-flight duty free and in terminal purchases.

This data combined with passenger group size analysis reveals interesting detail on per person air travel expenditure behaviour.

Expenditure in the terminal and on food and drink followed a predictable path as larger groups spent more money. However, it was solo passengers who spent the most on duty free products, such as perfume and electronics.

For simplicity all expenditure results are reported in the most common currency amongst respondents which was Euros.

Overall, passengers spent more on food and drink than on duty free goods during their last international flight (€22.42 per passenger group compared to €20.75 per passenger group on duty free). This finding highlights that the food and drink trolley presents airlines with the most consistent source of revenue to tap.

However, consistent with shopping engagement findings discussed above, spend in the terminal was significantly higher per passenger group compared to in-flight expenditure.  This reinforces the position of major airlines that the terminal dominates traveller spend.

There are opportunities for airlines to help redress the balance in passenger expenditure trends. The research highlighted interesting differences between outbound and return air passengers. As shown below, passengers are likely to spend more on their return air travel journey, both in-flight and in the departing terminal.

Food and drink spend increased by 7% whilst terminal and duty free spend rose by an impressive 24% and 31%, respectively.

Through harvesting data and better understanding the needs and behaviours of passengers, there are opportunities for airlines to more effectively target travellers and develop in-flight revenue generating campaigns to capitalise on this higher spend return journey.

The findings highlight a well-known trend of airlines losing out to the airport terminal when it comes to traveller spend. However, our analysis also identifies opportunities for airlines to increase their market share of air travel spend.

There is a gap where airlines could be utilising data they have on their customers to ensure that they are offering them in the air shopping at the time they are most likely to buy it.  Duty free alone is not enough of an incentive especially when the main competitor, the airport, is offering this as well.  The data driven world we live in opens up more possibilities for monetisation. The ability to have a walled garden online store where an airline can offer relevant products to passengers from the convenience of their seat is just one possibility made possible through new technologies.

No matter what happens, airlines will need to develop new as well as revitalise old methods of generating revenue to counter rising costs, stiffer competition and changing consumer shopping behaviour.


This survey was undertaken by STR’s Tourism Consumer Insights team through the STR Traveller Panel in August 2018. The survey sent to a select group of panellists achieved over 400 responses. If you’d like to find out more about this research, please get in touch.