Our view: Technology and the business traveller experience

Today’s aircraft are designed with both passengers’ comfort and the time spent airborne in mind. To enhance their comfort, airlines are investing in innovation, especially in wellness, meditation and technology.

In 2018 two events took place that marked the dawn of a new age for business travellers. First, Qantas introduced a 17-hour service between Perth and London. Then, Singapore Airlines relaunched the world’s longest non-stop commercial flight from Singapore to New York, clocking in at just 17 hours 52 minutes.

More airlines have realised the financial benefits of onboard connectivity. Over eighty airlines now offer inflight Wi-Fi, but although not all have exploited the resulting potential for onboard ancillary sales. it won’t be long before we see carriers partnering with Netflix and Amazon Prime to offer streaming services.

Wellness is another area of opportunity. For the launch of its Singapore – New York service, Singapore Airlines developed an inflight wellness strategy encompassing wellness cuisines, rest and relaxation, and guided stretching exercises. The carrier is not alone. Business travellers can now choose from up to twelve different meals on Air France flights, whilst American Airlines has seen a 60% increase in special meal orders since 2017. [Source: www.cookinglight.com]

Cabin lighting and innovative technology are also the focus of airline investment. In 2017, Lufthansa became the first airline to use a range of different onboard lighting settings on its A350-900 to fit passengers’ day- and night-time biorhythms.

Tech company Panasonic Avionics has recently launched a wellness solution as part of its inflight entertainment and communications platform that combines premium seat lighting, active noise Control, and nanoe™ air technology. Premium Seat Lighting tailors lighting to different phases of flight, whilst specialised sleep and wake algorithms ensure passengers have the best possible rest inflight and awake refreshed and at their body’s own pace.

Meditation techniques are being deployed to combat travel-related stress, using inflight entertainment systems to stream content. Air France offers on-board meditation on long-haul flights, and through the Air France Play app at all times. Cathay Pacific offers inflight yoga videos as part of its ‘Life Well Travelled’ campaign, whilst Virgin Australia’s Nervous Flyer programme supports passengers suffering travel-related anxiety with the latest research from the airline’s mental health partners, whilst cabin crew will keep a look-out for them whilst onboard.

Qatar Airways marked the airline’s annual support for Breast Cancer Awareness Month by providing customers travelling on long-haul flights in first class and business class with themed amenity kits during October. The amenity kits, made from vegan leather contain socks, ear plugs and skin care products including lip balm, hydrating facial mist and anti-ageing moisturiser.

Competitive forces dictate that airlines will continue to invest in new technologies and amenities to improve the customer experience. But while travellers have given the thumbs-up to enhanced in-air experiences, they are less satisfied with the experience inside airport terminals.

The world’s airlines will carry 3,979 million passengers this year, many of whom will spend between three to five hours at the airport facilities. So how are airlines and airports using technology to mitigate the impact of growing numbers in the limited space available to them?

Thanks to technology, fewer bags are getting lost by airlines and airports. IATA’s Resolution 753 has prompted airports, airlines, ground handlers to invest in new technology that allows them to better track the 4.65 billion bags they carry each year using RFID or ‘radio-frequency identification’.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) regards biometrics as the future of travel, with 71% of airlines and 77% of airports investing in biometric programmes. Last year, Delta Air Lines unveiled the first biometric terminal in the U.S. whilst international airports including Changi, Heathrow and Hong Kong International Airport launched their own projects.

In Qatar, Hamad International is introducing an end-to-end biometric system, while Dubai International has been working with Emirates on a ‘smart tunnel’ that will allow passengers to pass through immigration checks in 15 seconds.

Cathay Pacific is trialling biometric boarding at Amsterdam Schiphol whilst Heathrow will roll-out facial recognition at each point of the departing passenger’s journey. Gatwick is partnering with easyJet on its own trial. Each project has a common goal; to enable the passenger’s face to become their boarding pass.

Robots are becoming a common sight in airport terminals. Lufthansa has trialled Josie Pepper, a humanoid robot at Munich Airport to provide information to passengers, whilst the Airstar robot fulfils the same function at Incheon Airport in Seoul. Meanwhile, at Rotterdam The Hague Airport, autonomous baggage handling carts, or baggage robots, are being trialled.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning give these robots the ability to expand their knowledge, so they can provide more relevant information to passengers. However, artificial intelligence is about more than robots.

Some airlines and airports have launched AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants. Gatwick Airport has released the ‘Gatwick Chatbot’ on Facebook Messenger to provide passengers with easy access to information before and during their trip. British Airways’ Facebook chatbot offers personalised offers and recommendations. Business travellers can expect more developments in this space as AI continues to gain further traction.

As consumers become accustomed to using virtual reality products such as Oculus, Google VR, and PlayStation VR, as well as augmented reality-enabled smartphones, airports and airlines are trying to create more immersive experiences.

Motion sickness-free VR inflight entertainment has been tested by Iberia in its Premium Lounges at Madrid Airport and onboard select flights. Etihad and Emirates are among those to have trialled VR headsets in airport lounges.

Finally, there’s voice technology, also known as voice recognition technology. Products like Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple’s Siri have made voice technology commonplace. In 2018 Virgin Australia became the first airline outside North America to launch voice check-in through Amazon Alexa, allowing passengers to check in for their flight with the power of their voice.

Heathrow Airport already enables travellers to ask Alexa for live flight status information, gate updates and details on arrivals and departures whilst United Airlines’ customers can use Google Assistant to start the check-in process simply by saying “Hey Google, check in to my flight”.

Voice technology is likely to have a significant impact on the business flyer experience, from the supply of information to how payments are made. as with every other technology-led innovation, the value lies in creating a frictionless, more personalised travel experience.