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The technology trends for airline and airports to focus on in 2020

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Technology is central to the future of the air transport industry, and as a testament to this, this week saw Delta Air Lines become the first airline to keynote the annual trade show for innovators and breakthrough technologies. Delta CEO Ed Bastian laid out a compelling vision for the future of travel during his keynote including transformation of the Fly Delta app, parallel reality display screens, captivating entertainment options, full-body wearable exoskeletons, and an AI machine learning operations platform.

Taking inspiration from these ground-breaking developments in the travel tech space, we have compiled our prediction on the most exciting trends and technologies that airlines and airports can expect to shape the passenger experience on the ground and up in the air over the next 12 months and ahead. Take a look

AI & Machine Learning

During the past couple of years, the air transport industry has been showing a great commitment to realising the full potential of artificial intelligence (AI) with a plethora of use cases. On one side, we have seen airlines and airports adopting chatbots to communicate with passengers, and on the other to improve operations.

In terms of chatbot applications, last year AirAsia developed and launched its AirAsia Virtual Allstar (AVA), a continuously learning AI-powered chat platform, which won the Silver Award at the FTE APEX Asia EXPO Awards 2019 for the Best Passenger Experience Initiative in the Airline category.

One of the highlights during Ed Bastian’s keynote at CES was a proprietary AI-driven platform to be implemented this year, that will help Delta’s professionals make even smarter operational decisions. The airline claims that it is applying AI-driven machine learning on a scale that’s never been done before by an airline. The proprietary AI-driven platform analyses millions of operational data points – from aircraft positions to flight crew restrictions to airport conditions – to create hypothetical outcomes that help Delta’s staff make critical decisions before, during and after large-scale disruptions. During his keynote, Bastian said: “Our leading source of innovation is our people. Our people shouldn’t be spending all their time taking tickets and scanning boarding passes. They’re too talented for that.”

Elsewhere, KLM has embarked on a unique partnership with Boston Consulting Group (BCG) which has the potential to “revolutionise global airline operations”. In a recent interview with FTE, Daan Debie, Director Engineering & Architecture, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, explained that KLM has developed a suite of advanced optimisation tools for the Operations Control Centre to help set up robust schedules by implementing smart tail assignment, manage and solve disruptions, and help with decision-making. He pointed out: “This has led to huge savings in non-performance costs.”

The benefits for passengers are clear too – minimising the impact of disruptions through real-time updates, reducing baggage delays and personalising information that has been provided to the customer through digital channels.

Virtual reality & immersive experiences

In a saturated market such as the airline sector, virtual reality (VR) and immersive experiences can be a true differentiator. Last year saw a raft of announcements in this space. As one of the leading virtual reality suppliers, Inflight VR attracted a number of airlines to its portfolio, including Evelop AirlinesSunExpress and Jin Air to name a few.

Renacen is another company that specialises in the use of virtual reality with its 3D SeatMap VR software, for which it won a Crystal Cabin Award in 2018. The application offers a virtual 360-degree view of the cabin and can be used for seat upselling, crew training, marketing and VR experiences. The technology has been implemented by a number of airlines, including Emirates, Evelop, Austrian, Aigle Azur and Etihad.

In partnership with VR company Neutral Digital, British Airways also tested the technology to introduce its new Airbus A350 aircraft. In an interview with FTE, Daniel Taylor, Brand and Marketing Content Manager at British Airways shared: “VR provided us with an immersive way of bringing this new product to life and engaging both external and internal audiences. The project was initially built for press events and for our own crew familiarisation of the new product and layout. But we’ve since found it to be invaluable across the whole marketing ecosystem. The tool has allowed us to quickly create visual assets including photography, film and 360° content that we have used across various marketing channels.”

5G – 100 times faster than current 4G networks

Recent developments in 5G technology are fuelling the new decade of innovation that will change business as we know it today. The technology will lower data latency, offer more stability, and connect more devices at the same time. In the aviation industry, the technology will be instrumental to satisfy the need for fast connectivity inflight and at airports; demand for predictive maintenance through data shared by the connected aircraft; and growing demand for a better inflight experience.

On the ground, last year Manchester Airport became the first UK airport to offer 5G network access as part of a trial by Vodafone. Vodafone installed a dedicated 5G-enabled ‘blast pod’ at Manchester’s Terminal One that allowed travellers to test the new super-fast network for downloading films or TV boxsets on their mobile devices up to four times faster than 4G.

5G has been the subject of speculation over the past few years, however, in 2020 it feels like the technology will come one step closer to reality ­– though still not that close. The possible impacts of 5G were widely discussed at the CES show, where network carriers insist that 2020 will be a turning point for the technology.

While 5G is being rolled out around the world with China, South Korea, UK, Germany and the US leading the fifth generation of mobile networks, the technology is still in its early stages. According to a recent article by Wired magazine, “5G isn’t a single technology or standard, but rather a constellation of different technologies, and deploying them could require a radically different approach than building 4G networks”. Moreover, only a handful of devices on the market support the technology, while flagship devices from Samsung, Google and Apple support 4G only. But in the next few years, we expect to see continuous efforts to make 5G the next big thing.

Inflight Connectivity – a real opportunity to drive conversion 

The future of the inflight connectivity industry is bright, with a growing number of airlines seeking to digitise their inflight experience in order to stay relevant. This demand is driving a real step-change in terms of the quality of connectivity on offer.

During his presentation at FTE APEX Asia EXPO 2019, Dominic Walters, Vice President Marketing Communications & Strategy, Inmarsat Aviation presented findings from the final instalment of the Sky High Economics report, which identified a market of 450 million passengers currently unengaged with traditional airline loyalty schemes, who could be driven to switch allegiance for high quality Wi-Fi up in the air. The study has estimated that this can drive a whopping $33 billion share shift – equivalent to 6% of total market share – that can create enormous opportunities for airlines adapting to what Walters refers to as the “always-on” passenger behaviour.

While many airlines, such as Qatar Airways, Norwegian and AirAsia, to name just a few, are stepping up their connectivity efforts, there is still much scepticism whether investments in connectivity today will stand the test of time. During his presentation at TFWA World Exhibition & Conference in 2019, Aldric Chau, Head of Retail and eCommerce, Cathay Pacific Airways, highlighted that: “If you are building an e-commerce site that can only be accessed outside of the aircraft it means you are missing an opportunity to work with retail giants such as Alibaba or Amazon. If you do have inflight connectivity this can be a real opportunity to bump up inflight sales by launching some real-time offers and initiatives to drive conversion.”

Hearable, wearable & voice technology

While Google Glass may not have lived up to the hype, the air transport industry is still experimenting with the idea of wearable solutions. For instance, SriLankan Airlines teamed up with MAS Holdings to introduce Spryng – a smart accessory that is expected to help transiting passengers feel more rejuvenated. Spryng is a wireless, active pneumatic compression wrap that mimics natural muscle contractions in the calves and helps reduce muscle soreness by stimulating blood circulation and increasing cellular oxygen supply.

Meanwhile, recently we have seen some airlines, such as Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL) implementing smart earpiece technology to simplify communication between flight attendants. For instance, All Nippon Airways (ANA) has introduced a new hearable device, called, BONX Grip, which combines proprietary technology with a smart application, making it possible for users to speak freely and naturally at any distance, in any environment.

Akihiko Miura, Executive Vice President of ANA, explains: “By making it easier for flight attendants to communicate with each other, they will be better equipped to meet passenger needs. These hearable devices are just one important tool that ANA is testing, and we look forward to harnessing the latest technological breakthroughs to improve every aspect of the travel experience.”

Voice technology is already in our homes, thanks to mainstream devices such as Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple’s Siri. So, it’s not surprising to see it being adopted by airports and airlines to strengthen the relationship with their customers. For example, Iberia allows its Iberia Plus cardholders to find out the status of their flights and obtain boarding passes for some flights.

Just this week, American Airlines announced it is launching a new initiative offering real-time translation across 29 languages at its Admirals Club lounges at Los Angeles International Airport, using Google Assistant’s interpreter mode technology.

So as the technology continues to mature it will without a doubt open new opportunities for strengthening the relationship between businesses and their customers.

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