Will the passenger be king?

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

Smartphones have made it easier to buy, to pay and to be aware of what is around us. Oh and we can use them as phones as well. And cameras. And guides…

A few days ago, Vero Solutions suggested the developments that might change air travel for us in the future.

In London this week, the Aviation Festival has been considering the same thing. The event which used to cover just low-cost airlines has evolved over the years into a necessary calendar date for airlines and airports from around the world. A couple of thousand airline bosses, their senior staff, suppliers, airport staff and hangers-on like me turn up for dozens and dozens of sessions where the future of the industry is discussed.

Primarily the festival is for the trade to discuss issues that affect them. But the feature that underlies their thinking is the passenger. How will artificial intelligence affect what the passenger – to use the horrible and slightly meaningless word – experiences? How will airports change? Will retailing become more cashless? What of ancillary marketing, the business model that many airlines have embraced where you pay a basic fare and then as much as possible else will be charged as an extra?  Some airlines earn as much as a quarter of their income from these activities.

smartphones mean we are connected to those that can make life easier for us to travel and to choose

Shashank Nigam, the head of a specialist airline strategy company – Simpliflying – kicked off the first day by suggesting that competent airlines that take you from A to B, are punctual and, in those immortal words, “do what it says on the can,” rarely get talked about. They become invisible to potential passengers and that makes marketing those airlines to get more passengers difficult. Airlines have to be seen to be different and to offer more than just being a transport provider.  In fact an Air Asia spokesperson suggested that Air Asia was now a tech company that happened to own an airline.

In the past some airlines have stressed their food and the chefs that have created menus for them although these tend to be for first class or business class passengers rather than for the majority of passengers who, of course, travel in economy.

Some like Virgin Atlantic have relied on the flamboyance of their major shareholder. And the fun that the airline seems to suggest it has as part of its psyche. Legacy airlines like BA, Air France and Lufthansa seemed to tie themselves to the way their individual countries were perceived whether this was correct or not. British Caledonian, an airline long since subsumed into the Thomas Cook Group trumpeted, in the 1970’s, the British Caledonian girls not something that would probably be politically correct today.

mobile phone

We can work as we travel. Or play games!

When the new low cost airlines came long, some such as Go and Buzz had staccato names suggesting they were simple and quick transport providers. I’m not sure what Ryanair’s name was supposed to indicate (other than it used the surname of the founder) but it became quickly known as an airline with little thought for passengers. That changed a few years ago when the airline launched a customer care policy.

Today it is big data, artificial intelligence and complex algorithms that airlines use to try and make booking  as easy as possible. But once they get you on the plane how different is one from another? Passengers could argue that technological advancement may have improved and altered the systems to help the airline but what has it done for the passenger? For a start we now have automated check-in machines, drop-off baggage machines and apps to guide us through airports or others to order meals in advance none of which were around a generation ago.

Technology has enabled airlines to know more about you. Starting with cookies (unless you disable them ) airlines know which parts of the site you have been to, how long you stayed, where your ISP is based and what you have previously searched for and bought.

As Expedia pointed out, that information can be mixed with publically available information, data held by social media sites and other information calculated by what you have not done. For example if you have never hired a car, why bother to waste time in introducing a car hire link or page.

hyperloop plan

an early hyperloop design© Tesla Motors
Will hyperloops replace some air routes

Most airline websites aren’t at this stage yet; they will continue to offer you things that you are not interested in solely because they think that if you book a flight you must be in want of some transport from the airport at which you land to get you to your final destination or you must need a travel insurance policy.  Consequently all those additional pages pop up before you can finally get to the page where you can pay for the flight. How long will it be before sites spot that you don’t want a hire car but that you do book a window seat. If they really harnessed their technology they could provide you with a window seat on your next booking?  In some ways technology has made life more time-consuming compared to the days when you went to a travel agent or rang an airline and just said to them to book you a flight.

The strong argument from speakers and delegates was that technology is all-pervading and there are plenty more opportunities to take it further. Uber even wondered whether the urban transport of the future might not be on roads but in the skies. In this era of electric and driverless cars, the aviation industry is certainly looking at electrically fuelled planes. And as planes have auto-pilots which do much more of the  flying than many passengers realise, is the driverless plane too far away?

my first high-tech mobile phone is as outdated as my Betamax

From one of the leading technical magazines –Wired – Greg Williams looked at how other industries were managing technology and artificial intelligence. Originally technical innovation was led by the techies themselves. They believed that if there was a technical advancement then people would use it. That has happened with the smart phone but 3-D, despite umpteen attempts, doesn’t seem to enthuse the greater part of the population.  Williams contends that technology today is different; it is designed for us to be as simple as possible without us having to have a university education to understand it. We don’t want a hundred page manual to read before we start using it

Increasingly, he said, companies are algorithmic businesses which I take to mean that businesses learn from what you do and then develop computer and marketing programmes to suggest what you might do in the future. Passengers are connected to technology on a personal basis (our smartphones and tablets) and the only thing we can be sure of is that there will be far more technology changes. Just as the filofax is dead and buried and VHS and Betamax technology is to be found only in history books , today technology is designed for us and how to make it more personal is the goal. The difference between the digital and the physical world is ever-decreasing.

And the passenger may be king. One day! © Dan Sperrin

Williams said that companies have to keep the customer central to development.

If that is true (and I confess that as a cynic of standing I have heard it for decades from suposedly customer-centric companis) and they are not just interested in our wallets and forget us as soon as we have opened them, the future may well be in the hands of we passengers.

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