Technology in aviation: the future is already here

By Nick Grigg

3 February 2015

You’re running late for your flight. You forgot to check-in online before you left home. There’s a monumental queue at the check-in desks. Flying is such a hassle. But then you remember the airline app you chose to ignore when you booked. It’s worth a try, surely. Connect to airport Wi-Fi. Download app. Enter flight number. Take a photo of your passport. Upload securely. Stroll past the check-in queue. Drop off bag. Skip towards security.

Too good to be true perhaps, particularly with joys of ‘free’ wi-fi, but this is one of many ways that airports and airlines are applying technology to transform the customer experience. And the best part is that it is not limited to luxury airlines; easyJet’s passport scanning function is available on their smartphone app.

Online check-in has been around for years but has always involved the inconvenience of manually entering personal and passport details. The easyJet app lets you simply snap a photo with your smartphone, automatically upload your details to your booking and check-in via your smartphone up to two hours before your flight. It has been downloaded over ten million times, and demonstrates how the aviation industry is adapting to meet the needs of a customer who is increasingly tech-savvy, better connected and developing higher expectations. High time too, with 97% of passengers now carrying a mobile device.

Clearly it is important for airports to address their customers’ needs. But how can they quantify what people feel about their airport? At BDRC Continental we are launching a Net Promoter Score study to benchmark multiple organisations across multiple sectors including airports, showing them how they compare in the eyes of their customers.

How else are airports embracing innovations for a competitive edge? Beacon technology is used at a number of airports around the world, including Heathrow. It communicates with smartphones through Bluetooth to notify customers as they approach relevant areas. Some of the applications to enhance the customer experience will send boarding reminders, automatically pulling your mobile boarding pass onto your display on approaching check-in or security, precise airport navigation, location-targeted retail promotions, or even telling you which reclaim your luggage will arrive at.

This will only work with passenger buy-in, of course. For notifications to make their way onto your phone you have to enable Bluetooth and download the right app. You also need to be flying with an airline that has already signed up to the concept – Virgin, British Airways and easyJet all have trials underway. While there will always be some who find notifications too intrusive, personally I am excited about the idea and can’t wait to try it out. If the price is right it might even encourage me to fly with a ‘beacon-enabled’ airline.

Technology evolves like nature – the harsh truth is that most innovations don’t make it into the gene pool. Last year Edinburgh Airport, like Virgin Atlantic at Heathrow before them, kitted out their customer service staff with hip new Google Glass, a piece of wearable technology that gives the user access to the web via a small optical display, and resembles something out of Star Trek. No one knows if it would have helped customers – Google recently decided that Glass had failed the ‘Darwin test’ and it has, at least for now, left the technology building.

However, there is one smart idea which has widespread tech support and is tipped for universal adoption. London City Airport is experimenting with the ‘Internet of Things’, where hundreds of interconnected cameras and sensors will be able to track, analyse, react to and predict customer behaviour. With UK passenger numbers rising again by around 5% per year after a low point in 2010, airports need to find ways to increase capacity. Issues of space and budget will always limit airport expansion, but innovations such as the Internet of Things provide an alternative to deal with capacity.

Aside from concerns about issues of privacy and security, there could be advantages for customers as well as airports. More efficient management of queues, boarding reminders, food pre-ordering that is prepared as you clear security, targeted advertising, finding missing passengers and even telling us exactly when to leave the office to catch our flights. BDRC is already working with London City Airport to understand how innovations like this will affect the customer experience throughout the airport.

Whether the Internet of Things can work at the largest airports remains to be proved, but if it can enrich the customer experience and efficiently manage airports it is certain to be a consideration in the future of aviation.

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