Future of Air Travel?

Traveling has always been one of my favorite things in the world. Pre covid, I used to travel as much as I could. I may be crazy, but I truly enjoyed flying by myself and turning all my technology off and disconnecting from the world, at least for a little while.

Air travel has changed a lot in the past years, in a study by McKinsey it is said that 8 in 10 companies have implemented some digital transformation in the last 5 years. Doing the pre check process online is something we now take completely for granted. But do you remember how it was done before? I remember it vividly, taking my suitcase to the airline’s office, making a line and waiting to be pre checked in by a customer service representative. They would then weight my bag, provide tags for it and issue the boarding passes. Flash forward ~15 years and we can do the entire check in process from the comfort of your home (or wherever you have access to the internet). You can create an account and upload a picture of your passport and visas for future use.

The online personalization and customization of your travel experience is something that keeps improving year over year. Simple features that before would take hours of being on hold on the phone or had the need to physically go to the office to do can be done from the app or website. But not all the benefits are for the passenger, in a study by Conztanz it was shown that there was 15% increase in revenue for airlines that offered personalized offers. For example the Emirates Airlines studied over 2 billion user journeys over the course of 4 years, the finding allowed them to better enhance the customer experience which resulted in an increase of 1% in revenue per passenger.

While traveling a few weeks ago I noticed an extra step in the online check in process. It would not allow me to fully check in and obtain your boarding passes until a negative covid test was uploaded and verified. The ability to do this in advance no only saves time at the airport for both the customer service reps and the passenger, but also makes sure you know about the requirements and that they are all met prior to getting to the airport.

Another way in which digital transformation has benefited the airline industry is in crisis and disruption management. Delays and cancellations are every day occurrences. By having an automated system that pushes notifications to the passenger it can save a lot of time and confusion. It also improves the customer experience and decreases the workload of airline personnel in the event of a flight disruption. The airline algorithms automatically rebook and confirm the cancelled flights to the best alternative flight, and changes can be made all online at the user’s convenience. This is one of the features I am most grateful for and one that has saved me personally a lot of time and stress.

The clear digitalization of these processes have improved the overall user experience. How much time has making these processes virtual saved the millions of people who travel every day?

So what at other ways digital transformation is happening in the airline industry?

Virtual reality for in flight entertainment

Inflight VR and Qatar Airways have launched a pilot program in 2020 to offer a virtual reality experience for business class passengers. While the results and takeaways have not been published and probably impacted due to covid, I believe this will become a common form of entertainment in the years to come. Infligt VR promotes its system by having one of the largest library of VR content for different demographics and by leveraging the popular VR technology to increase the companies net promoter score.

Facial recognition for International travel

Facial recognition technology has been growing in recent years. On a flight to El Salvador in early 2020 through the Atlanta airport I experienced the new biometric system that had been implemented across terminal F. This system used my face to in the complete my check in process, verify my identity TSA security check point and most shockingly to board my flight without my passport. At the time of boarding the airline rep asked us to form a line and stand in front of the screen that would take your photo, once it got verified within second you would see a check that meant your identity had been verified and printed a receipt with your seat number. I admit I was impressed with the efficiency and the technology I had experienced but at the same time had questions about privacy. Upon further research I found out that using the biometric system is not mandatory and you can opt out, but you are opted in by default.

This process has 7 steps:

  1. The airline creates a passenger manifest and shares it with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
  2. US Customs and Border Patrol creates a photo gallery from existing photographs based on the passenger manifest shared in step 1.
  3. Passenger takes picture/photo at the touch point
  4. Photo is encrypted and de-identified and shared with Customs and Border Protection to be verified against the gallery created in step 3
  5. CBP sends verification with indicator of how to proceed (check for verified, cross for not verified). Receipt is printed with basic information (name and seat number)
  6. CBP records who leaves the country
  7. Customer is ready to move forward (board flight, pass TSA check, etc)

I believe this process will be widely implemented across busy airports and in future implemented for domestic travel. It has proven to save 20 seconds per person, which translates to about 9 minutes per flight. In terms of privacy, the pictures taken in the touch points are deleted after 12 hours, therefore they are not collected and saved for future use.

So, how do you see air traveling changing as more digital technologies are implemented?

Cites referenced:

10 comments

  1. I have also used the scanner in the Atlanta airport. Especially after Covid I can see this becoming a lot more commonplace considering it is low touch compared to being within six feet of someone to hand them your passport and get a seat assignment.

  2. Personally I would not want to have facial recognition be used to as my boarding pass. While they ensure that the pictures are encrypted and then deleted, I would want to see this used widespread before I become comfortable that there would not be breaches or misuse of the system. Based on the time savings it can have for the airlines, it sounds more like a benefit for them rather than the consumer.

  3. Jie Zhao · ·

    Great post! While I will also be a little concerned about privacy issues with the facial recognition technology, I will be willing to using it if I don’t have to arrive 2+ hours early at an airport for an international flight. I also think that we’ll see more airports use this technology to implement a more streamlined and low-touch check-in process. As for the VR experience, I would probably try it out if it’s free but I’m not sure how often I will use it. Like you said, being on a plane is a rare time for me to turn off all technology and unplug, where I enjoy catching up on readings and sleeping. I am looking forward to being able to travel again and test out these new technologies!

  4. alexcarey94 · ·

    Great post! I think it is very interesting how the airport has really implemented tech across the process to make the transition to a flight much more smooth. The long lines experienced when checking in seem to be a thing of the past. I have also used the facial recognition system at the airport and I think it has really sped up the customs lines in general. One thing I was also thinking about is tech is not only being used for convenience in the airports but also to increase safety. Remember when the full body scanners first came out and everyone was concerned about the privacy aspects (for the before metal detector that people walked through). Now that is common place in the airport and make travelers feel safer.

  5. lisahersh · ·

    Excellent post! As someone who travels a lot (especially internationally), it’s been really impressive to see how digital transformation has been utilized over the years to improve the experience. Remember when Wifi was finally made available on planes? And now a lot of airlines don’t even charge you for it! I encountered something similar to what you described above when I was flying back from Cuba in April 2019 via the Miami airport. When entering the CBP area they first had every passenger individually scan their passport at a booth and insert their CBP entrance form (you know the paper form you’re asked to complete on the plane?). While doing that there is a camera that takes your picture and uses facial recognition to confirm that the person completing the form is in fact the person whose passport was scanned. When done, it prints a little slip with your photo on it confirming you’re cleared, which you merely show to a CBP officer upon exiting the area. It saved so much time and greatly reduced the number of CBP officers required at a large international airport. I’m excited to see what innovations airlines come up with next but I anticipate customer history (for example, prior seat preference, entertainment suggestions, etc.) is another way they will make it a more personalized/customized experience.

  6. changliu0601 · ·

    Interesting post.I learned that collaboration and data is a part of airline’s digital transformation.They collect and analysis the data to find the factors affecting the length of airline’s delay time, driving their operational efficiencies.By the way, i have the same concern about the privacy problem by the facial recognition system.

  7. Thanks for introducing so many technologies that could potentially change air travel in the future. I believe there are two major categories in the air travel market that can be changed with digital transformation. One is the customer experience from booking tickets until they exit the airport at the destination. To me personally, air travel is so much pain especially at the airport, hope the slow and inefficient security checks and the worst customer inflight service would all be changed in the future. Besides, VR inflight entertaining system would definitely help travelers in the long haul flight.

  8. AndraeAllen · ·

    Well organized post! I was not ready for the facial recognition part of your blog. A few years ago I used to travel frequently for work. I had gotten used to the monotony of airline travel and based on my destination knew which airports offered the best experience. For me this meant the shortest route with the least amount of idle time. I’m glad you wrote about the privacy aspect of the facial recognition data. People will always be concerned about who holds their PII. Maybe the best institution to hold this data is the DMV since they already have similar data. Maybe one day the airports will promote facial recognition similar to how “TSA Precheck” was promoted. If marketed as opt in service that will dramatically reduce the time travelers spend at security checkpoints, any associated anxiety will be alleviated. You brought forward some great information I was unaware of prior to reading. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Great Post! I echo the same sentiments that you had highlighted earlier as it relates to making sure that privacy is protected. It would be interesting to see with all the innovation that has occurred with virtual lines, that we would be able to see CBP figure out a way to have a system where there isn’t a line at all. My thinking on this would be that similar to restuarants and their virtual waiting lits. Passengers could arrive at the security line based on priority of flight time, and be able to be called up by there queue number and be scanned using the facial recognition technology. Not sure how we would fully solve for all of these challenges but I think that it would be a good thing to consider as a way to free up congestion at the air ports.

  10. kellywwbcedu · ·

    Being on the basketball team this year, we had many flights all over the country and it was always a constant discussion before the flight on what everyone was going to do to pass the time. It was often either homework, music, or downloading a movie. But now with the potential of VR, I think that the decision will be much easier in years to come. I can already see the marketing campaigns, “Fly away from your reality, with VR on your next flight!”

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