Around 2.8 billion passengers passed through the world’s airports last year – a remarkable one billion more than in 2001. The growth is even more extraordinary considering the body blows of avian flu, the Iraq war, economic downturns, volcanic ash and a quadrupling of jet fuel prices that the air transport industry had to deal with since 9/11.
Luckily, the upturn in traffic has coincided with equally extraordinary changes in the world of information technology; changes that have enabled airlines and airports to revolutionise the handling of today’s passengers.
The foundations were laid in 2004 with the launch of IATA’s Simplifying the Business programme. Since then e-ticketing, 2D bar-coded boarding passes (BCBP) and self-service kiosks have become standard components of modern air travel.
And today, we are experiencing a second wave of passenger innovation that builds on these three initial components. Kiosks are being equipped to complete more tasks, such as flight changes and
bag tag printing; 2D BCBPs readers are being deployed at airport touch points, such as bag drop zones and boarding gates to speed passenger throughput. SITA deployed the world’s first common-use self-boarding gates at Vienna International Airport just last year.
Consumer technology will drive a new wave of innovation
Bigger changes are in front of us. The industry is rapidly embracing what some commentators call Travel 3.0 – a third wave of innovation based on an always-connected vision offered by consumer mobile technologies.
This promises to be the single greatest influence impacting the travel experience in the near future. Passengers will have more empowerment and an unprecedented involvement in decision-making regarding all aspects of their journey.
The capabilities of the mobile devices that we carry around with us every day are advancing fast. Connectivity to the Internet via 3G or Wi-Fi, coupled with GPS, sensor technologies and accelerometer systems, provide two major advantages to passengers and the industry at large.
First, they can automate or semi-automate the various steps that passengers have to complete as they make their way to the aircraft, thereby reducing queuing time and inconvenience.
Mobile 2D BCBPs are the first step in this. Currently only around 3% of passengers use them for check-in, but our latest Airline IT Trends Survey shows that airlines expect over five times more people to check-in using their mobile phones by 2014.
It will get a further boost when mobile phones with NFC – Near Field Communications – capabilities become widely available. NFC is similar to the technology used in car keys. When you are near another NFC enabled device the two can transmit information to each other.
In this case, it will allow a 2D BCBP stored on the mobile phone to be read and verified by readers placed at touch points in the airport.
IATA has already looked at different use cases for NFC, including baggage check-in, security check-point, lounge access, and boarding, while our research arm, SITA Lab, has added to this body of knowledge with a ‘proof of concept’ demonstration using NFC technology to automatically open security, airline lounge and boarding gates.
Such is the potential of NFC that it is expected to boost the adoption of mobile boarding passes to over 50% by 2018.
The second advantage is that mobile devices will give passengers access to new information and services. There are already hundreds, if not thousands of travel apps downloadable today. Some use geo-location technology to determine the appropriate information for where you are in your journey and this is an area that is expected to become huge in the next few years.
For the passenger, it could mean receiving directions to an available place in the airport car park, or directions and time to the gate, based on real-time traffic flows through the airport.
Passengers will also find their mobile phone can be used as a ‘shop-bot’, sniffing out special offers broadcast by retail outlets within the terminal. The 2011 Airport IT Trends Survey indicates 60% of airports want to target passengers with retail promotions.
These types of location-based services are not only useful for passengers but also give travel providers an opportunity to connect with passengers throughout their journey.
Many airlines and airports are trying to work out how they can use this permanent connectivity to improve customer service and generate new revenue streams.
With technology in the hands of passengers not just the airline or airport, we are going to see a much more information-driven airport experience as new ways to connect and exchange data between all the parties opens up mutually beneficial possibilities.
SITA’s own ‘intelligent airport’ vision is built around this path, with information gleaned from both industry and passenger technologies being used to improve both operations and the passenger experience within the airport environment.
For example, we have already worked with Copenhagen Airport and a number of other gateways looking at location sensing within terminals using technologies in passengers’ mobile devices such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
The results have helped passengers navigate airports and find useful amenities as they go and also provide airports with a more accurate view of passenger flows towards the aircraft and queue lengths at critical touch points. This allows them to react much quicker to unfolding events by deploying extra staff and equipment at bottlenecks.
The Airport IT Trends Survey showed 71% of airports plan to invest in technology to monitor passenger flows.
The industry is slowly moving to use the data that is available from all sources, including passengers, to be able to make the right decisions at the right time by the right people.
This is why Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) will be such an important component of the future airport.
If you can improve your forecasting to take timely decisions before a disruption occurs, for example, it can significantly reduce the resulting cost, and by relaying accurate information to passengers it can
The ideal journey
The speed of consumer-led innovation is changing the face of air travel. Location based services, biometrics, augmented reality, and sensor technologies such as Bluetooth, are all moving out of trial phases and into regular service.
There are others that are works in progress, but eventually we can envisage that the facilitation of passengers through airports will resemble more of a continuum than the discrete steps we see today.
Tasks, such as check-in and even security screening, will become largely invisible to the passenger and completed automatically in the background through sensor technologies.
Keeping passengers moving will require robust and reliable back-end systems and IT infrastructure to bear the heavy workload of information hungry airport users.
The challenge for the industry is to embrace innovation to progressively build the ideal journey for the air traveller of tomorrow while finding a cost effective and efficient model to deliver that journey.
About the author
Ilya Gutlin is SITA’s vice president for airport solutions.