FEEDBACK: The connected traveller has arrived, now airlines must drive results

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Earlier this year, I scurried into a BalticTaxi in Latvia to shelter from -35ºC (-31ºF) temperatures and headed to Riga airport for my flight to Singapore. To my surprise, the driver handed me a code and told me "it's for the free wi-fi in the taxi".

Of course, that was music to my ears, as I could now work throughout the journey to the airport, where I'd have wi-fi access anyway.

It's not just in Latvia that taxis have wi-fi networks; they do in Taiwan too. Commuter trains in Boston as well as airport buses in New York now provide wi-fi, often free.

This essentially closes the last link for seamless connectivity during travel.The traveller is now connected to the internet throughout the travel process from the moment he leaves his home for the airport, in-flight and then throughout his holiday.

That's the reality of travel, and airlines and airports must ride this wave of connectivity to better engage with and drive results from customers.

When Toronto Pearson Airport stopped charging for its wi-fi service last year, usage grew almost ten-fold.

A recent infographic produced by SimpliFlying, based on a study by ACI Europe, revealed that 98.4% of airports in Europe offer wi-fi to passengers and 54% of them don't charge for it.

In the cabin, availability and usage of free wi-fi is on the rise too. According to Gogo, a provider of in-flight internet to many US-based airlines, 200 million passengers boarded a flight equipped with wi-fi last year.

While less than 5% paid to log on, adoption of free wi-fi on board Turkish Airlines' new Boeing 777s is over 30% on each flight.

Since the traveller is no longer internet­-starved, the business dynamics have changed dramatically for ­airlines and airports. The good news is there are plenty of opportunities to make the most of this new, more connected world.

KLM recently introduced its Meet & Seat social-seating service, allowing passengers who connect via LinkedIn and Facebook profiles while checking in, to see and choose to sit with − or avoid − fellow passengers.

While just over 1,100 people tried the KLM service in the first couple of months, most were business travellers, so the service seems to be adding value.

Air Baltic recently introduced an intelligent seating service, powered by Satisfly, allowing passengers to choose an in-flight zone. So, for instance, if they wanted to sleep, the Relax zone would make sense, or if they were keen on networking then they could link their social profiles and choose the Work or Business Networking zones.

Not only does this service have the potential to drive ancillary revenues, but the impact would be much greater once wi-fi comes on board Air Baltic.

Ultimately, an increase in the number of in-flight users would give rise to the "walled-garden" effect. The captive customer, who is connected to the internet while in the air for many hours, is a boon for marketeers.

There can be multiple revenue opportunities here − from advertising on the landing page, to getting a commission on purchases made in flight.

However, as is true of all opportunities, there are certain risks associated with the connected traveller, which airlines must be prepared to deal with.

For example, if one does not quite like the way a meal looks, and if a flight has wi-fi, one need not wait to get off the aircraft to communicate this.

Indeed, just whipping out a phone, taking a picture and sharing it with friends on Facebook or Twitter would be a ­distinct possibility.

But, this is also an opportunity for the airline to respond quickly to messages and win back customers, as well as additional fans, who might see the action in the public domain.

Airlines like KLM, Delta Air Lines and AirAsia are investing significant resources to handle customer service through social channels to address this opportunity and negate the risks.

The connected traveller has truly arrived and there is huge potential for airlines to drive revenues, loyalty and customer engagement from the passengers. They just need to think inventively and devote some resources into executing their strategies well.

Who knows, the next time I get into a BalticTaxi and connect to wi-fi, I might receive a notification about the passenger seated next to me on Air Baltic. That day may not be so far away.

Shashank Nigam is CEO at SimpliFlying, a brand strategy firm helping airlines and airports engage with travellers through social media. Find out more about its strategy consulting and training services at SimpliFlying.com, on Twitter: @SimpliFlying, or email wannalearnmore@SimpliFlying.com

To read about the latest developments in the adoption of in-flight connectivity visit: flightglobal.com/wi-fi