Aiming to guide future industry investment, the IATA and ACI NEXTT program’s focus is on an ever smoother journey – thanks to queue-busting technologies, better use of space and resources through artificial intelligence and robotics, and enhanced data sharing.
The good news is that the industry is building on solid foundations and plans, according to SITA’s 2017 Air Transport IT Trends Insights report. Crucially, the report shows that airlines and airports are united in their goals to invest in a range of critical areas where progress is urgently needed, such as baggage tracking and identity management. See ‘Where’s the smart money going?’
Mobile reshapes behavior
“Our industry has already made great strides in recent years, and will continue to do so,” says Matthys Serfontein, VP Portfolio Management, Air Travel Solutions, SITA. “Just think of the progress made with mobile and self-service technologies. SITA’s IT Trends Surveys show that the industry fully intends to continue investing in mobile and self-service to eliminate pain points along the steps of the journey.
“Looking at mobile, nowadays the smartphone is the de facto unifying technology in providing a connected, end-to-end experience. Almost every passenger is clutching or wearing some form of smart device as their ‘passport’ to a digitally-driven travel experience.”
One airline priority area is to help passengers through the airport by delivering updates and notifications via mobiles about flight and airport status, with almost all of them also set to offer check-in and boarding via a mobile app by 2020.
An equally important opportunity for airports is the ability to use passenger location – enabled by airport beacons and sensors – to deliver more specific navigation and wayfinding tools such as interactive maps, as well as tailored offers and promotions to smart devices.
Self-service – now the norm
“On the self-service front, the trend goes beyond just the operational goals of more throughput and extends to the value derived from a stress-free journey from home to destination, leaving the passenger feeling contented and empowered,” says Serfontein.
In fact, in SITA’s Passenger IT Trends Surveys, those who use self-service report higher levels of satisfaction than non-users at each step of the journey, particularly at airside amenities, onboard and at the baggage carousel.
“Self-service is now the norm. But shaped by digital experiences in other sectors such as retail, travelers are becoming ever more demanding,” he says. “They’re now looking to do more of the traditional airport processes ‘off airport’ with digital self-service, so they arrive ready to fly. In exchange for offering their personal data, they expect more customized travel options.”
Despite the progress made, Serfontein cites the need to create new travel experiences in areas where many travelers still face frustration and fragmentation at key steps in the journey. Joe Leader, CEO of APEX, the Airline Passenger Experience Association, concurs.
“Travelers worldwide have embraced the convenience and necessity of being connected and in control at every step of their journey,” Leader observes. “But as the passenger experience becomes less and less reliant on great personal service from staff, we have to think about how else airlines can differentiate themselves – in the air and on the ground – to enhance their appeal to travelers.”
Leader’s top three predictions for the areas in which the air transport industry will likely redesign operations and digitize the passenger experience align with SITA’s own findings. They are:
Baggage: lightening the burden
In baggage handling, technology will dramatically augment the passenger experience. It’s little wonder that preparations are underway across the air transport industry for a major step change in the way baggage is handled – with the baggage management steps of the journey poised for mainstream adoption of self-service technologies.
Self-service tagging is already being embraced by almost half (47%) of passengers in 2017, up from 31% last year, according to SITA’s passenger survey. In some regions, passengers have the option to download and print their own tag as part of the online check-in process. In parallel, many airports are rolling out self-service kiosks to enable passengers to print out tags.
Self-service bag drop is becoming more widely implemented too, with assisted bag-drop already in use at 59% of airports and set to be available at almost nine out of ten airports by 2020. In parallel, unassisted bag-drop continues to grow in prevalence: it’s already been adopted by 28% of airports, with another 48% planning to install it by 2020.
According to Serfontein, and in line with NEXTT, SITA envisions that “the next frontier in digital baggage management will be a mobile check-in to automated bag drop at the curb. The passenger will simply pull up at a self-service bag drop tracked to their arrival, and place their checked luggage into a robot storage compartment.”
Unsurprisingly, IATA Resolution 753 has led to a big increase in the proportion of airlines and airports addressing the need to provide real-time information on the status of bags to passengers and staff, as bags go through multiple changes of custody on their complex journey.
While most passengers still rely on airport screens or public address announcements, among the 22% of passengers who received bag details via their mobile phones, satisfaction levels at collection jumped by 10%, according to SITA IT Trends research.
As an example of NEXTT’s cited advanced processing technology, bag tracking will help redress the global industry’s US$2.1 billion bill to recover lost bags and reunite them with their owners in 2016 alone (SITA 2017 Baggage Report).
From June 2018, IATA will require its member airlines, who represent 83% of total scheduled traffic, to keep track of every item of luggage from start to finish. They’ll also be required to share that tracking information with all parties involved. The aim is to improve customer service at a fundamental level and to drive down industry costs.
Over three-quarters (77%) of airlines expect the resolution will offer major benefits in terms of improving customer satisfaction. However, only 35% of airlines expect to be fully compliant by the time the resolution takes effect in June 2018, with 56% partially complaint. In parallel, 59% of airports are currently funding or planning investments to support R753 implementation.
APEX CEO Joe Leader sees a big role for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). For as little as one cent, an RFID chip can be embedded in a bag tag, enabling passengers’ bags to be accurately tracked in real-time across all key points of the journey.
RFID readers can automate the process of capturing each tag in a pile or container of bags, delivering unprecedented reading accuracy at speed, resulting in fewer mishandled bags. In a recently published paper. SITA and IATA stated that this technology has the potential to save the industry more than US$3 billion over the next seven years through improvements to baggage management and operations.
Looking ahead, Leader anticipates that “RFID tracking will open up huge opportunities for convenience and off-airport activity. We’re hearing of scenarios whereby at the end of your flight, you won’t even have to go and get your luggage, because RFID technology will enable it to be picked up and delivered to your hotel.
“This is going to happen at the front-end as well – imagine a baggage machine coming directly to your vehicle as you pull up. The technology is all there for it to happen, and it would be easy enough to implement from an IT perspective.”
Better with biometrics
Leader’s second prediction concerns biometrics at the border. Identity management falls under the advanced processing technology part of the NEXXT program. A traditional bugbear, passport control scores one of the lowest satisfaction ratings out of all stages of the journey. Yet SITA’s Passenger IT Trends Survey found that 37% of passengers took advantage of self-service solutions for biometric identity checks on their last flight, at x-ray checks, boarding gates and international arrivals, to help them avoid queues.
As passenger acceptance of biometric recognition grows, biometric solutions are set to simplify and speed up ID checks at other stages in the airport journey, such as airport entry. Biometric identity could also be extended to automating entry into airline clubs or for baggage check-in.
Biometric boarding using a fingerprint scanner or the passenger’s digital device would further increase customer convenience while improving verification accuracy. Once on board, passengers could be visually identified, addressed by name and served according to their individual preferences. Credit card information on file could be used to enable purchases via one identity, enabling the airline to generate ancillary revenues.
Airlines and governments are already investing heavily in biometrics: for example, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has instituted a US$1 billion program to fund facial recognition entry and exit technology over the next decade. APEX’s Leader estimates that “biometric processing will increase passenger speed by half, while decreasing airline personnel resource requirements by a similar proportion, which represents a great return on investment for airlines.”
One of the fastest evolving areas is the use of single biometric tokens to expedite passengers through the airport, which is moving from an experimental process to a live one, says SITA’s Serfontein. The outlook is promising, with 57% of passengers stating they would use a biometric token instead of a boarding pass if the service were available on their next flight. A quarter of airlines are planning to implement single travel tokens using biometrics by 2020, and 29% of airports by 2025.
A biometrically secure journey is already possible using SITA Smart Path™, which, after a single biometric check, enables passengers to move through the airport and board the aircraft. Brisbane and Doha Airports are using Smart Path™ to progress towards secure, seamless 100% self-service ‘walkthrough experience’ for passengers. In the meantime, JetBlue’s work with SITA incorporates the CPB’s biometric exit check into the airline’s boarding process, with just a quick photo match.
Digital experiences in the air
Leader’s third prediction concerns the vision of the connected cabin of the future. “By 2025, we anticipate aircraft will remain connected at all altitudes, and every low-bandwidth connected device on every passenger will automatically join the network once onboard,” he says.
“This offers unprecedented possibilities for passenger individualization and immersion. Passengers could potentially control their own environment and comfort, such as ambient lighting, temperature and seat position, through their smartphones. Once wearable devices become ubiquitous, we envisage these could be used to help personalize services and promote in-flight wellness, such as using prompts to get up and move around. In-flight entertainment needs will be increasingly be met by voice interaction with devices, and AI chatbots will provide relevant, contextual information and notifications.”
Airlines are responding, increasingly looking to provide terrestrial-comparable connectivity in flight, easily accessible from passenger devices. Complimentary in-flight Wi-Fi is a huge differentiator that can influence carrier choice, and is consistently ranked highest in improving airlines’ ratings for customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.
According to RouteHappy, airline passengers worldwide now have a 39% chance of stepping aboard a Wi-Fi equipped flight – up 8% on last year – yet 85% of passengers would use free Wi-Fi if it were available. One major game-changer is the shift towards ‘bring your own device’ is: 69% of passengers actively use their personal devices in flight, and 29% of passengers would prefer to access onboard digital services via an app on their personal device rather than a seatback screen.
Forward-thinking airlines are focusing on the complex process of aircraft e-enablement, bringing in an in-flight revolution where passengers can enjoy the same connectivity in the cabin at 30,000 feet as they do on the ground. That enablement will also create new opportunities to exploit data to enhance all aircraft operations.
SITAONAIR’s vision is that of an ‘open cabin’ – which means harmonizing services across mixed fleets to deliver a consistent passenger experience, through an open and neutral approach.
The approach is making good headway, with Singapore Airlines recently signing up for broadband in-flight, and Philippine Airlines embarking on an entire fleet upgrade to achieve ‘a next-generation high-speed connected passenger experience’. Also recently leveraging the open service are 76 Saudia aircraft flying to 34 destinations worldwide.
SITAONAIR today serves over 400 airline customers operating more than 16,000 aircraft, enabling passengers to logon to the airline’s own branded on-board internet hub, consume in-flight entertainment, and watch movies or stream content to personal devices. Cabin crew using connected technology can discover passengers’ favorite meals and duty-free delights – and help passengers to keep track of their luggage and better manage their time when they land.
Clearly the promise of transformative changes in the areas of baggage, biometrics and in-flight connectivity bodes well for the evolution of NEXTT and other existing industry programs to deliver the seamless travel experience. “SITA’s capabilities in these areas continue to play a huge part in the transformation and digitization of air transport, in line with IATA and ACI industry programs,” says Serfontein.
“But so will our focus on research, trials and implementations with customers in the rapidly evolving technologies for advanced processing and interactive decision-making.” These technologies include artificial intelligence (AI), cognitive computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) – which will enable the effective handling of vast amounts of data.
According to SITA’s 2017 Airport Transport IT Trends Insights, for example, over three quarters of airports are looking at context and location aware capabilities, with some 45% focusing on AI and a sizeable number placing robots and drones on their R&D agendas. At the same time, airlines have placed the IoT, AI and cognitive computing in their top five emerging technology research programs.