Everything is different, yet very little has changed.
Traveling by air today brings a new set of challenges and concerns for passengers, but the means to address them remain scarce. The industry acknowledges that change must come. A major industry poll conducted as part of FlightPlan: Charting a Course into the Future, an online broadcast by Inmarsat and the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) uncovered expectations of change across the industry, much of which must come without adjusting the core product of many seats in large metal or composite tubes hurtling through the skies. Despite bracing for a slow recovery, the poll reveals a sense of optimism for the industry’s future, with digitization expected to drive the return to profitable growth.
We had a challenge six months ago, in that the industry was expected to double in size in the next 10 years. With plane after plane landing every day in quick succession, the ability to get passengers through an airport rapidly was a growing concern. We aren’t facing quite that same issue now, but we still have a capacity problem. We still have to get the passengers through the airport quickly, because we don’t want them all standing next to each other. In most cases, increasing the capacity of the airport isn’t a viable solution – we need to find other ways to streamline the process.– Dominic Walters, VP, Marketing Communications & Strategy, Inmarsat Aviation
Changing the airport without rebuilding
Social distancing won’t fly longer term, even as 44% of survey respondents believe it will continue for the short-term. Already today many airlines have given up on the concept, though in recent days Indian carriers have starter committing to a blocked middle seat on board. Other means for reducing touch points and interactions in the short term show greater gravitas, with adoption happening more quickly than airlines historically have acted. Fortunately, some of those actions also come with minimal, if any, costs.
Tony Chapman, Senior Director Product Management and Strategy at Collins Aerospace, highlighted simple changes that his company is enabling for airlines and airports to ease some of the crowding and touchpoint challenges. And the easiest changes are essentially free, “We can make the airport life easier by not allocating aircraft to adjacent gates. Similarly with arrival banks, we can spread them out because the airports are not at full capacity. There is more than one way to give passengers confidence you have their interests at heart.”
The simple action of spreading operations out a bit in empty airports reduces gate area crowding. It potentially carries some costs with staffing or real estate rent, but the cost-benefit analysis against restoring customer confidence is not to be underestimated.
High-touch experiences in a no-touch world
Other efforts are similarly effective, through they come with a small cost. Airlines are shifting to kiosk services controlled through the app rather than by tapping on the screen. This is especially compelling for checked baggage where multiple touches are typically involved. But Chapman also sees the opportunity to have counters adjusted so printers face the passenger rather than the agent. A boarding pass no longer has to be passed across the counter. It is a little thing, but also a relatively easy win.
Inflight catering also took a hit owing to efforts to reduce interactions (and costs) while passenger counts were so low. Converting that experience from a trolley in the aisle and a menu card in the seatback to a touchless order process is another experience that passengers want according to the survey, and that airlines and their technology partners are ready to execute on. APEX CEO Dr. Joe Leader notes the “dramatic decline in food and beverage services on board aircraft” but also is optimistic about the potential for a strong rebound. “We’re going to see an implementation, very quickly by airlines, to provide what they always could have done, but now are motivated to do, which is contactless purchasing. Passengers will be able to say, ‘I want my food and beverage at my seat’ and airlines can make the right offer to the right passenger at the right time to complete that transaction.”
It is not just the ancillary revenue factor Leader continues, but the service experience that matters. “Airlines want to not only implement the technology, but to leverage it quickly, so that they can have a little bit less physical interaction but still provide the same level of service.”
And the survey participants tend to agree with these views. Some 57% expect to see touchless catering become a greater part of the passenger experience in the coming months.
Extending influence (control??) on the travel ribbon
More than a third of the survey respondents see data analytics as the most influential factor to the industry’s recovery and future growth. Another 21% picked data-heavy Artificial Intelligence as most influential. With half the responses choosing this vertical over biometrics and blockchain, there is good reason to be optimistic about its potential to change the way airlines, passengers, and third party suppliers interact on many fronts.
Sebastian Petry, Director of Innovation and Design at Panasonic Avionics, believes the touchless experience will extend well beyond just the inflight concessions. For several years PAC has pushed tighter app-based integration between the on-ground and inflight experience. Petry believes that will now accelerate as airlines “connect to the passengers’ greater travel journey in a meaningful way.” This means integrating many different vendors and partners into a single “super-app” or conceding that no one app can truly serve the entire travel ribbon. While the latter is more likely, Petry sees potential building towards the former.
Key to PAC’s success is not simply building the super-app, but providing the infrastructure for the airlines to play lead in that role. “No one company can do it all by themselves… Each airline or each Alliance has certain preferred vendors or partners. This type of flexibility is very important so each airline can help define their regional preferences, desires, and match it to the customer customer needs. It is about being a host to many, about going to outside services, and about bundling this into a more seamless experience.” To that end Petry suggests that PAC is focused less on delivering bandwidth or screens on aircraft and more about building the ecosystem where all these partners connect.
Inmarsat’s Dominic Walters is also keen on that transition from a data pipe to delivering a solutions infrastructure. Some of this is enabled through the virtual networking capabilities of the GX inflight connectivity network. But it is also about being a smart partner and sharing better, something the industry historically performed very poorly at. “To date, the industry as a whole has been quite protective of data; it sees all data as sacrosanct. That needs to change in order to reap the benefits. Airlines need experts who can analyze that data, to uncover how to actually drive efficiencies from it. As an industry we need to be more open to sharing data with partners and suppliers. Ultimately, this will drive efficiencies and effectiveness so that everyone wins.”
Funding the future
With the industry shedding hundreds of billions of dollars in 2020 finding the money to fund these developments seems the greatest challenge. But that might not be as large an issue as it appears. The survey results suggest that industry executives mostly see this as a (relatively) quick fix. Almost half of respondents (45%) believe that in terms of passenger experience, the crisis will only cause a short-term reduction in investment, and almost a third (32%) believe there will be an overall increase in investment.
Petry was most direct in addressing that issue, with optimism about the spend as a smart investment in the future. “Now it’s actually a great time to do it, because right now everybody’s hunkering down. There’s not much happening, unfortunately, but it also enables you to time to be ready to hopefully in let’s say one to two years time to then have a new way of experiencing.” Moreover, he expects that “everybody can make a couple pennies here and there” along the way “because you’re supporting valuable features to a passenger and everybody wins in the end.”
That timeline is hard for many parts of the industry. Airlines cannot wait for the revenue to return. Neither can airports. And consumers might not want to wait so long before returning to the skies. And moving from vendor production of new technologies to airline adoption and implementation is rarely quick.
But maybe this time around things will be very different. Especially as so much is changing.
Full results from the survey are to be published on Wednesday morning UK time.
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