Why Technology is the Future Battle-Ground for Airline Customers

This is the slightly expanded text of an article which I published in the latest edition of Airline Business:

The world is being changed by technology – and technology is changing the world – faster than ever before. This is a big claim but, if I am right, every airline and airport CEO and CIO should be thinking about this issue…

Passengers have changed

Look first at who your passengers are.  No-one leaves home these days without a smart-phone in their pocket or a tablet in their handbag.  PCs and laptops are so last century.  We want to be connected anywhere, any how, any time.

We want to make informed travel choices based on surfing the web and social media. We expect information from our travel providers – which might or might not be an airline – to be personalized and tailored to our needs.

We all, whether we are Generation Y or more mature travellers, require technology to be app-easy to use, simple and intuitive.

The Future is predictable

It’s not hard to predict how we all will use technology in the future.  Our personal devices will in the future have enough data about us to learn our needs. So they will new able to recommend what holiday – and what resort or city –  we might like.  They will pull together information – reviews, flights, hotels and videos – from social networking sites and the net, and give us options.

Augmented reality will be commonplace: we will be able to go on virtual holidays to experience what previous travelers have seen and heard, with tags of information in front of the images and audio commentary.

When we have decided where we want to go and what we want to book, making payment through our mobile device will be secure and easy.  Handsets will replace plastic cards for payment.

In the future, self-service check-in will be even more ubiquitous, with mobile phones making way-finding and check-in easy.   Although we will still need to physically drop-off our bags, the airline will send us electronic bag receipts. We will be alerted as soon as we land to confirm that our bags are with us, and we will be alerted again when they are arriving in the baggage hall.

Even Security can be easier

Now here comes the piece where technology can – and should – make the most difference: the queues at Security.  Combining new technologies like biometrics and e-passports offers the opportunity for governments and airports to streamline – and improve – border checks.

Digital attention at the Airport

We as passengers – and our smart-mobiles – are going to be the subject of a great deal of digital attention at the airport.  Airport-wide WiFi will provide connectivity all the time: already many airports have realised that getting passenger attention is more important than charging for connection.

Location sensing will ensure that we no longer have to worry about where the gate is and when it is open.  The mobile will calculate how long we need to get there, calculating queue times on the way in real time, and airport staff will be able to find lost passengers, avoiding late departures.

Augmented reality will give us directions to what we want to find, whether it is the airline lounge, a coffee shop or duty-free outlet. We can opt in to receive promotional coupons from retail outlets we are walking past, and all of this traffic will enable the airports to manage their passenger flows and prevent bottle-necks forming.

e-Boarding

More and more airports and airlines, having mastered self-service ticketing and check-in, are looking at self-service boarding.   We will scan our 2-D bar code boarding pass ourselves and pass through a secure gateway to board.  Barcodes will soon be old-hat and sensor technology and NFC (near field communication) will allow our smart phone to share boarding information with the gate.   NFC will enable our travel documents to be retrieved as we approach the gate and security check-point and to be verified by the airport reader.  The hand-set can stay in our pocket throughout this process, making the whole process much less hassle.

Technology On-Board

Everyone will expect to be connected – if they wish – during their flight.  This means that IFE (In-Flight Entertainment) will be revolutionized, and we will watch films, access our iTunes, read our Kindles, look at our Facebook and tweet using our own devices.   So will we still want an airline-provided screen or console as well?

Social networking will be as prevalent on the plane as it is on the ground. We will reward good service (and punish bad service) instantly through our social networks.   As at the airport, access to customers on-board will be eagerly sought by travel partners, retailers – and competitors.

Is it possible that eventually our flights will be free, and the costs will be paid by the providers of the products and services passengers purchase whilst travelling?

This is not a Vision

All of these technologies exist already.  Most of what I have described already exists as pilots somewhere in the world, many developed by SITA Labs.

I personally like this Future: it will be easier (and more fun) to travel like this.  But for it to happen the airlines and airports must work together to agree common-use standards and inter-operability in these new technologies.  It is in everyone’s interest to do so, at least in the Air Transport Industry.

So CEOs and CIOs reading this will, I hope, feel inspired to consider the above technologies – I believe they are going to be the entrance ticket to the future.

About paulcoby
I am CIO at the John Lewis Partnership in the UK. I was Chair of SITA - the airline solutions company owned by the Air Transport Community - for 11 years. I am also on the Boards of Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank and Pets at Home. Previously I was Head of BA Services and for 10 years CIO at British Airways. I am interested in Roman and Military History. The views expressed are entirely my own not my employers.

2 Responses to Why Technology is the Future Battle-Ground for Airline Customers

  1. surexpress says:

    I also like this future. Flying aboard is not a burden anymore since the advent of “technology on-board”, and I find pleasure in being connected to the web. Improved security also helps a lot. Great post!

  2. revaero says:

    Interesting article, Paul.

    However, I think ‘augmented reality’ is already ubiquitous and companies need to move to the next level . For example, Tripadvisor has given us pics and videos and comments on hotels, cities, & events for more than 10 years now.
    For a small period, we trusted the opinions of strangers more than our own intuition or the number of stars in the brochure. Since hotels have cottoned on to this, their ‘social media’ depts have bombarded such sites with positive reviews. Nowadays, most savvy consumers, cast a cold eye on them. What can companies do to overcome this scepticism?Or is it out their hands?

    You make a good point about online checkin-, boarding cards and baggage receipts. But what happens when the technology fails or the battery runs out? Does it become a ‘new’ ancillary revenue stream for the airline?

    Susanne (revaero)

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