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Battling IT Out to Improve the Airport Experience
Sep 06, 12 | 12:03 am
IN-DEPTH: From shortening security queues to pointing passengers to great offers within the airport or enabling them to plan what they will do at their destination while in the air, many stakeholders are using IT to improve the travel experience. For airlines this is also a huge commercial opportunity but be warned: mobile must be central to any IT strategy. EyeforTravel’s Ritesh Gupta reports
From the journey to and from the airport, to moving through security and finally boarding the aircraft, the airport experience can be stressful. Various stakeholders including airlines have been focusing on simplifying the travel journey, right from booking a flight to reaching a destination. And they are using information technology (IT) to do so. While IT solutions are helping to reduce the hassle factor associated with completing the different steps of the journey there is still room for improvement.
Take the web for example. It has made it much more convenient to research and book trips. Many travellers now check-in online which arguably saves time queuing at the airport. But while self-service may work well for single passengers travelling with hand luggage, it doesn’t necessarily work for families. According to SITA Lab’s director Renaud Irminger, those travelling with families, or indeed those with checked luggage, have still not gained the full benefits of IT. However, the industry is working on this. For instance, many kiosks can now print bag tags for self-tagging and document scanners are also being added that automatically read passports to compile the advanced passenger information (API) required for some international flights.
There is now a strong trend towards checking in before reaching the airport. This could be via a desktop computer or, increasingly for the future, through a mobile phone or tablet. The latest results from SITA’s Passenger Self-service Survey indicate that less than half of passengers now use the check-in counter at airports, preferring self-service alternatives.
This bodes well for increased mobile use. “With the new generation of passengers it is easy to envisage that eventually the mobile phone will be the dominant method and fewer and fewer people will check-in at the airport,” says Geneva-based Irminger, who heads up SITA Lab, the company’s technology research team, which is based in various locations globally.
“Queues at security checkpoints are the part of the journey passengers like the least, but unfortunately it is very necessary. However improvements are also coming here,” he says.
Technologies such as biometrics, e-passports, and the 2D-bar coded boarding pass will mean the process is more automated, and thus faster.
IATA is also working on its ‘checkpoint of the future’ which uses a combination of these technologies and pre-screening of passengers to speed up processing of ‘low threat’ passengers.
Of course mobile phones are expected to take all this to a new level by giving passengers the opportunity to complete the steps of the journey while on the move and at a time convenient to them rather than at a specific location.
Also, as use of mobile devices onboard the aircraft becomes commonplace new apps and services, developed to make the journey simpler right through to the final destination, are likely to emerge.
Irminger argues that m-commerce will be huge once e-wallet functionality becomes commonplace and replaces the need to type credit card details into mobile phones. Many users are put off by this because it is difficult to tap numbers accurately into a small screen. “Google has already made first mover steps with its Google Wallet and PayPal is working on a version along with others,” he adds.
SITA’s current Airline IT Trends survey indicates around 7% of tickets will be purchased via mobile phones by 2015. But as tech savvy passengers gradually dominate the travelling population the mobile phone will become an increasingly important sales channel for airlines.
From an airline perspective, there is a lot of interest not just for selling tickets but also for ancillary revenues which are seen as tomorrow’s growth driver for air travel.
Irminger points out that one of the hottest trends is going to be location- based services. “It offers travel providers an opportunity to connect with passengers at the right time to influence their decision making and inspire them to consider things they may not have thought about before,” he says. “Passengers will also find their mobile can be used as a ‘shop-bot’, sniffing out special offers broadcast by retail outlets within the terminal. The e-wallet functionality on the mobile phone will allow passengers to make the payment without joining the checkout lines.”
An emerging battlefield
Each generation of smartphone provides additional opportunities for travel companies to enhance the user experience. For instance, airlines are coming up new initiatives such as offering games in order to make waiting at the airport less boring, offering live data of flight schedule for a given airport and so on.
“We believe that we have barely touched the surface of what is possible to achieve with the current generation of smartphones,” says Irminger, adding that the phones’ capability is still very underused by the industry. But the biggest difficulty is accessing the data, which belongs to various stakeholders, from the mobile device and combining this and presenting it at the right time and format to the passenger.
SITA, however, is exploring an air transport industry-wide API platform — developer.aero — as a way to enable travel stakeholders to make their data available.
“We see that the biggest battle with mobile will be between the mobile app offerings from airlines and those passenger-centric, multi-airline, multi-airport apps like TripIt, Travelmate, Google and Apple offerings, as well as apps from airports,” says Irminger.
Up in the air
Another emerging trend is bringing connectivity to the passenger while in the air.
People increasingly expect to be connected all the time. Once you do this you open a lot of possibilities. For example, making duty free inventory available via a mobile app so passengers can purchase en route in any of the airports and airline flies to.
Today this kind of data is still not available but it is work in progress, says Irminger.
SITA Lab sees near filed communications (NFC) as an interesting area because the airlines can place tags in various places - including on the plane - that can trigger actions on the mobile phone. For example, there could be NFC tags in the duty-free catalogue. If the passenger passes the phone over an image of a bottle of perfume, this could trigger payment via cash or even by deducting frequent flyer miles. “The flight attendant would then be notified to bring the perfume to the passenger,” explains Irminger.
IT is not always easy
One of the major challenges that the IT team faces is related to managing disparate sources of data and turning them into actionable intelligence for commercial and passenger operations. A major problem is that the different partners in the travel chain ‘own’ different pieces of data, but no one has the overall picture.
In the past there has been an unwillingness to share the data, but this is changing and a collaborative approach to passenger and commercial operations is now gaining ground at many major airports with airlines, airport management, border agencies, and air traffic management sharing data to get a 'single source of truth' upon which better quality decisions can be based, says Irminger.
Even when the data is held by one party, it can still be difficult to combine it as it is often held in different databases built on different technologies, some with new technologies bolted onto old technologies. “There is a lot of work going on now trying to integrate these systems to talk to each other. Once this is done business intelligence applications can take the data and turn it into useful information,” explains Irminger.
Keeping IT consistent
Overall, airlines need to offer consistency of experience across all the touch points with customers - over the web, using iOS, Blackberry/RIM, Android platforms, kiosks and so on. The challenge is that the user interface on each platform must be consistent with that particular platform. “So, an Android app and an iPhone app should not be the same,” says Irminger.
Of course, for airlines it is a delicate trade off. “They have to focus on publishing and maintaining their branding guidelines and making their data available via easily-consumable APIs that they make available to the best application developers for the various platforms,” says Irminger.
Airlines are clearly trying to keep passengers engaged with them throughout the whole travel experience. More than ever airlines need to invest and provide passengers with the best experience via mobile device, if they don’t passengers will use apps from the other providers.
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