The airline industry is one of the most advanced fields of engineering and technology known to mankind – arguably, second only to space travel. Even for frequent flyers, the phenomenon of how a plane weighing around 300 metric tonnes can leave the ground and fly from one side of the world to another can seem miraculous.
In contrast, however, to leading aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus, airlines are often no more technologically advanced than your average retailer or bank. So, how can airlines provide a digital experience that is more worthy of the wonderment that flying still gives to people?
Evolving flight experience
As India aims to become the third-largest aviation market by 2020 and #1 by 2030, technology is permeating the experience of air travel from start to finish. The days of walking into a high street travel agent to research, price up and book a holiday are long gone.
Websites such as Expedia and Lastminute.com enable holidaymakers to plan, book and pay for holidays on the move via mobile apps – whether it’s a two week beach getaway or an impulsive weekend city break. As well as designing intuitive, user-friendly interfaces, these companies use insights gained from big data analytics to provide a personalised experience based on a user’s interests, behaviours and buying patterns. For example, Expedia has enough data to fill 6.7 billion books (based on an average of 200 pages).
The availability of internet connectivity at airports and on aircraft is also increasing to match the evolving needs of business travellers. While stepping onto a plane used to mean you’d spend a few hours offline, the skies are unlikely to remain a worldwide blackspot for long.Wi-Fi is available as a free service on a limited or unlimited basis at almost all of Europe’s biggest airports. While in-flight Wi-Fi is yet to take-off due to issues with reliability, connected in-flight experiences are approaching fast on the horizon.
Premium airlines such as Emirates and Virgin Atlantic traditionally excel at in-flight entertainment, with an extensive range of movies, TV and audio shows and games. However, smartphones, tablets and pro-audio headphones allow travellers to plan their own in-flight entertainment schedule.
Soon, the expectation will be to HD stream hours of uninterrupted Netflix from 30,000ft or use virtual reality simulations to explore your destination before you’ve even touched down.
The connected airport
One part of the digital experience that is still not without its margin for error is the process in between walking into an airport and boarding your flight. Travellers are often subject to long queues to check-in to flights, or even to simply drop off their luggage. Furthermore, if delays occur customers sometimes need to work hard to find information on estimated departure times, which can lead to frustrated passengers.
Given the technologies that bring passengers to the airport, the onus is on airlines to ensure that they are providing a personalised and seamless travel experience. Airlines are investing heavily in digital transformation projects, overhauling their IT systems and providing a user-centric connected experience from booking to landing.
The majority of leading operators are now able to provide mobile boarding passes using digital QR codes and scanners, with many also investing in intuitive apps that allow passengers to manage their bookings and update their travel details and itineraries on the move.
Air France-KLM is an example of an airline group using mobile to improve the airport experience. It is the first airline to integrate Facebook into its check-in process, giving customers the option of receiving their flight documentation via Messenger. By equipping passengers with mobile boarding passes as well as installing self-service machines for check-in and to print baggage labels, the queuing time before passengers drop-off their bags and have their passports checked is reduced.
To provide a paperless, queue-free and stress-free airport experience that customers will remember and build loyalty with, airlines must consider two key questions.
Firstly, are our internal systems and connectivity infrastructure up to the challenge or will they fall over at times of peak demand? In an industry that is highly seasonal and experiences extreme peaks and troughs, airlines must be prepared to scale their infrastructure up and down quickly to provide a consistent experience at all times. This is one of the main reasons why airlines and airports are adopting flexible and scalable cloud computing platforms.
Secondly, can we provide a consistent experience across all of the territories we cover? For example, if I have a great airport experience at London Heathrow when flying to Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai, I want that experience to be replicated when I arrive and on my return journey.
The emerging markets are increasing exponentially in their importance to the air travel industry. Eight out of ten of the fastest growing airline markets are located in Africa; 1.3 billion passengers will travel through China in 2034; and India is set to see an additional 260 million passengers. Therefore, delivering an experience that is truly global is tantamount to customer satisfaction and retention.
Those players ahead of the game have already begun investing in digital transformation and overhauling their IT infrastructure. Returning to the example of Air France-KLM – in order to support a seamless, personalised travel experience, it has partnered with Tata Communications to add next-generation connectivity to 170 sites in its growth markets. The new superfast network will power the airline’s mission-critical systems across the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific.
According to Crisil Ltd., India is one of the five fastest-growing aviation markets globally with 275 million new passengers in 2015. The airlines operating in India have been projected to report a collective operating profit of Rs. 8,100 crore (US$ 1.29 billion) in FY 2016. Competition within the aviation industry for the preference of holidaymakers and business travellers alike is also growing. While factors such as fare price and flight convenience are fundamental decisions when booking flights, IATA statistics show that 9% of people cited ‘previous good experience’ as their main reason for choosing a particular airline. Validating good user experience as an imperative while booking air travel, SITA and Air Transport World conducted a global passenger survey, reiterating the fact that airline passengers across the globe are more comfortable with technology than humans when looking for a better user experience. The survey also revealed that even if the passengers are not satisfied with one type of self-service technology, they tend to try another rather than revert to human contact.
Therefore, as customer expectations are driven by intuitive, personalised technologies for travellers such as price-comparison apps, smart devices and ubiquitous connectivity, the digital travel experience is set to become a means for airlines to differentiate themselves from the competition.
While building a strategy that places user experience at the heart of every stage of a customer’s journey through innovative mobile, video and social apps – and even virtual reality technologies – airlines must invest in a connectivity infrastructure that will power all these innovations, and enable them to provide a seamless, brilliant passenger experience the world over.