Blue sky thinking

Experts reveal how the passenger experience is set to become simpler, faster and more personalised. Welcome to the future of air travel.

The future reveals itself in a number of ways. Change is often dramatic and unforeseen. It can also be discreet and incremental. It’s worth bearing this in mind when trying to predict the perfect airline passenger journey of the future.

Unlike many other aspects of our world, aviation’s digital revolution has been more of a slow burner. Gradually, it’s transformed much of the passenger experience – from booking flights and hotels to the increased use of personalisation and enhanced inflight entertainments offerings on board.

The passenger experience of 2018, then, looks vastly different to that faced by flyers of 1998. Likewise, in 20 years’ time the landscape will again have markedly changed.

We were lucky enough to speak to APEX CEO Dr Joe Leader in September 2018, hear what he had to say when we quizzed him on the future of air travel.

The first thing to state is that demand for air travel is only going up. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects 7.2bn passengers to travel in 2035, almost doubling the 3.8bn air travellers that took to the skies in 2016.  

This will have implications for passenger experience and airlines. Predicting change is challenging, particularly when the only constant is that change. However those airlines that embrace, shape and own the future will not only retain their share of the sky, but increase it.

Innovation happens before take-off

Digital transformation will underpin much of aviation’s future. Last year, Avianca CEO Hernan Rincon proclaimed that he wanted the Colombian carrier to be a ‘digital company that flies aircraft’.

This reinvention might see airlines increasingly owning the entire travel journey – from booking flights to the journey to the airport and beyond. The burgeoning Mobility as a Service (MaaS) sector is of particular interest to airlines. This seamless journey – why buy multiple travel tickets from numerous outlets when one comprehensive ticket will do the same thing? – is the ultimate aim of many passengers.

A natural result of more passengers flying is busier airports. The need to streamline check-in times and reduce queues – always a source of irritation for passengers – is obvious. The advantages of offsite check-in have been mooted for some time and with IATA Resolution 753 concerning baggage tracking now mandatory, technological advancements like that which allows American Airlines to offer an end-to-end baggage delivery service from London Heathrow, will surely gain mainstream traction.

Subscription-based airlines are another service worth keeping an eye on. The recent emergence of Californian start-up Surf Air and the Australian Airly signals the advent of subscription-based travel business models. And while frequent business travellers are the main target audience for these services, which charge monthly or annual fees for unlimited flights, if these models start to turn a profit commercial airlines will investigate further.

Connected intelligence at the airport

By 2025, it’s expected that airport check-ins will be fully automated. Powered by intelligent and connected devices, the Internet of Things (IoT) will form a digital ecosystem that reshapes the traveller’s experience and offers new services.

For example, London City Airport plans pioneering uses for IoT, including the installation of sensors and camera networks to monitor passenger volume and flow patterns within the airport terminal in order to mitigate bottlenecks, unnecessary queues and delays.

Increasingly sophisticated facial recognition technology will eliminate the need for security queues and identity verification. Passengers will walk directly through terminals to the departure gates.

Man on travelator at airport

Ryan Ghee, Future Travel Experience’s Head of Strategy, Engagement and Content, says: “Biometrics are going to have a big impact on the passenger experience in the next five years. We’re already seeing a number of airlines and airports trialling biometric-enabled passenger processing at airport touch points such as bag drops and boarding gates.

“It will make a significant difference to the passenger experience when travellers can tap into a biometric-enabled home-to-gate experience, which could remove the need to present physical documents during the journey through the airport altogether.”

And how about passengers utilising biometrics to clear customs before their plane lands? The possibilities for improved customer experience are tantalising, as the time taken to pass through airport to aircraft is greatly reduced.

Dr Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, is another to see the advantages of biometrics.

“In the airport and on the aircraft, biometric artificial intelligence will help airlines best serve you as an individual,” he explains. “The technology for this already exists.  We simply need to engage artificial intelligence for the best implementation.”

Your earbuds pair to the inflight entertainment screen automatically

In Leader’s doctoral work he examined how to accelerate new technological adoption in air travel. The secret, he found, was quite straightforward: look at what people are doing today and find out how to apply it to the future.

“I would imagine that artificial intelligence Bluetooth earbuds tied to our mobile devices will make everyone an expert traveller,” he says. “For example, imagine being alerted that you need to leave early to your flight because of an accident on the road. At the airport, your AI earbuds advise you to take a different security lane because it has less people.

“As you rush to the gate, your mobile device will automatically communicate to the gate staff that you are less than a minute away so they wait instead of closing the flight early.

“On board the airplane, you whisper to your earbuds that you need a cup of water when possible after running so quickly to make your flight. The flight attendant brings it to you with you a smile, addresses you by name, and also thoughtfully brought you a breakfast banana from the snack basket early since that’s what you normally have.

“Your earbuds pair to the inflight entertainment screen automatically with selections based on what you were last enjoying.  Your mobile phone, earbuds, and notebook computer switch automatically to the gate-to-gate inflight connectivity system right after the aircraft door is closed.”

Having taken the pain out of security and check-in, airports may even become travel destinations in their own right. For example, Singapore’s Changi Airport is determined to keep the title of best airport in the world for the seventh year in a row with its new Jewel addition, connecting Terminal 1 to Terminals 2 and 3, and due to open in 2019.

With a budget of $1.7 billion (€1.45 billion), the Jewel will have forest-like gardens and what will be the world’s biggest indoor waterfall, all divided among 10 levels, both below and above ground.

The cabin experience

Airlines, most notably Qantas, have started to test Virtual Reality (VR) for inflight entertainment. Passengers aboard flights for Dutch airline Transavia will soon be able to choose from a variety of virtual content, including cockpit tours and hang-glider rides.

In fact, why not do away with the aircraft windows altogether and project an outside view on the walls, ceiling and floor?

Innovation specialist CPI says the entire inner surface of the fuselage – or selected sections – could be covered with thin, high definition, flexible display screens.

Internal tracking cameras could be used to project an image onto the screen from the point of view of the passenger; moving the image in accordance with the movements of the passenger’s head.

Transpose, an Airbus project, in partnership with Reebok and Peloton, has even displayed a prototype 'flying gym' module at San Jose airport, complete with stationary bikes, yoga mats and resistance stations.

But hyper-personalisation may be the “killer app”. A real-time connection with the ground means your inflight entertainment package can be tailored to your specific requirements.

Ryan Ghee says: “If I have access to high-quality inflight Wi-Fi, and I’m a Netflix or Amazon Prime customer, I can continue watching the latest series I’ve been watching at home.

“This will make a huge difference on short- and medium-haul flights, which often lack an IFE product. On long-haul flights, having more choice – seatback IFE, wireless IFE – can only be a good thing from a passenger experience perspective.”

Your food and beverage likes and dislikes could also be linked, offering you a bespoke menu choice based on what you have ordered before.

Duty free suggestions and purchases also become more personalised based on your previous buying history, perhaps from businesses like Amazon and Ebay.

According to Chapter One of Inmarsat and the London School of Economics’ Sky High Economics report, new, Wi-Fi-enabled ancillary revenue streams, will mean airlines benefit from an extra $4 per passenger by 2035.

Susanna Li, managing director of the travel industry department of consultancy Accenture in China, says that airlines will become flying shopping malls. She believes that vendors who wish to sell their goods and services will have to pay the airlines or consider revenue split arrangements.

Woman in airport departure lounge

Hitting delays where it hurts

With the skies getting busier the prospect of unscheduled issues such as delays, diversions and unscheduled maintenance could become a real headache for airlines. Carriers know they need to get smarter and, thanks to IFC, they can see the potential for real gains in operational efficiencies.

The second chapter of the London School of Economics’ Sky High Economics Study has revealed the cost benefits of IFC.

Crew scheduling issues are estimated to account for 3% of all global flight delays, equating to an annual loss of US$3.6bn. Satcom connectivity can transform the aircraft into a virtual crew room, eliminating the need for crew to visit a dedicated facility at the airport before a flight and thereby maximising on-time departures.

Enhanced telemedicine technology enabled by inflight connectivity can provide substantial savings too. Reducing diversions by just 10% could see a cumulative decrease of US$1.4bn between 2018 and 2035.

A connected aircraft with vast amounts of real-time data to analyse can also facilitate predictive maintenance. And when you consider unscheduled maintenance accounts for almost half of an airline’s delays this will be welcomed by passengers everywhere.

Owning the future

Wherever you look, airlines and their partners are planning for the future. Whether that be improving toilet facilities on-board (lighter toilets help save weight on aircraft) or offering better handheld luggage storage solutions, innovation is key.

Passengers demand satisfaction. It might come from an app that ensures their journey is seamless or the rebirth of supersonic air travel. It might come from something we haven’t yet conceived. The future might be unwritten, then, but the narrative remains the same.