United Airlines plans to roll out high-speed in-flight connectivity that is fast enough for movie- and television-streaming on 200 of its regional jets. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): iBeacon technology enables passengers to receive context-aware notifications, such as a flight update. // © 2014 Thinkstock
From the moment you step foot in the airport to when your plane touches down at its destination, a quick scan of your surroundings is likely to reveal at least several handheld devices. The businesswoman in the security line who frantically refreshes her smartphone for updates on her delayed flight, or the two children, seated next to a snoozing parent, with eyes glued to an in-flight movie marathon on a tablet — the list of sightings is seemingly never-ending.
As predicted in last year’s Spotlight issue, travelers’ reliance on mobile devices has only deepened. Technology is melded into our everyday lives — a reality that does not falter on the ground nor up in the air. And a strong travel demand, coupled with falling fuel prices, make for greater funds to invest in technologies that keep travelers satisfied.
“Improving finances have enabled U.S. airlines to accelerate investment — to the tune of more than $1 billion per month — into people, products and technology to further enhance the travel experience for customers,” said Vaughn Jennings, managing director of government and regulatory communications for Airlines for America. “These significant investments include training and technology, new planes, lie-flat seats, Wi-Fi access, in-flight entertainment systems and many other amenities."
The Continued Growth of Mobile
Approximately four out of five passengers now have a smartphone, and 18 percent also carry a tablet and a laptop — according to Passenger IT Trends Survey 2014, co-sponsored by Societe Internationale de Telecommunications Aeronautiques (SITA) and Air Transport World — which means passengers are no longer using costly seat-back screens for in-flight entertainment.
In response, airlines have focused on developing their digital presence, including apps (76 percent of those surveyed reported use of airline apps) and mobile-friendly websites with tools for fare searching, flight booking and checking in. When passengers settle into their seats, power outlets and USB ports often are in easy access (even in economy cabins), crucial for keeping devices fully charged.
Ike Anand, senior director of strategy and business development for Expedia, notes that the airline product has gone greatly down the commoditized path, which puts pressure on companies to keep up in a competitive market.
“There used to be really no difference between a seat on one airline’s plane and a seat on another airline’s plane,” Anand said. “Over the last one or two years, certain airlines are more favored by the consumer because of seat selection, Wi-Fi access and entertainment — leaving aside the price.”
Many airlines already offer in-flight Wi-Fi access on select international and domestic routes. However, it might not be long before travelers consider basic connectivity (for browsing the Web and checking emails) inadequate. In the U.S., United Airlines will soon roll out Gogo’s high-speed Air-to-Ground (ATG-4) in-flight connectivity — fast enough to stream movies and television shows — on 200 of its regional jets.
Released by Apple in 2013, iBeacon is yet another form of wireless technology expected to pick up steam. Through a Bluetooth low-energy proximity system, a beacon can notify nearby iOS 7 or iOS 8 devices running its corresponding app. Passengers will then receive context-aware notifications, such as a flight update or an offer for a seat upgrade, without increasing disruption.
Wearable Tech: Google Glass and Smartwatches
But the evolution of air travel technology goes beyond the handheld variety. Wearable technology that connects staff and passengers has also made headway. In February, Virgin Atlantic successfully pioneered Google Glass and Sony Smartwatch 2 technology in a six-week pilot experiment at London Heathrow Airport. By wearing the smart eyewear or watch, concierges could instantly pull data and offer the airline’s Upper Class passengers a customized experience: seamless check-in, flight updates and even a weather report on the destination ahead.
Travelers have also stepped up their wearable tech game. Following Vueling’s partnership with Sony, Airberlin’s partnership with Pebble and Iberia’s partnership with Samsung, passengers no longer have to search for a boarding pass on a smartphone or, heaven forbid, dig for one printed on a flimsy piece of paper. Instead, they can “wear” their boarding passes on their smartwatches — all by downloading their airline’s app. And with the highly anticipated release of Apple Watch in spring 2015, wearable tech for travel purposes is on track to become as ubiquitous as the smartphone.
“Travel is better with technology,” said Francesco Violante, CEO of SITA, in a statement. “And tech-savvy passengers expect more personalized apps and services consistently delivered on the Web to their phone or tablet. As new technologies such as wearable tech and iBeacon become commonplace, they present a great opportunity for airlines and airports to engage directly with their passengers to provide efficient services throughout the journey.”