Disruptions

How Flying Can Be 'Business Class' For Everyone

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the dawn of the jet age, nothing was more glamorous than traveling by air. Frank Sinatra even had a hit song - "Come Fly with Me" - about those who were then known as the 'jet set' crowd.

How times have changed. Today flying, especially for the infrequent flier - not the business ones- can be rather unsettling. Security lines at airports are so long that travelers often need to get there a few hours before their flight is scheduled to take off. I say 'scheduled' because how many times has your plane left on time? You would think that with the array of digital tools, big data, and predictive analytics, flying would be as easy as shopping online. But this is not the case - weather, turnaround times, readiness of ground staff, and inter connected flights adds a whole set of hidden complexities to airport management. Unfortunately, airports and several players in the ecosystem have not adequately leveraged digital tools, and so consumers are yet to have the seamless experience that has become an integral part of other industries.

Is it time then for the airline industry to usher in change? I should think so. Growth in revenue passenger miles (RPM), a metric used by the transportation industry to determine the number of miles traveled by paying passengers, are slated to slow down over the next decade in the United States. RPM is calculated by multiplying the number of paying passengers by the distance traveled by them. The Federal Aviation Administration's forecast for the next decade, projects RPM to increase by a paltry 2.6 percent a year. Domestic RPMs in America are forecast to grow at an even more underwhelming 2.1 percent, and international RPMs are forecast to grow at 3.5 percent a year. Technology could play an important role in making airports digital, simplifying baggage management, increasing service offerings and addressing security concerns. This would improve the flying experience and bringing the passengers back.

Digital airports

Majority of the projected growth in RPM is expected to be in large and medium airports, which are already crowded. To ease the pressure on passengers, airports of the future can simplify a number of processes. The basic function of any airport and airline relates to supporting passengers in activities such as check-in, check-in of bags, customs check, and boarding the airplane. Technology through automation can make it easier for travelers at each of these touch points. Technology can also play a role in several other complex functions that an airport has to manage such as security, manpower management, ground transportation, air traffic control, and transportation security administration, besides other things.

When airport authorities are looking to introduce technology they could, for example, use digital solutions to dig deeper into passenger demographics, preferences, and details that could help then better understand and plan service requirements, such as to decide the number of agents with special skills that would be required for a particular flight. Airport authorities can also provide passengers a virtual reality view of the airport and its facilities much in advance, so as to familiarize them with the airport rather than using outdated airport maps on paper.

Re-thinking Baggage

Plane cabins are getting cramped and what aggravates the situation is large bags that are stuffed into overhead compartments, leaving no room for regular-sized bags, briefcases, and backpacks. Passengers who board later -those that are not frequent fliers or do not have a high priced ticket- often find that they do not have enough space to store their bags and have to rely on the flight attendants' creativity to find a solution, or check-in their baggage instead. All the while, the rest of the passengers are left watching and wondering if this could have been handled better. The key reason for this cramped cabin is that baggage fees have steadily increased, and travelers are allowed to haul large bags with them. If you are wondering what could help resolve this issue, well it is a smart baggage arrangement.

Imagine a baggage concierge that can be accessed from a residence or hotel. Not only will this make the check-in process faster but easier as well. If passengers do not provide information on the size and weight of the baggage they are carrying in advance, the airlines could decide where the bags are stored e.g. in overhead bins or in the cargo hold, so as to better plan weight and balance of aircraft, and thus hasten the loading and turnaround process of the aircraft. Sensors on the bags could allow passengers to track the movement of their bags, too. In case of connecting flights, passengers can be assured that their bags have made it (or not).

With beacons, sensors, and tracking technology, airlines could offer a 'bag drop' service to the home or hotel so that passengers need not wait at the terminal to claim their luggage. Sensor readers at airport baggage sorting facilities can vastly enhance and expedite their work and reduce manual intervention. In fact, the Industrial Internet Consortium recently gave its approval to the Smart Airline Baggage Management test bed co-developed by Infosys to do just this.

The right technology can not only offer an intelligent baggage solution for passengers and airport authorities, but reduce cost of operations for the airline, and free up airport staff to spend more time improving the flying experience of their passengers. Airlines, airports, and technology companies have an opportunity to work together to make this goal mainstream.

Simplifying access to airport services

Often passengers wish to access certain merchandise or services from airport shops, but run out of time while searching for the sales counter. As a solution, wouldn't it be good if passengers could simply order from anywhere, anytime through an airport app or website, and have the product delivered right at the gate before they board their flight or at the airport of arrival? This would offer airports an opportunity to build a positive relationship with their customers. The app could be used to order food, book a car, order that fast track/expedited security lane pass, a bouquet of flowers or a gift.

Overcoming the security hurdle

The security check at the airport is a hurdle for most passengers, especially in America. For those with a Global Entry/ TSA (Transportation Security Administration) PreCheck, there is some ease of not having to stand in serpentine queues, taking out laptops, and removing shoes and jackets. To simplify security checks, airports can create a dedicated fast track security line for those who wish to clear the security process in a shorter duration. Of course, passengers would still have to go through the same process but the queue would be much shorter. Airlines could do more to work with airports and provide this perk to their passengers, especially when loyalty points are being utilized or as promotional offers to elite members.

Digital airports can simplify and improve navigation as well, such as by enabling cars to book a parking spot at the right terminal based on the flight details streamed to the car's GPS system. This means an autonomous car can take a passenger from home to the designated parking spot without spending precious time having to scout for a location to park.

Seizing the technology opportunities

Technology has tremendous potential to improve passenger service, and airports can leverage highly scalable and intelligent platforms that seamlessly interact with heterogeneous systems to facilitate communication between service providers and passengers, thus making travel pleasant. Because soon it may not just be places of business or leisure that we are flying to, destinations outside our planet itself!