IT has changed air travel
Changes in IT over the last ten years have enabled airlines and airports to revolutionise the handling of today's 2.8 billion passengers. The foundations were laid with the launch of IATA's Simplifying the Business (StB) program in 2004, which gave us e-ticketing, 2D bar-coded boarding passes (BCBP) and self-service kiosks. These are all now standard components of modern air travel and most of the passenger innovation we see deployed today can be traced back to those three.
Bigger changes are coming as the industry starts to embrace what some call Travel 3.0 - a third wave of innovation based on the always-connected vision offered by consumer mobile technologies. Mobile devices in the hands of travelers promise to be the single greatest influence impacting the travel experience in the near future. The capabilities of these devices are advancing fast with permanent connectivity to the internet via 3G or Wi-Fi, coupled with GPS and sensor technologies. Passengers will have more empowerment and an unprecedented involvement in decision-making regarding all aspects of their journey.
Automate and flow
There are two major Travel 3.0 advantages. First, IT can automate or semi-automate the steps passengers complete as they make their way to the aircraft, reducing queuing time and inconvenience.
Today, 17% of passengers have boarded with 2D bar-coded boarding on their mobiles at least once, but 73% of passengers would like to be able to use digital boarding passes on their mobiles in the future. The 2012 SITA/Airline Business IT Trends Survey shows that 93% of airlines have mobile services for passengers as a top investment priority over the next three years, with 58% investing in major programs.
A further boost will come with the wider availability of mobile phones with Near Field Communication (NFC) capabilities. This allows 2D bar-code boarding passes on phones to be read and verified by readers placed at touch points in the airport.
IATA has already looked at different use cases, including baggage check-in, security check-point, lounge access and boarding. SITA Lab has added to this body of knowledge with a 'proof of concept' demonstration. NFC is expected to boost the adoption of mobile boarding passes to over 50% by 2018.
‘Shop-bots’ and more
The second advantage is that mobile devices will give passengers access to new information and services. Hundreds, if not thousands, of travel apps are already downloadable today.
Some use geo-location technology to determine where passengers are in their journeys - an area expected to grow hugely in the next few years. For passengers it could mean receiving directions to a 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.
It's not only passengers who will benefit; these types of location-based services 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.
The new technology allows airports to react much more quickly to unfolding events by deploying extra staff and equipment at bottlenecks.
By sharing the data available from all sources, including passengers, the industry can become much more efficient. Having a complete data set can lead to better decision-making, but it is also about getting that data to the right people at the right time.
But to keep passengers moving will require the industry to invest in robust and reliable back-end systems and IT infrastructure. Only then can they bear the heavy workload of information hungry airport users.
The challenge is to embrace innovation to progressively build the ideal journey for air travelers of tomorrow, while finding a cost effective and efficient model to deliver that journey.
Hani El-Assaad is regional VP, SITA, Middle East & North Africa.