IT has transformed the passenger experience over the last ten years, and there's plenty more to come, writes Colin Baker
Few, if any areas of the airline industry have changed as much as the travel technology sector. The transition from cutting edge to mainstream can be just two years - less than some airframe programme delays.
This is partly the result of the rapid pace of change in consumer electronics, where mobile technology has opened up a whole plethora of related product development. However, passengers seem to be a bit more cautious than might have been expected.
"Mobility is the main trend today, but adoption is not yet where we were hoping," says Francesco Violante, chief executive officer at SITA.
Passengers have the technology - three quarters carry a smart phone (compared with 40% of the global population) and 90% say technology helps them when travelling, according to a recent survey by SITA.
But passengers seem to be holding back from using this technology - usage for areas such as check-in and booking, remain below 5%. The majority of passengers - 78% - cite usability concerns and limitations of the device as a possible reason for not using mobile for travel.
“Passengers are ready but remain at the edge of really “going mobile”, says Violante, adding that improving usability and utilising the unique capabilities of smartphones is the key to increase usage. "Airlines and airports that recognize this, and provide passengers with easy-to-use mobile services that improve the travel experience, will enjoy higher adoption rates and passenger satisfaction.”
Near field communications (NFC) remains on the cusp, with global standards yet to be agreed despite years of discussion. NFC effectively allows passengers to 'tap-and-go' by swiping their phone over a reader to get through a gate, into a lounge or pay for goods, for example.
"It will happen but there are still problems with protocols," says Violante. "It's not yet clear which standards will prevail. Then you need mobiles that have it - not all handsets are ready for it."
One great advantage of NFC is that it works even when the phone is switched off or runs out of battery. SITA, along with mobile provider Orange, has been trialling the technology at Toulouse Blagnac Airport in France. "It works very well," says Violante, adding that the issue is not the technology but the adoption and agreement needed on standards.
NFC is just one area that SITA's R&D department, SITA Lab, is looking at. This is a separate business unit - designed to ensure that it is unhampered by budget constraints. Other areas that are or have been studied include tablets, GSM, wi-fi and wearable computing - including Google Glasses.
Ilya Gutlin, SITA's president for the Asia-Pacific region, picks out WorldTracer as an area of innovation. WorldTracer, SITA's baggage tracing solution, is being tested on iPads. "Airlines can actually go out to meet the passenger rather than wait for the passenger to come to them. They can service them right there at the baggage carousel," he says, adding that the person dealing with the passenger could have a small printer attached to their belt. "They can print out a receipt right there."
Informing the passenger when their baggage is going to arrive on the carousel is another area being looked at. "No more waiting - we are working on these kinds of concepts. This will happen," states Violante.
For airlines and airports wondering which technology will prevail, Violante sees technology coming in "waves" rather switching from one technology to the next. "There will be an overlap" he says, pointing to the likes of 2D barcodes and kiosks. "There will be self-service with three-to-four parallel technologies."
Kiosks are more prevalent In Europe than they are in the Asia-Pacific region or Middle East, Violante notes, largely driven by the space constraints at European airports, but also by the preference in some countries towards dealing with agents.
But this may be changing, at least in some countries. Gutlin points to Incheon, Taipei and Hong Kong as examples in Asia where there are plenty of kiosks and that they are all well used. "What's important is that the kiosks are right in front of you - if they're hidden, you won't use them," he warns.
Kiosks also have some natural advantages over the traditional agents, says Gutlin, pointing to the example of a Chinese national travelling in Indonesia. "Would you rather try and speak in your non-native English to a local agent who's going to speak back in their non-native English, or use a kiosk with Mandarin on the screen?"
With more people travelling abroad in emerging economies, the Asia-Pacific region is leading some of the trials and technological innovations because it's a requirement for coping with this trend, says Gutlin.
A key market is China, which Violante notes is building around 60 regional airports. SITA is present in Beijing, Shanghai and Guanzhou - the three biggest airport systems in the country, and also Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport, serving the Yangtze River Delta city which has the fourth largest metropolitan population in China.
"There are a lot of opportunities in China, and also challenges," says Gutlin. "One of these is that a lot of regional airports operate to their own standards, but they're starting to try and introduce international standards," he notes. "When that wave comes in, SITA can play a much bigger role in China."
Violante says that SITA has a "dual" role in China - making sure that international airlines in China have the same standards there as across the rest of their network, and also making sure that Chinese airlines flying outside of China can also meet global standards.
SITA helped Beijing Capital Airport process 260,000 passengers in a single day during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "When there is a need, the Chinese air transport industry comes to us," says Gutlin. SITA has two Chinese members on its 14-strong board of directors.
It is not just Chinese airports that can benefit from greater cohesion. "If we want to improve the passenger experience, we need to improve the eco-system at airports," notes Violante. "Airports are the touch point - but it's complicated. You have air traffic control, slot management, for example. These all affect the passenger experience."
This is where one of the major trends that Violante picks out comes into play - Big Data. This rather vague term involves the ever increasing amount of data that organisations have at their disposal, and tools to help them make use of it. In particular, this can be used in conjunction with Business Intelligence to greatly improve, or even transform the way that organisation's carry out their business.
This is another case of plenty of opportunities, but also some challenges - including improving communication in the airport ecosystem that Violante points to. "How do we create this collaboration? It's not just airlines, security, check-in processes - it's everything."
But the potential benefits are huge - "It will enable you to predict where a queue is going to happen based on an arrival at a particular gate. It's all about prediction," says Violante. "You can then rearrange some gates or make decisions based on connection times."
It can also benefit the retail side of an airport. Decisions on what types of outlets to have can be based on information about the passengers who will pass by them on their way to the gate, for instance. "Thereare a lot of things you can do based on this information," he says. Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport recently adjusted its retail offering strategy based on Big Data.
It can also be a very useful tool for making timely decisions when things go wrong. "You can decide if it's better during time of a distruption to book people into a hotel or cater for them at the airport - all these types of decisions," says Violante. "But what's important is that the decision is not made in isolation."
He repeatedly stresses the importance of data sharing."There is a trend, but it's still a challenge. Security is an issue, but so is information about people. All stakeholders need to understand that it's in their interests to share data. It's improving, but the issue is still there," notes Violante.
Along with Big Data, Cloud Computing is another area with great potential. As well as costs, there are also service level benefits to be had.
Violante says that a particular benefit of Cloud is that it can ensure that remote offices have the same standard of connection as head office, thanks to a dedicated community cloud for the air transport industry. "You can have the same user experience worldwide," he says. "You can arrive at regional airports, and by a hosting application for check-in in the community cloud have the same standards of connectivity as the main office.,."
Also being tackled is the issue of bag drops - an issue that has vexed the industry since the advent of self-service. This is something of a pet subject for Gutlin, who before his appointment to head up the Asia-Pacific office, was vice president airport solutions line at SITA.
"What we are seeing is airports talking about bag drop quite heavily right now. They're looking around," he says. SITA started a trial 18 month ago, which is still ongoing, at Brisbane Airport in Australia. This was with Jetstar, although another airline is expected to join the trial shortly. The trial has seen reduced bag drop processing times from a typical two-and-a-half minutes to below 25 seconds. "In fact, the fastest time was below 20 seconds," says Gutlin.
The system is also being trialed at Melbourne Tullamarine airport, where again, sub-20 second times have been achieved at times.
The new system sees passengers check-in at the kiosk, attach the bag tag then drop the bag at the self-bag drop station where it is automatically processed. The baggage tag becomes active once the bag goes past bag drop. "With these pieces of infrastucture, you're not trying to change the process dramatically, you're trying to fit units physically into the space of a normal check-in desk at most, and also keep processes the same," says Gutlin.
Gutlin adds, "We've tested different processes - one with the kiosk and bag drop in one location, and the other with a two step process, where you check in and then walk over to bag drop area. This [latter process] is much better at avoiding queues - you don't have a problem if a passenger gets stuck." The trials at Brisbane and Melbourne involve the two-step process.
Another issue is excess baggage. "Every airport has different processes for excess baggage - you can have credit card payment right there. It really depends on what the airport's process is and what they're happy with."
One thing that doesn't seem to be an issue is relying on the passenger to tag the bag correctly. Pointing to an early adopter - Montreal Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport, Gutlin says, "they found the passenger does a much better job than the agent as they more than anyone want that bag to arrive at the destination."
The other big trend that is in the process of maturing is onboard connectivity. "It's changing the customer experience," says Violante, pointing to the possibility of downloading movies on to tablets before the flight, and the near future wider acceptance of streaming from the ground to the aircraft. "Today it's still expensive. But you will have the capacity to do that."
The whole mobile connectivity sector has and is changing, says Violante, who used to work in the mobile sector. "At first it was all about voice - today it's all changed. Data is becoming a must.Airlines are thinking about what their fleet will look like in four-to-five year's time, and are investing in onboard connectivity for virtually all new aircraft. "What airlines are thinking will reshape the industry for IFE.
This will open the door for service improvement. "In the future, you could get in an aircraft and continue watching the movie that you were watching in the lounge - that could be a service you could provide."
Better communication from air to ground will enable passengers to be issued with a new boarding pass if they are delayed. "The goal is to offer the same consistent experience." It is a similar story with engine health monitoring - "This is another trend that has started, but will mature over the next five years."
Whatever happens in this fast changing part of the industry, you can be sure SITA will be heavily involved. "Being owned by the airlines is a strong advantage," says Violante. Judging timings, particularly for passenger adoption of certain processes, can be tricky. But the trends remain the same.
Smart watches, smart glasses and other wearable computing devices will be part of the airport of the future, according to the latest findings from SITA Lab.
It is estimated that more than 1.2 million smart watches will be shipped in 2013. A less-developed wearable market until very recently has been smart headgear. However, Google grabbed the headlines in early 2013 with the launch of a head-mounted display device called Google Glass to a select group of users.
SITA Lab was one of a few selected developers to receive both the Google Glass and Vuzix M100 devices before their public launch, in order to evaluate them. It carried out tests for a variety of uses in airline and airport settings.
Jim Peters, chief technology officer, SITA, says: “Wearable devices like Google Glass offer new opportunities to mobilize staff, keeping their hands free, while keeping them connected to the traditional check-in and reservation systems. Interaction can be via video analysis of what a staff member is looking at, like a boarding pass or bag tag, or voice recognition, or a combination of both.”
As part of its testing, SITA Lab developed an application called SWIFT Boarding using the smart headgear’s built-in camera as a scanner and the heads-up display. The aim was to allow agents in the boarding area to securely scan and verify both a boarding pass and passport simultaneously wearing smart glasses. Both documents are held side by side while the app matches the two to ensure they belong to the same person.
As a proof of concept the SWIFT application was a success. Travel documents and loyalty cards can be scanned by smart glasses. However, the devices are not fast enough yet to be able to meet the high speed passenger processing requirements needed at airports. Matching the documents takes longer than the industry’s one second benchmark making it unviable as an alternative to existing systems, until more powerful smart glasses are developed.