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.


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.

How Technology will change the World in 2012

I make no claims for originality in these predictions. A characteristic of our connected social media world is that we take our ideas from everyone else – and these are no exception…

  • With “the integration of everything”, apps will work on smartphones, computers and TVs everywhere. You’ll access your email, social media and applications on any device anywhere.
  • The Cloud will turn computing into a utility (at last – after many years of predictions). This will open massive expandable computing power on demand.
  • The Cloud will be not just for businesses but individual consumers. Look at how Facebook – operating in the Cloud – is conquering the world. And Apple’s personal assistant app, Siri – Steve Jobs’ final initiative – will open an infinity of new apps which will learn what you want and, in time, even how you think….
  • Kindle and iPad were the big commercial volume successes of 2011, meaning that Amazon and Apple will be major platforms for – and could also become major publishers for – what we used to call books, films, magazines and newspapers.
  • The TV will be the revolutionary technology device of 2012, with intelligence provided by connectivity from pads and smartphones, no longer presenting just TV channels but everything that is out there on the net and becoming a key element of social media.
  • Social media will continue to grow and will continue to revolutionise  the way we shop, how people remove tyrants, spread our new ideas, connect with friends, family and fellow enthusiasts globally – in short, everything…

Customer Interaction – the next frontier for Airline IT

The 11th SITA/Airline Business IT Summit held in June in Brussels was, I think, the best yet.

I had the hard task at the end of the Summit – after a string of fascinating and lively speeches and presentations – of summarising those contributions.  This is what I said then.

Our first speaker was Peter Hartman, CEO of KLM, who told us about his team of over 20 members who drive KLM’s social networking strategy.  They were responsible for the ground-breaking initiative at Schiphol where they delighted passengers waiting to Board with small presents, tailored to their destination and their interests (as inferred from their Facebook or other social presence).   As Peter said about social networking, “Do it, don’t talk!”

Peter predicted that in future people will choose the airline they fly on through the recommendations of their social media connections.  After all, most of us use Trip Adviser now to check out hotels in advance.

In response to questions, Peter returned to the basics of what CEOs expect from Airline CIOs – the technology needs to work reliably and to costs must keep going down!

Dr Munir Majid, Chairman of MAS, talked about the convergence of technology in a “flattening World”.  Dr Majid argued that innovation matters for survival – something he illustrated with Malaysian’s innovative use of Facebook for Group bookings.

Jan Albrecht, CEO of the Star Alliance, stressed the importance of doing more IT for less.  He saw it as essential that airline IT departments provided users with modern IT tools and technology that worked with app-like ease.   Fresh thinking was essential these days in the new social-networked world.  He mused on what Steve Jobs would do for airline technology.   He asked how we as an industry could catch up with our customers’ expectations.

Having had a challenging start from the CEOs on both social networking and getting the basics right, the audience of IT Directors and CIOs returned (after a nerve-steadying cup of coffee) to a technical session on Cloud Computing.

This was a double act from Vivek Badrinath and Francesco Violante, the CEOs of OBS and SITA.  They described what I believe is going to be a game-changer for the Air Transport Industry – the Industry’s own private Cloud.  OBS and SITA described how they would provide on-demand services from a network of six data-centres in five Continents to airlines and airports – consistently, securely and cost-effectively.  Francesco pointed to the possibility of savings from virtual CUTE and SSKs, and on-demand apps.

After lunch, we were privileged to hear two industry technology experts who attempted to shock the audience: Philip Wolf, CEO of PhoCusWright, looked at how mobility and connectivity were transforming today’s travel industry. Online booking was continuing to grow and there would be 2billion new travelers by 2030.  “What would the impact of a travel app from Google be?” he asked.  His challenge to the audience was to wake up to the impact of mobility and connectivity – these days, devices know where you are, who you like and what you want.

Then Nawal Taneja, Professor of Aviation at Ohio State University, warmed to this theme and urged airlines to provide genuinely personalized service.  What if Google or Apple could take over the retail distribution of airline services? Then, he warned, the airlines would become simply the ‘manufacturer’ of seats!

Chris Klingenberg, CIO of Lufthansa (and fellow SITA Board member), provided what he termed an antidote to all this very technology-based agenda.  He said airlines would not be so foolish as to give away their “crown jewels” in the form of the link to their customers.  They would remain masters of their own destiny.   He also advanced the refreshing notion that you should be proud of higher IT spend than your competitors since this showed you were innovating ahead of them.   He advocated bringing IT out of the “Techie Corner” and getting the Boardroom to understand how important it was.  Great points, I thought!

We then finished with two excellent contributions, the first from Antoine Rostworowski, of Aeroports de Montreal, who stressed the importance of integrating airports into the new visions for airline passengers.  Then Qiang Li, MD of Information Management at Air China, talked about the challenges of massive growth that they face.  He came up with a tremendous list of the IT initiatives he is leading, which would form a great ‘to do’ list for any airline CIO:

  • Cloud Computing
  • Mobile
  • Social Networking
  • Passenger Service Systems
  • Customer Relationship Management, and
  • In-flight Connectivity.

So then I had to try to summarise what all this adds up to!  I think the most important fact is that there was total agreement between CEOs and CIOs, analysts and suppliers, airlines and airports, that IT really matters in the modern world.

We have heard that before and it is really important.  But there is another new factor: we in IT are now central to the airlines’ and airports’ relationship with customers through game-changing technology – mobility is now ubiquitous and social networking adds a completely new dimension to customer relationships.

So, IT matters – and that’s now widely recognised.

And IT is central to airlines in operations, in selling, in servicing and, now, in customer interaction.

How Social Media could Revolutionise Air Travel

Just published my personal column in Airline Business on how social media could revolutionise the air travel decision process.

It surprises me when companies are hesitant to get into the mobile thing – it’s like being hesitant to get into the internet thing,” said Nathan Bucholz, Google travel industry manager, at the recent Innovation in Airline Distribution conference in London. “If you have your head in the sand, next thing there’s a storm blowing up and you don’t know about it.”

Numerous contributors echoed his view. But not everyone agreed: “Everyone thinks you can create commerce through Facebook but I’ve not seen a good use of selling tickets through social websites yet,” said one senior airline executive. “Is it more of a marketing tool or can it be a commerce tool as well?”

“I’m on the fence about whether we want to impose shopping on [a social network],” said another. So the airline industry is divided, some riding the wave of these new uses of technology while others remain sceptical, believing they will not affect mainstream selling and distribution. A disruptive technology is erupting on to the scene: is it a game changer or a passing fad?

What are the basics? Everyone agrees the focus on the customer – and on what the customer wants – is crucial. But will social networking help you in business? Can you sell on it? Is it a genuine new channel?

“Dealing with Generation Y is our key challenge,” said one speaker. “We are a little bit fearful about opening up the floodgates from a social media perspective,” said another. “When you introduce a financial exchange [on social media] it changes the rules,” said a third. Will social networking simply change how we share family news and photos? Or was Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, right to predict (at Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco) that “over the next five years, most industries are going to get re-thought to be social, and designed around people”?

UK technology magazine Wired recently suggested that before the Industrial Revolution, mass society did not exist: life revolved around your tribe, town or village. Networks of affiliation averaged around 150 individual relatives, friends and others. So from a social anthropological perspective, Facebook is arguably a return to the norm.

Sounds odd? But just how many people do you really want to invite to your daughter’s wedding or hold that big party with? Through social networks you can get advice on the latest films and books from the community you personally trust, like, are related to or want to influence.

Sceptics may at this point say: “So what? Even if I buy into this thesis, this is about sharing photos with your mates – not about commerce.” But word-of-mouth has always been important in selecting goods and services.

Now, when we are deciding to fly on business, to stay at a hotel on holiday, or to buy a new outfit or the next brand of smartphone, we can ask our personal networks, consult other travellers on TripAdviser or check what’s trending on Twitter.

And if we want not just advice but actual feedback, we can float an idea and share it – or take a photo on our phone and post it – and hear straight away what our friends think of our prospective choices.

We are part of a fundamental social shift: in 2010, Americans spent 23% of their online time using social networks – use among 50- to 64-year-olds almost doubling. As Zuckerberg says: “I would expect that next year people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and the next year they will be sharing twice as much as they did before.”

So what kind of impact might this have for the air transport industry? DemonstratingMalaysia Airlines‘ new Facebook-based booking tool for groups, Jim Peters of SITA said: “Trip planning for personal travel is going to happen on Facebook in the future.”

Bucholz from Google says: “42% of people have smartphones in the UK now [and] it’s going to 77% in two years’ time. So this is not about the future – mobile is a vital channel for business now.” Put this together with the SITA Lab’s prediction of the next big thing – payment for travel and other goods through smartphone apps – and we’ve got something major to think about.

Here’s the link to the Fight Global/Airline Business site:


What has IT ever done for us?

My last post on marks out of 10 for IT in the air transport industry reminded me of that great scene in the Monty Python film “The Life of Brian”. 

You remember when Reg (John Cleese) demands to know “What have the Romans ever done for us?” and the answer comes from his followers: aquaducts, sanitation, roads, education, wine, public baths, keeping order (who else could in a place like this?), fresh water system, medicine, irrigation and peace….. 

It can be a bit like that with IT and the aviation industry.

So –  “what has IT ever done for the aviation industry, then?”  

Well let’s see:

  • Frequent Flyer Programmes – which really started as glorified customer databases;
  • Global Distribution Systems – which were a world-wide web decades before anyone ever thought of global computing
  • Passenger Service Systems on Amadeus, Sabre and Galileo – Cloud Computing 20 years before anyone thought of that, as well
  • Revenue Accounting – settlement across many airlines around the World
  • Optimised engineering inventory
  • SITA/Equant – a global network of telecommunications for airlines and airports, started in 1949, reaching areas no national Telco could go
  • Revenue Management – the appliation of the most sophisticated mathematical and statistical techniques to selling airline tickets in advance of any other industry
  • 100% eTickets
  • Selling online – a core part first of the Low Cost Carrier model and now all airlines
  • Online check-in
  • Self-Service Kiosks
  • Self-printed boarding passes – from home
  • Online management of your booking
  • Dynamic packaging of flights, hotels and car hire
  • Automated re-booking during disruptions
  • Mobile boarding passes
  • Connectivity in flight

(and all this is not even going near avionics and the new technologies on the B787 and A380).

It is intriguing to note that many of these innovations came in the last decade.  I personally believe that many of the key innovations in aviation in the next decade will come from smart deployment of new technology.

Why Social Networking? Why not?

I was reflecting on social networking and what it means.

There was an article recently in The Times showing how much time people spent, on average, on various social networking sites.  As with all such statistics, the average obviously obscures a huge range.

Speaking personally, I write two blogs – this one and one a closed one at work, I use Twitter quite a lot and have an under-used personal account on Facebook.

Why do I do all this? The simple answer is because I like to.  And why do I like it?  Well, that’s harder to explain.

I like Twitter because it gives me “a sense of presence” and I might well tweet whether anyone followed me or not.  I also like Twitter because I can see what various friends and colleagues are up to, sometimes stimulating messages back and forth.  And I like Twitter because I can follow the Lotus F1 Team and learn what Mike Gascoigne and Tony Fernandez are feeling during a race and – to a lesser extent – follow how Norwich City are doing in the Championship.

Why do I like doing this blog?  Well, I like writing – and always have done.  As a historian and a mandarin (civil servant) you get the habit and a blog is, let’s face it, at least in part the modern way of vanity publishing.

You can use a blog to put your thoughts out there and see if anyone reads them. And, if you are lucky, you can strike up a dialogue or discussion.

I have always felt that the wondrous thing about the Internet was the ability to connect easily with that very small  – or large – group of individuals around the world who are interested in some of the same things as you. So whether that interest is Roman forts on the Arabian frontier in the 4th Century – or, say, pond-life in Norfolk – you can get in touch with those who have similar pre-occupations.

Facebook I am less keen on, although I do use it a little, given its wide-openness or at least the way its settings constantly steer you towards publishing your family holiday snaps to the World:  I prefer to keep mine to real friends and family.

But I guess the real key to social networking is that you can set it to do what you want.  You can follow celebs or friends or minority interests.  You can expose yourself – literally if you feel inclined – in public or carefully reveal just what you want.

So what kind of social networking works best for you? And what doesn’t?

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