Mobile Opinion

Digital Transformation in the airline industry: 10 emerging technologies that are reshaping the flying experience

When the first commercial flight took off over a century ago, carrying 1200 passengers in a short span of 4 months, little did we know that airline industry is going to change the way people travel forever. Back then, it was a mode of travel only for the elite; the first air ticket ever sold was purchased for $400 (a sum that would be equal to $10,000 today). Today, air travel has become accessible to most and carries a humungous 3.6 billion passengers per year. The airline industry has not just seen an avalanche of passengers but also an immense shift in the way it operates, thanks to the new and exciting technologies impacting the airline landscape.

There is no doubt that the popularity and the increase in the number growing passengers are good for the economics of the airline industry, which is expected to see a net profit growth margin of 5.1% in 2017. However, this growth has also brought umpteen challenges for the industry. On top of that, the ever-changing dynamics of the industry owing to technological revolution and ever-evolving nature of consumer behaviour requires that the airline industry has to consistently keep up with the technological advancements and the demands of the new-age consumers.

Some of the challenges that the industry is addressing by adopting technology are:

– Increasing operational efficiency
– Saving costs
– Building delightful customer experiences

In our previous article: How technology is giving flight to customer experiences in the airline industry, we detailed out the way the challenges mentioned above impact the airline industry and how technology is helping them address these.

Taking the discussion further, in this article we will look at the emerging technologies which are digitally transforming the airline industry and paving the way for the future of a digitally transformed and customer-centric airline industry.

Blockchain Technology

A blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a shared list of data or records; it can be financial transactions or the supply chain records in a manufacturing company etc. It then places these pieces of data in the form of a block; each block is then ‘chained’ to the next block using a cryptographic signature. This allows blockchain to be used as a ledger which is accessible by anyone with permission to do so.

The blockchain is a buzz word for the financial sector, and it sounds unlikely that the blockchain technology will be useful for the airline industry, but that is far from bring true. Blockchain industry offers a plethora of uses and provides amazing opportunities which go way beyond financial transactions. The operation of the airline industry has a lot of moving parts and require data sharing at multiple touch points from booking to arrival and even after that amongst multiple players including airlines, online travel portals, airports, immigration so on and so forth. Any leakage of the data through the entire cycle has the potential to not only diminish user experience and affect revenue but jeopardise passenger safety and security as well. Blockchain technology’s ability of enhanced reconciliation and exchange of data can benefit the airline’s industry in a myriad of ways like:

Identity Management – Blockchain technology can make the identity management system for airlines much simpler and hassle-free compared to the current biometric system. Blockchain technology gives an opportunity to create a process of identity management where the passengers and the airlines will not have to rely on the physical ID proofs to validate passengers’ entity and passing over that information through multiple channels.

Tokenising Frequent Flyer Programs – Blockchain technology can help airlines turn the miles offered to the flyers into a more valuable asset which customers can use beyond the flying. Tokenising the loyalty points, blockchain can give travellers to accrue the points through a community of partners. As the points get accepted as currency amongst varied partners, it can help airlines build a strong loyalty program for their customers.

Building a robust data security system – With so many passenger records to maintain it is an uphill task for the airlines to manage and maintain the sanity and privacy of this data. Blockchain technology with a security wrapper can help in creating a unique and secure way of sharing and managing this information through the use of authorised access requirements.

Airline maintenance – Airlines have to deal with a humungous amount of data including cumbersome databases and sometimes manual binders when it comes to keeping a log of maintenance records. Blockchain can help the industry to ensure that these records are virtually recorded. Ensuring that every information regarding the procurement of the parts of the aircraft, the maintenance history, person who has handled the maintenance, modifications that were done etc. are recorded in real-time, virtually and is accessible to relevant people when the records need to be accessed. All these details available at the right time without the chances of any error can improve the practice of maintenance, security and safety to new levels.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

Industries like retail, healthcare etc. are seeing a lot of uses of the AR/VR revolution. Airlines industry is also following suit. Right now one of the most obvious applications of these technologies can be expected to be seen in the airport space where the airport experience can be enhanced with the help of AR/VR based apps. Some airports have already taken the lead in delighting their customers with the use of these technologies like:

– The Gatwick airport uses AR to help passengers navigate the complex layout of the airport, and London City Airport has installed AR tech to help air traffic controllers with the vital job of keeping planes safe.

Smartphones for AR navigation

Image source: VRfocus.com

Digital air traffic control

Image source: Guardian.com

Recently the Heathrow airport, one of them busiest airports in the world embraced AR technology to alleviate kids’ experience at the crowded airport. It has built an AR app aimed at children that can entertain and distract them while the process of checking in and waiting for a flight goes on. Further, the technology has an additional benefit for Heathrow staff in that it also tracks footfall through the five terminals.

Another example of AR technology enhancing the airport experience is San Jose International Airport partnering with the Google Tango team for a trial of augmented reality technology in wayfinding, through airport retail promotions and even AR billboards displaying destination information.

According to Jonathan Vaden, lead of the project “Once augmented reality technology becomes ubiquitous, we will see many new and creative ways in which airports around the world begin taking advantage of its capabilities.’’

Airlines are also starting to use the AR/VR technology to create delightful customer experiences for their customers. Qantas is one such airline which has launched a VR app which provides its passengers immersive, engaging and experiential videos of the beautiful Australian destinations.

Artificial Intelligence

AI has been gaining popularity across industries. With AI gaining traction and becoming more and more equipped to understand human interactions industries are using it to upgrade customer experience at every touch point. From chat bots to voice-based AI tools there are umpteen use cases of AI being utilised.

The airline industry also understands the power of AI in helping them stepping up their technology game. Throughout the journey, the flyer might have to download a minimum of 3-4 apps for a complete digital experience like an app for car rental, airline app of to and fro destination, hotel etc. AI integrated with machine learning, and predictive analytics can help immensely in providing a connected and customised experience to the flyers. Further, AI also has the potential to ease out various operational processes of airlines like revenue management, managing ticket pricing, etc. A lot of forward thinking airlines understand the impact AI can have in multiple areas of the industry and are already investing in the same.

E.g. UK-based EasyJet is using AI for predictive analysis. The airline is using a combination of these technologies to make sense of all the available data and use these insights to create offers and services personalised for individual travellers. The airline also has a recognition tool that reads passports and fills out all the information for flyers—easing out the data entry and data management tasks more manageable.

According to Alberto Rey-Villaverde, Head of Data Science at EasyJet,” the difference between analytics and AI is that the former has been about diagnostic capability and looking backwards, whereas the latter is focused on predictive capability, which can help organizations better understand and plan for the future”.

Like Easyjet, Korean Air is also exploring how voice-activated digital assistant can help in offering a seamless travel experience.

Another example of airlines being used by airlines is AI-based facial recognition technology. Recently Delta Airlines installed four self-service kiosks at the St. Paul International Airport that used facial recognition technology to verify customer identity by matching customer faces to their passport photos.

Beacons technology

Beacons technology has seen a lot of success when it comes to retail, however other industries like healthcare are also exploring the use of this technology. Given the fact that GPS or Global Positioning System is dependent on the poor indoor satellite signals, there is a huge potential for the airline industry to use Beacons in making navigation easy for travellers between different terminals at the airport. Further, Beacons can help airports and vendors at the airport premises to know where passengers are and then send them personalised and relevant information accordingly. These updates can be about boarding gate number, baggage carousel, flight status or also about the shops and eateries around the customer.

MIAMI International airport is already leveraging Beacons in its premises to create a personalised experience for the travellers. The app provides information about the entire airport as travellers navigate through various places at the premises. Further, they are also updated with relevant information depending on their individual journey, e.g. gate numbers, flight updates, baggage collection details, etc. Additionally, with the ‘blue-dot’ functionality, map rotation, turn-by-turn directions, ‘walk times’ and a ‘near me’ feature, they allow passengers to quickly locate virtually anything inside the airport.

MIAMI International airport

Image source: Internationalairportreview.com

Robotics

Robotics is already being used across various industries and reshaping the ways a lot of manual work is done across these by automating these tasks. The airline industry is also using robotics in assisting with various tasks like baggage handling, car parking, etc. at airports like Amsterdam and Düsseldorf. However, the implementation of robotics has gone beyond this as a customer-facing technology at airport terminals.

The introduction of KLM’s socially-aware ‘Spencer Robot’ last year created a lot of buzz. This robot has been equipped with the capability to deal with social situations between people and can ‘see’ and analyse people nearby with his sensors. Spencer can also distinguish between individuals, families and larger groups, and also learns about and then complies with social rules, ultimately acting in a human-friendly way.

Recently airports like Glasgow Airport and airlines like Japan Airlines, EVA Air etc. have also introduced their robot customer-service agents.

Gladys, the humanoid robot the Glasgow airport, was introduced during the Christmas season last year it was programmed with programmed with three main entertainment functions for passengers to choose from, and it could also sing and dance to pre-programmed Christmas songs and tell festive tales to the young passengers at the airport.

Gladys interacting with a young passenger at Glasgow Airport

Image source: Futuretravelexperience.com

Robot NAO, a 58cm-tall humanoid robot at built by Japan Airlines was placed at the Haneda Airport and could help. This Robot is linked to a digital information screen, and as well as being able to hold interactive dialogue, it can present useful information on the digital screen when prompted, including airport facility information, arrival and departure flight information, and destination weather forecasts. It can also communicate with passengers in Japanese, English and Chinese languages.

Similarly, the robot, named Pepper, launched by EVA Air, scans boarding passes to provide departure details, gives passengers weather updates for their destination, and informs them of duty-free special offers and airline promotions. Pepper can also play games, shake hands, dance and pose for photos with travellers.

Passengers interacting with EVA robot

Image source – Futuretravelexperience.com

Biometrics

In a digital world, every industry strives to add value to their customers’ lives. Airlines industry does this by consistently making travel experience delightful and comfortable for their customers. Adopting the Biometrics Technology at airlines and airport touch points is one such attempt by the industry. Back in 2015, the biometrics trial was launched with the ‘Happy Flow’ project. Aptly named, this project aimed at creating a seamless and secure air travel process.

In just two years, today, a lot of biometric-enables single token platforms have been introduced, and airlines and airports are leveraging them to revolutionise passenger experiences. E.g. Air New Zealand has launched a biometric-enabled bag drop to speed-up the check-in process.

Recently Delta Airlines went a step ahead and launched the world’s first self-service biometric-enabled baggage drop to free up “free up more Delta people” to deal with customers.

The advantage of using biometrics at bag drop is two-fold: it helps in saving time for passengers and creating a visual record of the actual passenger dropping the bag – not just someone who might have picked up the suitcase owner’s boarding card.

Facial recognition is another application of the biometric technology being used at the airports. Recently, Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport announced a facial-recognition trial in collaboration with KLM involving boarding without having to show your boarding pass and passport. To enrol in the process, passengers scan their passports, boarding passes and have a photo of their face taken by a special registration kiosk (personal data is automatically deleted after boarding). Beyond that procedure, passengers needn’t exhibit any further documentation – their face is enough to grant them access through to gate barrier, and they can proceed to the plane. In the future Biometrics is set to play an increasingly important role in creating a more secure and seamless passenger experience.

Wearable technology

Wearable technology might still be in a nascent stage. But it is expected to grow in the coming years. Globally the Wearable devices market is projected to reach $20.6 Billion by 2018, with an annual growth rate of 36%. Wearables have found usage across industries like healthcare, fitness, retail, banking and insurance to manufacturing and travel. Airlines have started to use wearable technology is various ways to do more than improving customer experience on flights. Some of the examples of airlines using wearable technology are:

Recently Japan Airlines used Microsoft’s HoloLens for training its new crew members and engineers. Using HoloLens, the mechanics can be trained about engine mechanics akin to the experience they will have working on an actual plane.

Microsoft has also demonstrated earlier that HoloLens can help in designing airport terminals by providing designers with imagery of the new terminals even before starting the construction.

EasyJet and British Airways are among the airlines that have created apps for the Apple Watch, enabling passengers to store boarding passes and receive real-time updates on their wrist.

EasyJet has also introduced wearable uniforms for its crew and ground staff. The suit is fitted with hems and LEDs on the shoulders and can provide visual guidance to passengers. It is also equipped with built-in microphones to enable direct communication with passengers. Additionally, the uniform also has a LED-based scrolling ticker, on the lapel jacket, which displays basic information such as the number of the flight, the flight destinations and lighting guidance in case of emergencies.

Another, example of wearable devices being used to improve flight experience is the SkyZen app launched by The International Air Transport Association. The app is connected to Jawbone fitness wrist band and enables flyers to view their activity and sleep patterns throughout the flight and creates personalised insights based on their sleep and activity patterns.

Internet of Things

The objective of industries adopting IoT is creating a seamless and integrated ecosystem connecting organizational functions with the end consumers. Airline industry plunged into the IoT revolution with the same agenda – building a seamless and integrated ecosystem integrating the organizational functions to increase efficiencies and providing a seamless experience to their customers. According to the FTE:

‘’Over the course of the next decade, it is likely that all “things” on board will be connected and the health of everything, from engine performance to the IFE system, will be monitored in real-time. Sensors will automatically detect and report faults to maintenance teams on the ground, removing the need for the crew to manually report faults. Moreover, the addition of sensors to aircraft seats will enable the crew to monitor individual passenger health and wellbeing, and to proactively respond to their needs.’’

Virgin Airlines have implemented IoT in its Boeing 787. Every single element on the plane is attached to a wireless aeroplane network, providing real-time IoT data on elements like performance, maintenance etc. The airline is using the deluge of data that it is collecting through these flights to improve the efficiency of the aircraft and also being pro-active. For example, a jet engine that is performing poorly mid-flight is relaying that information to ground staff throughout its journey, and when the plane lands, airport engineers can then be ready to look into the issue.

Another example of implementation of IoT by airlines is EasyJet’s Mobile Host at London’s Gatwick Airport. In this pilot, travellers’ flight details are combined with the live data from the airport’s Google indoor maps. This allows the airline to deliver updated check-in reminders, gate updates and even personalised directions.

Though the implementation of a 360-degree implementation of IoT systems by airlines still has a long way to go, the process has definitely started on the right note.

Big Data

In a digitally connected universe, consumers leave their digital footprints at every touch point; Airlines can drive valuable insights by analysing this data to create delightful experiences for travellers. E.g. Airlines can use this data to understand customer preferences in real-time based on data of their purchase history, travel itineraries etc. and provide them customised offers.

E.g. United Airlines uses a smart ‘’collect, detect, act’’ system to analyse around 150 variables in the customer profile including their previous purchases, preferences etc. and provide tailor-made offers to them. United Airlines has seen a YoY revenue increase of 15% after implementation of this system.

Further, this data can also help in increasing the operational efficiencies through predictive analytics. Predictive analytics can pre-empt any delays that might happen due to the weather forecast and in-turn inform the airline staff about it to keep their customers updated. Further, during any flight, a huge amount of data is generated with regards to pilot reports, incident reports, control position, warning reports etc. This data can be used in improving the flight efficiency and safety.

Southwest Airlines has partnered with NASA to indicate potential safety issues. By using machine-learning algorithms, they have built an automated system capable of crunching vast data sets to warn about anomalies and to prevent potential accidents.

Mobile solutions

Today, smartphones have become an integral part of people’s life. With people spending a huge amount of time interacting with their device, it has become increasingly important for industries to connect with their customers through the mobile platform.

Airlines have started venturing into the world of mobile solutions and are using this platform to connect with their customers throughout the passenger journey starting from booking of a flight till deplaning it.

E.g. Delta Airlines recently started providing their passengers’ virtual boarding passes 24 hours before their journey through their mobile app, easing out the check-in process for their passengers.

Airlines not just are using mobile apps to make the entire process of booking flights, check-ins etc. easier for the travellers, they are also using apps in innovative ways to provide awesome in-flight experiences to the customers.

In our article, we take a detailed look at how Airlines are using the mobile platform to create delightful customer experiences.

In conclusion:

The course of travel industry was changed when Wright Brothers introduced the world to the flying machine. Today a century later the airline industry has grown by leaps and bound. Digital technologies are changing the landscape of every industry and the digital revolution in the airline industry has just begun. In times to come the airline travel experiences are set to become more personalised, valuable and memorable for the flyers.

Surabhi Ghosh Chatterjee
Surabhi Ghosh Chatterjee is our soft spoken Marketing Communications Manager with an extensive experience in B2B marketing in the tech domain.
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