Modernization in the Passenger Aviation Industry

1950s First Class – Depicted by AMC’s “Mad Men”

Gone are the days of travel agents, fancy meals, and cigarettes at 35,000ft. The highly debated Aviation Industry has experienced several growing pains, while pushing the boundaries of digital transformation for the last century. In 2019 pre-pandemic times, this behemoth global market was estimated at over $800 billion in annual revenue with over 4.5 billion passengers. To curate a more specific take on modern Aviation, this blog will concentrate on the end-to-end customer experience for your average passenger.

The first step in this use case is purchasing a ticket. For most non-business travel the booking process has evolved from calling or visiting a travel agent, to utilizing an online booking tool either via the airline directly or via a 3rd party provider. The travel e-commerce industry has carved out a strong market by making it easy for customers to search across airlines, timeslots, and ticket prices based on their needs or preferences. Companies like Booking.com, Expedia, Kayak, and many others have packaged this service along with car rentals and lodging to provide a one-stop shop for travel needs. “Nice-to-have” perks like finding the cheapest available direct flight or identifying the best time to purchase a ticket have become differentiators in saving customers both time and money.

Paper Tickets – Depicted by the 1980 film Airplane!

The check-in process has also been vastly improved. Beginning 24 hours before takeoff, carriers will send an automated email indicating it’s time to check-in online or via their app. Customers are given the option to pre-check bags, change seats, or even reschedule flights in case severe weather is expected. Once you arrive at the airport it’s easy to identify tens or hundreds of other digital improvements all aimed at making the travel process more secure, enjoyable, and efficient. For example, in place of paper tickets airline apps enable an electronic ticket for ease of use. For those who still prefer paper, you can walk right up to the carrier’s kiosk to perform many of the functions that previously required a desk agent.

Next in the customer experience journey is passing security, which continues to be a priority for air-travel especially in the United States post 9-11. Its not uncommon for long queues to form so pre-clearance options like TSA Pre-check, CLEAR, or Global Entry can help to avoid the worst of these backups. Machinery on the TSA side has also dramatically improved over the past 20 years, with more efficient baggage checks and the use of body scanners vs. metal detectors. You may be surprised to know that Global Entry & NEXUS in various airports are already employing Facial recognition to completely remove the need for a hardcopy passport. This technology has been in-use abroad for a handful of years and is just recently becoming more accepted in the United States.

DHS Global Entry facial recognition program to expand nationwide |  Biometric Update
Global Entry Kiosk

The in-flight experience has also undergone a multitude of changes in recent years. The evolution of the airplane seat is well depicted in this video (https://www.travelandleisure.com/video/history-of-the-airline-seat). True, the first class cabins have in many ways become less luxurious, but the coach/economy class tickets have also been impacted. As competition has increased the number of passengers and available space on an aircraft is one of the most heavily optimized processes in the entire end-to-end flow. Seat width & pitch (distance from any point on the seat to the exact same point in the seat in front or behind) have reduced as airlines look to bring in more passengers per flight. To combat these impacts to comfort, airlines have pushed entertainment out of 1940s live entertainment to large film screenings in the 1960s. By 1988 the first individual screens were implemented in headrests, but it was not until the 2010s that personal device entertainment & wifi become standard.

Next, lets consider how a customer gets from their residence to the airport or back. There are a multitude of ground transportation options available including: Drop-off, drive & park, taxi, train, etc. My own personal preference is to leverage ride sharing services such as Uber or Lyft. Early morning flight? No problem, you can easily schedule the Uber ahead of time right on the app and even indicate which airline or terminal you’ll be departing from. Cost can be a prohibiting factor when leaving the airport, as I’m sure many of you have faced recently. In Boston for example, ride sharing prices spike especially at night when the public transportation shuts down, so taxis end up being the most popular option:

Taxi Line Logan Airport 10/11/2021

Throughout this post I’ve touched on some critical areas of improvement with a specific focus on the customer experience. However, this is a vast topic to explore, and I’d be interested in hearing what other digital enhancements you find beneficial to the airline customer experience? What areas are lacking?

References:

  1. https://www.statista.com/topics/1151/passenger-airlines/#dossierKeyfigures
  2. https://www.travelmarketreport.com/articles/How-Facial-Recognition-Technology-is-Being-Used-at-Airports
  3. https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/local-media-release/ord-and-mdw-encourages-travelers-use-facial-recognition
  4. https://imagikcorp.com/brief-history-flight-entertainment/ .

16 comments

  1. I traveled this weekend and there was digital transformation everywhere. Between the Arrive Can App created by the Canadian Government to house my vaccine verification card and the self check in kiosks, transformation was everywhere. How could I forget the rather archaic in-flight entertainment system.

    Keeping in mind that many people are booking travel through airlines mobile apps, I can imagine that other ancillary services and experiences could be sold through the apps. For example, maybe you could order food and drink service for your cross country flight before you even step foot in the airport to ensure that you have exactly what you want. Jetblue is a sponsor of the Celtics so what if you could purchase exclusive content like chalk talk from coach Ime Udoka. Maybe an airline partners with Uber or Lyft so you can book your flight and ride to airport in one simple transaction.

    All and all, digital transformation can certainly lead to better airline service. As travel picks up, it will be interesting to see what is next.

  2. Really great post! I’ve experienced, but sort of taken for granted, all the digital transformation taking place in the travel sector. Thanks for the enlightenment!

    Since you asked for other digital transformations/improvements, I’ll bring to light two:
    (1) Google flight booking. I’m curious, do those prices beat out Kayak, etc. generally and what is the perk of Google doing this? Either way, it’s so convenient that I usually book this way.

    (2) I believe the Global Entry Kiosk photo you included wasn’t as fully touched on so I wanted to highlight how cool this is and how surprised I am that regular TSA hasn’t jumped on board with this fully yet. But the idea that there’d be more secure and faster review of identification, especially in mask days, seems really important.

  3. Travelling is so much nicer when the process is simplified through all the transformations. I feel like in the travel industry you see more digital transformation as you pay more – such has the lounges and first class tickets. One thing that is old now, but I still appreciate very much, is the mobile wallet and how we can store our boarding passes in there. I wish we could do the same with our passport so we are not carrying it in our hands everywhere in the airport. I once, admittedly, lost my passport after checking in at the Hong Kong airport and would have been nice to have it digitally stored so I could have kept my passport securely placed in my luggage. I did end up finding it at a shop I stopped by for some Advil.

  4. This weekend I was listening to Rich Barton’s (co-founder of expedia) episode on the How I Built This podcast, and he was talking about how his major differentiator was the idea of giving consumers more access to previously closed off systems and increasing consumer choice. Seems like the industry has taken that mantra to heart and exploded the amount of choices that we have to make on any specific trip.

    Cool listen, definitely recommend. The episode begins with expedia but tracks the growth of zillow in greater detail.
    https://www.npr.org/2021/06/11/1005526927/expedia-zillow-rich-barton

  5. Nice post! I never book through a 3rd party site, because you end up with a lower priority ticket that gets worse service if something goes wrong

  6. Our Strategic Pricing class just had Samuel Engel, an Aviation Economics Expert, and Pricing Consultant as a guest speaker last night. So think the topic is fresh on my mind. You couldn’t put into one post everything about the transformation from a physical person booking a flight and flipping over a seat card on a place to indicate that a seat had been booked. However, I think one huge advancement in the airline industry is the idea of dynamic pricing and how that has changed the booking process as well as how the airlines receive revenue. Changing the price based on the number of seats left and the probability that that seat will sell has really transformed the way consumers book flights. Cool topic and great idea!

  7. Digital transformation in the aviation industry has significantly improved over the years. I still remember booking my airline tickets through an agent about 10 years ago, but that’s unnecessary today. I also enjoy during international flights the ability to request specific meals ahead of time, which is something new compared to a few years ago. Overall the aviation industry is becoming more digital, so I wonder, where will we go next? With the advent of facial recognition, will we be able to travel without passports at all?

  8. Thanks for authoring this post about the user journey of the air traveler. I have a loooooong history of travel experiences and I think this post makes me realize that the components of travel that have been digitally transformed have overall shifted the trajectory of my overall impression of travel, which suffered a deep decline after 9/11. In the immediate aftermath of that, security became just a headache and was so inconsistent depending on which airport one passed through.

    But soon after, the actual in flight experience started to be a lot more fun. Delta had a low cost carrier called Song a few years back (a competitor to JetBlue which was just starting out then) – and I remember Song had this great trivia game you could do on the backseat monitor in which you played against other passengers on the flight. So you’d get a message like “15D Beat You!” — and then of course you’d try to spot that person!

    Lately I do appreciate how easier it is to purchase tickets and deal with boarding passes via mobile.

  9. One more thing: looks like the link to the video on the travelandleisure site needs to amended or updated. I get a 404.

  10. I’ve loved using Google Flights as a digital transformation tool. Every time I book a flight I use Google Flights services to find the right flight for my plan. I don’t have an allegiance (or a credit card) to a specific airline so Google Flights allows me to have the flexibility I’m looking for.

    Pre-pandemic I always took the month of December off to go on vacation and travel. For four years I used Google Flights Explore feature to determine where I could fly to that either had the best weather, the activities I was looking for, etc. Google Flights allowed me to travel to Guatemala, Colombia, Thailand, Laos, and more.

  11. The rapid transformation of the travel industry is often overlooked therefore thank you for bringing attention to this topic! I do agree with Kanal, premier tickets reap the most benefits for these technological advancements when compared to economy class tickets. I do wish for there to be more technological advancements in security clearence. Every time I travel from Dubai or Abu Dhabi to New York, there is a long security check that takes place which I think can be simplified. They stop everyone with a laptop (and who doesn’t travel with their laptop nowadays so that’s always a lot of people), open up the bag and manually scan each laptop. I find that to be a tedious process and would like to see it replaced by a digital technology.

  12. WOW! Super interesting… I can’t believe that smoking was allowed, how was that??
    I completely agree with your statements and expect major further penetration of digital technology in this field. Hope that customer experience is enhanced with them in the following years making all the processes less tedious.

  13. My gosh, a wonderful post. I had never thought about writing about the digital transformation in the aviation industry, but if anything has drastically changed, it’s in this industry. Security is still a top priority for traveling post 9-11. but I’d say it still isn’t foolproof. What airports need to invest in are more effective tools to get folks through security quicker. I would have the body scanners before security, so only bags have to be scanned after. I don’t understand the purpose of removing a belt, shoes, jewelry, and a jacket if a BODY SCANNER detects everything that’s not allowed. From entering the airport, and flying to landing and going home, the airport has changed more than any industry and has a lot more change to undergo.

  14. This post has highlighted many of the great aspects of things that have changed over several decades of air travel, but while I value the changes that have been made, I agree with Daren that security could stand to use a few upgrades for the sake of the user’s experience. While I recognize that it is for my own safety, it is genuinely an anxiety producing part of the process for everyone involved.

    While not technically an aviation advancement, the order ahead function for airport restaurants specifically has been a top notch function and allowed me to skip many lines with many unhappy looking people. I think several functions have been updated to enhance the profit margins of the airlines, but it may be worth re-examining the user’s experience overall (this is my personal request for better chairs and more outlets).

  15. Echoing everyone’s comments here – what a great, and fun to read, post! I really liked how you navigated us through all of the digital transformations that we may have seen – or have been behind the scenes – that impact an industry we are all participants in (presumably). DT is truly all around us if we open our eyes to it, as this class has done!

    I used to travel frequently for work and being based out of Miami was stuck with really only one airline option – ugh. One thing that drove me nuts was this company’s decision to remove in-seat entertainment systems (and on some flights, ANY entertainment whatsoever). This was particularly unbelievable on cross-country or even international flights. The “rationale” was that passengers were using their phones or devices for streaming, but I also heard that it was because they wanted to use slimmer seats in order to cram more passengers onboard and also not deal with the costs/tech headaches so push the onus (or cost) on to the passenger.

    With limited time on my hands to plan ahead for flights and download movies or shows, I really enjoyed the respite from hectic life that came with getting on board and being able to browse what was available to view. I watched a lot of movies and shows I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, so I really hope this feature stays – and in the case of that airline is reintroduced – and gets even more enhanced. Metaverse in-flight experiences, anyone?

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