LONDON — You’re at the gate, ready to fly, when, instead of the call to board, what comes over the public address system is the news that your flight is canceled.
Or, you’re racing to make a connection at an unfamiliar hub airport, realize you’re lost and have only 15 minutes to catch your onward flight. Panic.
Or, you’re en route on an early-morning flight and really like the idea of a bacon sandwich, only to discover that they’re sold out by the time the trolley reaches you. Not as serious as the two previous examples, perhaps, but irritating enough if you really were looking forward to munching on some reheated pig.
Well, technology is likely to offer solutions to all three problems, if air transport IT and communications specialist SITA is accurate in its predictions.
For many years now, we’ve heard that the technologies to solve many of the problems we encounter when we travel by air are on the horizon. However, according to SITA, many are now actually arriving, with pilot schemes underway.
Let’s take those examples above:
- Cancelled flight? A travel tech company, Freebird, provides North American passengers with an SMS message if their flight is disrupted and – more importantly – the ability to rebook a replacement flight on any airline to their planned destination at no extra cost for payment of a flat fee up to 48 hours before your planned departure. Effectively, it’s a new form of travel insurance.
- Lost between terminals? In Europe, as part of the work of PASSME, a European Union-funded consortium of aviation industry and academic experts, a mobile app and a wearable device detects physiological changes such as elevated heartrate in airport users and uses that as a prompt to offer advice to reduce stress, such as help in navigating your way through the airport.
- And, as for that bacon sandwich – UK-based low-cost carrier easyJet is seeking to combine artificial intelligence (AI) and human input to work out which routes have the heaviest demand for that particular item and adjust the supply chain accordingly.
SITA has produced a new report, The Future Is Predictable, in which it says that predictive technology is now starting to be actively deployed by the airline and airport sectors. The effect, it says, will be to give passengers greater visibility of looming disruptions to their journeys and greater ability to avoid or mitigate them.
Passengers get stressed when they feel they’re not in control of events; the more control they have, the happier and more relaxed they are. What they most frequently say they want are real-time alerts for aspects of their journey such as flight or gate updates and how long their baggage will take to appear on the carousel.
A major stress peak at airports is at the security checkpoint, especially if a surge in passengers leads to lengthy waiting times.
To combat this, Orlando International Airport is using a SITA system, QueueAnalyzer, that gives a real-time view of the checkpoints and enables the airport to respond to unexpected conditions. It also uses historic data to establish wait-time profiles for different times of the day, days of the week and seasons, allowing the airport to better allocate resources.
Since installing the wait-time monitoring and prediction technology at the end of 2015, Orlando International has also piloted the technology at airline check-in lines and the airport says it has halved the number of passengers who spend more than 15 minutes waiting in a queue.
“This is a great example of how measuring performance improves performance,” says John Newsome, IT director for the Greater Orlando Airport Authority. The technology has helped the airport both to reduce wait times and the stress produced by uncertain wait times, he adds.
Another high-tech system actually providing help for passengers today, rather than being a pipe dream for the future, is being used by Italian carrier Meridiana. If a flight has to be canceled, it notifies passengers via SMS and email. So far, so standard. But the service also gives Meridiana’s passengers the ability to accept or amend proposed flight changes at the touch of a button and, in some cases, apply for refunds.
Overall, says SITA, around two-thirds of airlines are planning to enable automatic rebooking for all passengers; offer different re-booking services for their high-value customers; and provide self-service tools for passengers to rebook their flight, either via a kiosk or their mobile.
All of which could help banish the scrums of irate passengers around airline service desks when their flight has been scrubbed.
Work is also ongoing to help passengers connecting on to a different airline at one of the global alliances. SkyTeam is investing in technology and training that will allow frontline staff to help passengers whose travel plans are disrupted, irrespective of which of the alliance’s members they initially flew with.
And as for that missing baggage problem: Delta Air Lines, which was the first to provide its customers with bag-tracking information via its Fly Delta app back in 2011, last year came up with two techie advances: using radio frequency identification (RFID) baggage tracking technology to provide passengers with improved real-time tracking of luggage; and, building on this RFID data, providing a map view of their bag’s last scanned location on the Fly Delta app.
“We’re the first carrier to offer this level of visibility,” says Delta’s senior VP – airline operations and airport customer service, Bill Lentsch. “From the moment our customers drop off their bag, we want them to know we’re looking out for it every step of the way and working to take the stress out of flying, one innovation at a time.”
Passengers have said they are willing to play a role in improving their airport services, says SITA. Just as road users phone into local radio stations with warnings of accidents or tailbacks, so travelers are prepared to contribute similar reports to airlines or airports.
However, cautions SITA: “Airlines and airports will need to bring their passengers with them on this journey – which means transparency over how they use passenger information and providing real value back to passengers in return.”