ANALYSIS: Mobile technology critical to air transport players’ strategy

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Providing internet access to travellers should not be considered solely as a revenue stream by airlines and airports. That was the consensus at the recent SITA Air Transport IT Summit.

IATA director general Tony Tyler says the industry will fail to keep up with consumer demand and expectations unless it makes wi-fi accessible for free throughout every journey.

“Don’t look at providing wi-fi as a money earner itself. There will be ways to make money,” he says. “And don’t just look at getting hold of the data to sell the data. You need to look at the broader picture.”

Ian Dawkins, chief executive of in-flight connectivity provider OnAir, called that broader picture “the digital evolution”.

“In the next decade the digital natives are going to be flying the aircraft and will be the businessmen in the cabin,” he says. “As a baby boomer I embrace technology in a positive way, but I don’t think like them. We have to make decisions now based on what they’ll want.”

Dawkins, citing a word many delegates had never previously heard, joked that many next-generation travellers already suffered from “nomophobia”, a fear of not having constant mobile connectivity.

The nomophobe’s airline of choice could, therefore, be JetBlue Airways. The US carrier has already made a simple high-speed web-browsing version of its “Fly-Fi” technology available on certain aircraft (a high-bandwidth plan is available for purchase). Eash Sundaram, the carrier’s executive vice president and chief information officer, says work was being done to roll out the technology fleet-wide. “Wi-fi should be part of the core product,” he says. “It is an essential like electricity. And it needs to be fast enough that you can stream Netflix.”

Eash says being able to offer free onboard wi-fi is a huge draw for customers, and should enable airlines to profit by selling more lucrative ancillaries associated with a flight.

Airports and airlines are slowing waking up to the potential value of beacon technology, according to SITA’s chief technology officer, Jim Peters.

Two years ago, Peters predicted near-field communication would shape the future of the industry. Admitting he was wide of the mark, he says everything is now about Bluetooth technology.

Peters revealed SITA was already supporting an American Airlines pilot programme and had launched a common-use beacon registry for the industry.

As the global IT firm worked with American Airlines and other carriers and airports around the world over the past year, Peters says it became clear that an industry approach was needed.

“It will give the industry a single point of contact for common-use beacons deployed at any airport around the world,” he says.

The SITA registry defines standard data sets and beacon types to be positioned at gates, retail areas or checkpoints.

It allows airlines and airports to share beacons to get location information and provide personalised services to passengers.

An API is also available for app developers who want to use these beacons for developing travel-related apps.

“SITA’s registry will enable us to provide the same great user experience to our passengers using our app in airports not just in North America, but across our global route network,” says Phil Easter, American’s director of mobile apps.

During American’s 180-day pilot programme at Dallas/Fort-Worth terminal four, the carrier will use 100 recently installed beacons to send directions, boarding alerts and information about gates and walk-times to passengers using the American app.

Easter says investment in beacon technology is about keeping travellers happy. “DFW can be a little crazy,” he says. “65% of my customers arrive at their gate very early because they’re nervous about getting to the wrong one or being late. So while they’re passing through the airport or waiting at the gate, the beacons can push helpful information at the right point in their journey.”

A beacon sends a message to a passenger’s mobile device over a Bluetooth signal when it detects the app within a certain radius.

Heathrow Airport has also partnered with Virgin Atlantic to evaluate how iBeacon technology might be deployed at terminal three. Neil Clark, the airport’s chief information officer, revealed that exploratory talks had already started, though he gave no indication of when or how the technology would be implemented.

“We’re doing some early work with Virgin,” he says. “We have to be in control of it but we’re looking at it as common-use technology. We already have control of radio at the airport. This is an issue on which we have to step forward. I see it in the same light as wireless, we need to be able to let our airlines use it.”