Ninety-one percent of airlines will provide wireless in-flight services for passengers. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): Expect changes both in the sky and on the ground. // © 2017 Getty Images
In 2016, 3.8 billion passengers took to the skies, according to statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airline trade company. Additionally, U.S. citizens are the world’s most prevalent travelers: Some 810 million Americans comprise 21 percent of all global passengers. And as last year’s favorable figures continue to rise, airlines and airports are working even harder to meet the mounting demands and expectations from these avid globetrotters.
Intended to streamline the passenger experience — including decreasing wait times at check-in, bag drop, boarding, passport control and security — biometrics may soon take the place of all physical forms of travel documentation.
In fact, at select airports in June, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began assessing the use of biometrics through TSA Precheck passengers’ fingerprints that serve as both identification and as a boarding pass. Clear, a privately-owned membership screening program, has long operated biometric authentication through fingerprints or eye scans and can be found at more than 30 airports nationwide. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection also already uses a biometric entry and exit system.
Delta Air Lines is actively utilizing the technology, too, including biometric boarding passes at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., and self-service bag drop machines with facial recognition technology at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
“Whether using fingerprints, retinal scans or facial recognition, airlines and airports will enable passengers to move through security, into lounges and onto planes without traditional identification requirements,” said Bryan Terry, managing director for travel and transportation at professional services network PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). “This will strengthen security, speed processing times, increase convenience and improve the overall passenger experience.”
Also on the continued upsurge for the air transport industry is the use of artificial intelligence (AI). The “2017 Airport IT Trends Insights” survey from SITA, an air transport information technology company, reports that the percentage of airports planning to trial AI jumped from 24 percent in 2016 to 45 percent this year.
One example of AI is Air New Zealand’s digital human, Sophie, which launched in late September. As a tool for improving customer experience, Sophie is emotionally responsive and can answer passengers’ queries about the airline as well as the destination of New Zealand. At Germany’s Frankfurt Airport, Franky, a Facebook Messenger-based chatbot, can assist harried fliers regarding flight status updates, flight searches and airport facilities — also thanks to the use of AI.
Robotics and Self-Service
Customer-facing robots have begun popping up at airports around the world, from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Seoul’s Incheon International Airport recently partnered with electronics company LG to test two prototypes: the multilingual Airport Guide Robot, which provides boardinginformation and directions, and the just-as-aptly-named Cleaning Robot.
Perry Flint, head of corporate communications for North America at IATA, says there are even further opportunities for automation and robotics on the horizon.
“Self-driving baggage tugs are starting to appear on the market,” he said. “Additional uses could include robotic vehicles for loading baggage and containers onto the aircraft, and even drones that could move baggage around the airport.”
Terry notes that the operation of robots is a natural evolution of kiosks and will continue to become more mainstream.
“However, their usage and growth will likely be less than other emerging technologies, as many functions performed by robots will increasingly find their way into passengers’ mobile applications to enable self-service,” he said.
Indeed, according to IATA’s 2017 “Global Passenger Survey,” consumers increasingly prefer to take matters into their own hands, especially via digital self-service options. Out of some 10,600 respondents, 68 percent would like to tag their own bags, most favorably with electronic bag tags (which can be programmed at home before arriving at the airport). Seventy-two percent of respondents prefer to self-board, and 38 percent say that the availability of automated boarding gates would improve the boarding experience.
Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air have long been established as America’s ultra-low-cost carriers, while Southwest Airlines and JetBlue fall under the low-cost category.
But this past February, U.S. legacy networks American Airlines and United Airlines each introduced a Basic Economy product to target the price-sensitive masses; Delta debuted its Basic Economy class in 2012 and presented its current iteration in March 2014. Restrictions on these no-frills flights may include everything from automated seat assignments to the allowance of only one personal item onboard.
Public reception has been mixed. United even backpedaled in early September, revealing that it would be rolling back its extent of Basic Economy, which was initially offered to nearly its entire domestic network. Interestingly enough, American rolled out its version of pared-down fares to its complete network within the same week of United’s announcement.
PwC’s Terry says that airlines must carefully manage the expectations of passengers in order to avoid financial loss and minimize any impact on customer satisfaction.
“We have seen evidence in Q3 results of carriers getting this right and others that have not,” he added. “However, basic economy has proven its value and is here to stay in the U.S., as well as likely to expand internationally.”