Addressing the pain points in the traveller's journey

Improving booking

Customers are dissatisfied with the process of booking air travel, with the relatively paltry range of choices they have to personalise their flights and with both the quantity and the quality of information available to them as they plan and book trips. Many have turned to websites like FlightAware, AirportZoom and SeatGuru to get richer descriptions of flights, amenities and equipment, as well as more comprehensive information about destinations and airports.

This corresponds to our survey results that show that customers place a higher value on contextual information during booking than do airline executives (by nearly 20%). When it comes to technology to improve the customer experience at the booking stage, 28% of executives stressed predictive analytics, while 37% emphasised large-capacity, high-speed data storage and retrieval.

Starting a trip on the right vector

Airlines face genuine technical problems in aggregating the information passengers are looking for across multiple systems with different protocols and standards. Synthesising and delivering the information to an ever-evolving variety of platforms — from desktop PCs to smartphones to tablets — is a serious added complication. This is, however, exactly what the independent websites are doing — sometimes with information that comes directly from airlines.

Airlines need to respond. As Tony Tyler, the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) chief executive officer, points out, if the booking experience is unsatisfactory, the whole trip starts off on the wrong vector. A “richer presentation of the full range of the product offering”, he says, is part of the implementation of the recently approved New Distribution Capability (NDC), IATA’s favoured approach to allowing travel agent sales channels to offer the same rich content that is available on airline websites. This XML computer language-based standard will enhance communications between airlines and travel agents, “boosting transparency and choice”.

Jeff Foland, United Airlines’ executive vice president of marketing, technology and strategy, has an expansive vision of a more fine-grained and comprehensive information exchange at the booking stage. “Today, you might get offered the exact same product feature 100 times in a row, and you turn it down 100 times in a row,” he says. “That’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the business.” An expanded array of service offerings and combinations, he explains, will mean that two passengers sitting next to each other can have markedly different experiences.

Mr. Foland sees the creation of more diverse “bundles” — an entertainment bundle or a kids’ bundle — as a way for airlines to market and deliver what flyers want with greater precision. “Cabin classes are already bundles of sorts,” he notes. “But there will be much more choice.” For example, customers will be further empowered by selecting their meal times or registering a preference not to be disturbed.

Passengers can now book flights 24/7, with mobile options making PC-based approaches increasingly obsolete. While the industry is already good at allowing passengers to manage their bookings on the run, according to Virgin America’s David Cush, he concedes that there is room for further improvement.

Individual passengers have different ideas about the information they want from airlines, the information they might want to withhold and the way information is presented.

In the future, airlines will provide virtual assistants able to help travellers with all aspects of their journeys — from inquiries to bookings to choosing in-flight amenities. The websites of Alaska Airlines and United Airlines already feature virtual agents — “Jenn” and “Alex”, respectively — that respond to everyday travel questions.

How travellers might respond to these sorts of options and how they might interact with airlines requires further and more careful study, with particular attention paid to issues of age and culture. Technologies that feel alien or awkward to older flyers may be exactly what younger flyers demand. Meanwhile, the fastest-growing markets for air travel are in East Asia and South Asia; airlines that are culturally aware and responsive to the different needs of different peoples will also more easily earn customer loyalty.

Improving the airport experience

“For those customers who prefer to take advantage of self-service options, your first person-to-person interaction with the airline will be when you’re sitting in the plane,” IATA’s Mr Tyler says, projecting a future in which the trip from airport door to aircraft cabin is streamlined. The airport experience has proved to be the most frustrating segment to passengers. By 2020, IATA wants 80% of passengers to have the option of total self-service at the airport. Executives agree with consumers that boarding without human interaction would yield the greatest improvement in the customer experience (62% and 58%, respectively).

Airports with fewer hurdles

Achieving that dream is quite feasible with currently available technology. The ability to drop off luggage, keep carry-ons and board without the need for any other interactions or obstructions is already being tested in the United States and elsewhere.

Biometric IDs are a key component in making it happen. Current US and EU passports include radio frequency identification (RFID) chips with data storage: they can contain the same basic information as a paper document and have space as well for digitised fingerprints or retinal scans. These biometric components would make these documents secure and tie them with a high degree of reliability to the bearer. The IDs can work in concert with pre-screening programmes; instead of having security agents make day-of-travel threat assessments, pre-screening allows authorities to conduct deeper, more comprehensive investigations, resulting in a kind of “traveller certification”.

The unimpeded curb-to-cabin stroll through the terminal would eliminate the current series of lines, stops and starts. They would be replaced by a single biometric ID — perhaps embedded in a mobile device — that would allow certified passengers to walk past weapons screening devices that are invisible to the public. Boarding authorisation could be embedded in the same ID; permanent RFID luggage tags could allow baggage to be dropped off quickly and easily. Proposals have been made to facilitate this kind of system at hotels or railway stations in addition to airports so luggage could be tracked at all times.

While the technology to enable these changes is available, full-scale implementation and integration face a number of hurdles. Streamlining the path through the airport would reduce labour costs and save airlines and airports money. Infrastructure investments to build the systems, however, would be significant. A disparate group of competitive stakeholders in the private and public sectors would have to buy in and agree on standards. The programmes would also have to overcome passenger concerns about data privacy.

Airport commerce as opportunity or obstruction

Airline executives and customers agree that streamlining the airport experience would reduce both costs and frustration. They do not agree, however, about how to use these newly open spaces.

As long as they don’t put additional clutter in travellers’ paths, many executives surveyed (44%) would like to use some of the space freed up to increase airport shopping options, along with providing opportunities for ordering restaurant food or duty-free goods for onboard delivery. Only 21% of potential customers, however, were interested in those options.

Virtual-shopping venues could provide additional revenue streams for the industry and an expanded range of options — with a smaller physical footprint — for travellers. Germany’s Frankfurt Airport already features a virtual-reality wall that sells duty-free goods. Passengers point their smartphones at a product’s QR code, adding it to a virtual shopping cart, then pick up the merchandise at a collection point 15 minutes later. Some executives (13%) would like to see these options expanded.

Improving the in-flight experience

A personalised experience results from personal decisions. Air travel, of necessity, revokes most adult privileges and choices. Passengers sit in their assigned seats, sitting up straight when prompted; they eat when it’s snack time and only what’s available; they can even be refused bathroom privileges. Legitimate concerns about costs, revenues and ROI have led to a far more Spartan flying experience with more seats, less legroom and flights often at full capacity. Heightened security concerns have also inserted intrusive and time-consuming hurdles between the traveller and the departure gate.

Airlines are constrained in responding to these issues by space limitations, by regulations and by costs. Nevertheless, airlines can make significant improvements to the travel experience by making affordable adjustments to elements of the onboard environment, for example, lights, colors and air quality, and by expanding virtual options.

PJ Wilcynski, payloads chief architect at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, cites research on the company’s new 787 Dreamliner to argue that perception can trump physical realities. “We found that passengers on the same airline, same routes, same seats, same seating configuration and same meal service thought their seats were wider and the food service better in the new interior,” he relates. All-LED lighting, brighter colours, increased humidity, overhead pivot bins and larger windows created a sense of space and comfort that transferred to aspects of the environment that had not been changed, Mr Wilcynski suggests.

Technology is also permitting more of the customised options that passengers both desire and value. Some will require infrastructure upgrades, but others are relatively low cost or even offer potential revenue streams.

Toward the horizon

Current barriers, along with cost concerns, limit the degree of change most of our executive survey respondents can envision. A minority, however, take a more expansive view, projecting an unbounded future for air travel.

Supersonic travel:

Supersonic travel has not been a reality for the travelling public since 2003, when the last Concorde was retired from service. Despite dramatically reducing flying times, only 23% of surveyed executives believe that such jets would improve customer service—the Concorde was infamous for its cramped, unglamorous cabins.

Among the major players, however, Boeing is reportedly working on an aircraft that flies 120 passengers at more than 1,000 miles an hour. And NASA has been investigating ways of reducing the sonic booms associated with supersonic aircraft, while private firms are also working on making them more efficient.

In the realm of business jets, several companies are accepting orders for planes that generally seat between 6 and 20 passengers, cruise at better than 1,000 mph—above Mach 1, but below Mach 2—and retail for somewhere between US$60m and US$80m. Spike Aerospace hopes to bring its S-512 to market in December 2018; Aerion is aiming for 2021 with its SBJ; while HyperMach is a bit of an outlier—its SonicStar is intended to have room for up to 32 passengers, a cruising speed of around 3,000 mph, just below Mach 4, and an entry date of 2024.

Henry Harteveldt, founder and travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, is skeptical about the rebirth of supersonic travel. “Unless the cost of fuel—traditional oil-based or alternative fuel—comes down, and the environmental impact can be managed appropriately,” he says, “I don’t think you will see supersonic flights happening over large masses of land, certainly not densely populated areas. We may see transoceanic supersonic travel emerge, but it would have to be commercially and environmentally viable.”

Prospects for hypersonic travel—generally above Mach 5, or 3,850 mph—are more distant. Lockheed Martin expects to have a scaled-down model of its SR-72, a pilotless, hypersonic military drone, in the air by 2023. The company is working toward a 2030 launch of the operations-ready version, with both offensive and intelligence-gathering capabilities.

On the civilian side, Airbus Group’s Zero Emission Hypersonic Transport (ZEHST) concept plane, using currently available technologies, would carry 100 passengers at Mach 4, burn carbon-neutral algal fuel until it got to altitude, then switch to a mix of oxygen and hydrogen, emitting only water as exhaust. But Airbus does not see such transport being available before 2050.

Pilotless aircraft:

A majority of commercial jets already have most of the technology necessary to fly without a pilot. Researchers are developing drone technology to operate cargo flights—even through wildfires and other hazardous conditions.

Some 29% of executives surveyed can see pilotless aircraft entering their fleets, their comfort with the idea likely based on knowledge of current airline practices: pilots take control during take-off and landing, with most of the flight time usually spent monitoring decisions made by the autopilot. Pilotless take-offs and landings are not too far away.

Travellers are far more leery: only 2% express interest.

Mr Harteveldt is skeptical because of the economics and potential liability. “The insurance companies, frankly, won’t let [pilotless aircraft] happen,” he says. “Accidents occur. You need to have well-trained pilots on the flight deck in case the technology isn’t working as it’s designed to work.”

Helium airships:

Models are now on the drawing board for helium airships that could carry as much as 500 tonnes. A niche market exists for craft that would enable cargo delivery— sometimes referred to as “road-less trucking”—in areas inaccessible to airplanes.

Helium, however, is a non-renewable resource. With global demand outstripping supply, prices have more than doubled in a decade. The shortage has been sufficiently severe to force the US military to scale back in-theatre use of airships.

High-tech applications that require helium—MRI scanners and superconductors, for example—use more than four times as much as is consumed by “lift” applications. Given market realities, the odds don’t favour use for passenger travel.

Letting passengers make themselves virtually at home

Passengers are the best judge of what type of access would help make them feel at home. For many travellers, losing time is even worse than losing autonomy. So much of modern life — work, play, commerce and communication — depends on Web access that to be cut off for several hours feels to many like the time has been rendered unusable. Provide Web access and that time is recaptured.

By allowing more comprehensive information exchange during booking, airlines can make a more personalised flight a reality. Parents could be allowed to lock out certain content at a child's seat during the booking process. And, even though customers with open Web access could retrieve whatever they wanted on their own, they might also be offered an additional menu of profile-based personalised options as an important welcoming touch.

This personalisation could be achieved at virtually no marginal cost. An airline that consistently makes its customers feel surrounded by the comforts and options of home is far more likely to encourage loyalty, maintain connection and get repeat business.

And, as in the gaming industry, airlines can apply the information gleaned about which options are utilised and which are not to improve their customer profiles.

Costs, benefits and ROI

Making Internet access a standard part of the flying experience will require significant investment. Air-to-ground data transmission and upgrading onboard systems are certain to be expensive. But improvements in technology will bring transmission costs and weight down; in addition, installing systems as a standard part of aircraft assembly will be much less expensive than retrofitting.

Improving the flying experience is essential to rebuilding the customer loyalty that airlines have lost and that they need to shore up their businesses. The critical calculation of ROI should include:

  • Synergies of combining upgrades for passenger services with necessary data and communications upgrades on the operations side.
  • Comprehensive analysis of potential efficiencies across the full range of systems — from savings in labour, time and weight, for example.
  • Revenue enhancements enabled by these upgrades, from premium service up-selling to e-commerce, both direct and with partners.
  • The value of additional, more timely and richer information about customer preferences, desires and complaints.