Rapid adoption by air travellers of web-enabled smartphones and tablet computers, coupled with explosive growth in social media, is forcing airlines to change the way they interact with customers - and in the process is propelling improvements in the passenger experience.
Constantly connected travellers increasingly expect to be able to book tickets that are tailored to their specific requirements and transparent of all fees. They want to receive flight status and other information from mobile apps and "opt-in" push notifications, to ensure a streamlined airport experience.
They want to have access to in-flight entertainment and connectivity options akin to those available on the ground and feel reasonably assured that their checked luggage will greet them at the other end of the flight.
Personal mobile technology is ushering in a "new era" of passenger-centric services, according to Travel Tech Consulting founder Norm Rose.
In a special report for Amadeus, Rose writes: "In today's environment of instant information, consumers expect to be constantly informed by connecting to a variety of sources, while maintaining contact with their social networks.
"To keep pace with the expectations of the customer, airlines and airports must take concrete steps to take advantage of these emerging devices and technologies.
"As personal technology continues to evolve, they must also keep pace with customer expectations and utilise these new platforms to improve loyalty and travel efficiency," Rose writes.
Even as airlines continue to fight high oil prices and low yields with the now-standard arsenal of high-density, economy-class seating, technological stagnation is simply no longer an option for them.
"A decade of challenges have brought airlines to the edge of bankruptcy and disillusioned the passenger," says Jaime Moreno, founder and chief executive of design firm Mormedi, which works with clients including Airbus, Iberia and Spanair. However, consumer air travel perception is now recovering, he says. "Passengers respond positively to services that make their overall travel experience smoother."
In this connected and social world, says Moreno, consumers "will punish the brand that did not listen. They will love and promote the one that did."
Some airlines have taken this message to heart, and are investing in technological innovation at every part of the travel experience.
"Airlines have so many touch points with passengers in the passenger journey. It's a much bigger relationship now than in the past. It's not just about frequent-flyer miles but the booking experience, the check-in experience and the things you can do at the airport, like access lounges. That relationship you carry in-flight and through the post-flight journey," says Emirates vice-president corporate communications, product, publishing digital and events Patrick Brannelly, who heads up the Airline Passenger Experience Association - an organisation that changed its name last year from the World Airline Entertainment Association, to reflect the role it plays in helping to deliver passenger experience for the world's commercial airlines.
The passenger journey begins at booking. "A customer's first interaction with us is often through a web site to book a ticket. We don't even know them at that stage, but you have to be able to influence that experience from that point on," says Air New Zealand manager of aircraft programmes Kerry Reeves.
In the USA, Delta Air Lines is often cited by industry stakeholders as one of the most technologically forward-thinking of the US legacy carriers. The SkyTeam alliance member recently expanded on what would be considered classic social media interactions with its passengers - promotions and customer service - and started accepting bookings directly on Facebook, becoming the first carrier to do so.
Because Delta offers Aircell's air-to-ground-based Gogo in-flight wi-fi solution on its domestic mainline fleet - and is keenly aware of its wi-fi usage statistics - the carrier knows that Facebook is a very big component of virtually every passenger connection. "People are constantly talking to friends in-flight. It's consistently the number one site when people log onto Gogo, and that's one of the reasons why we developed the Delta ticket counter, which essentially allows customers to place reservations, do their check-in and engage in key transactional stuff in their travel," says the airline.
Indeed, while the mobile revolution is in full swing, "a simultaneous revolution is occurring in respect to the influence of social media", says Travel Tech's Rose. "With Facebook now the top web site in the USA and with over 500 million users globally - representing one in every 13 people on earth - the impact of social media cannot be ignored. The relationship between mobile devices and social media is clear, with more than 200 million active users currently accessing Facebook through their mobile devices. This is a global phenomenon, impacting travellers worldwide."
For airlines and airports, understanding the impact of mobile use of social media is essential, he says. "One customer complaint is now amplified across the traveller's social graph, impacting the carrier's brand and influencing other customers."
Delta, meanwhile, has released Apple iPhone and RIM BlackBerry apps in the past 12 months that let customers check in, view flight status, access electronic boarding passes and, notably, re-book flights. It has also launched a user-friendly online homepage, that displays a loyalty club member's mileage balance, released its first native Android app (with rebooking capability slated to be added before the summer), updated its paperless e-boarding check-in options with service in 69 cities and installed personal electronic device recharging stations at some 19 airports. This is a move that has received "tremendously positive reviews from our customers", says the carrier.
Although widespread deployment of RFID for baggage location awareness is not forecast to occur until 2014, according to Rose, Delta has already taken the initiative to implement a programme that allows customers to track their checked luggage - similar to a FedEx package - via its web site.
Passengers can even check to make sure their luggage has been loaded onto the aircraft while in flight. by accessing Delta's website for free via the otherwise usually pay-for-service Gogo solution. Delta plans to expand Gogo to 223 regional jets operated by its Delta Connection partners by the end of this year.
Until last year, however, broad innovation largely took a back seat, as Delta focused on its merger with Northwest Airlines, which was finalised at the end of 2008. "One of the things that have hurt innovation, quite frankly, is the mega-mergers over the last few years. Once the integration process is complete they can focus on it," says IFE and connectivity consultant Michael Planey.
Indeed, Delta is now "starting to unleash" its technological pipeline, says Delta president Ed Bastian, noting that "you'll see it unleashed over the course of the year, to generate higher premium service and higher premium technologies of the revenue stream that, internally, we expect to generate somewhere between a 2-4-point unit revenue improvement".
THE CAPTIVE AUDIENCE
Installing in-flight connectivity systems is becoming the cost of doing business for medium and long-haul operators.
Don't ask: "Should we introduce connectivity?" or "Will it work?" Do ask: "How soon can we introduce connectivity and how will we make it work for everyone?" That is the advice to airlines that Oman Air chief executive Peter Hill dished out at a recent conference in London.
Oman Air bears the distinction of being the first carrier in the world with both in-flight mobile connectivity and wi-fi, offering OnAir's solutions via the Inmarsat L-band "SwiftBroadband" aeronautical services, available linefit to its Airbus widebodies.
AeroMobile, whose solution also talks to Ku-band through a partnership with Panasonic, strongly believes passengers require the same type of connectivity on board as they are accustomed to receiving on the ground, "which means you have a variety of methods to connect to the internet, one being mobile internet [and] the other being wi-fi. Large screen devices often hook up through wi-fi. Small screen devices often hook up through mobile internet. Having the same type of connectivity - and not restricting it to wi-fi - we believe is essential for the passenger to perceive this as a good service," says AeroMobile chief executive Pal Bjordal.
"People don't want to change their user patterns. When you're using the iPhone on the cellular network, you want to continue doing that. A lot of people don't even know how to switch on their wi-fi on cellular systems. There has been a lot of talk of how wi-fi and mobile connectivity will compete against each other. I don't think that is the case at all. It will heighten the communication on board the aircraft," he adds.
But even as airborne communications take hold, IFE systems remain "a key differentiator" for airlines, notes Mormedi founder Moreno.
In 2007, when Air New Zealand started to review a project for introducing Boeing 777-300ERs and 787s into its fleet - at that stage planned for 2010 - the carrier knew it wanted to take the 3.5-year timeframe to reinvent the long-haul travel experience. It tapped design firm IDEO to help it gather insights into their passengers. Through observation, surveys and research via different mediums, Air New Zealand was able to break down its passengers into different personas, ending up with five different character types that were best illustrated by using characters from popular cartoon The Simpsons.
"We had a bunch of people on board the aircraft that were classic Mr Burns character - frequent travellers that were very demanding. Then we had the bartender types, who are very laid back, the Marge Simpson-type infrequent traveller who wants to engage in the experience, the Bart Simpson character who is always social and can't entertain himself and the Lisa Simpson-type, who is sort of semi-social, but is very well informed and knows everything about travel," says Air New Zealand's Reeves.
Working with Panasonic, Air New Zealand was able to offer an IFE system on its 777-300ERs that allows these different types of passengers to define the experience they want on board. "IFE allows you to create lots of different ways for people to interact. An IFE graphical user interface that is simple and easy to find basic movies is all some people want, but having the technology to support a more geeky interaction was important, and that widespread opportunity exists with the IFE," says Reeves.
The same thinking went into designing Air New Zealand's much-acclaimed seats for the 777-300ERs as well as its food and beverage service. While the carrier offers timed meal services, it does not force passengers to eat the meal at that time. "We have food and beverage on demand in between meals that can be ordered on the [IFE] screen in the seat. We don't charge for the meals served in between. They are free," notes Reeves.
Although Air New Zealand does not charge for meals and other services on its long-haul 777 flights, including those provided by its onboard concierge - opting instead to offer such products as a means of differentiation - some airlines see a huge opportunity to use technology to monetise the customers.
A growing body of research suggests that when a company provides choice, but introduces a financial exchange, it changes the way consumers interact and improves their overall experience.
"In the 1980s and 1990s, airlines tried to take complexity out, but it made the passenger experience terrible. If you add complexity back in the passenger values it, and if you can charge for it then it's economically rational to have complexity - and the passenger can have a better experience because it's an experience they've opted into and tailor-made," says John Thomas, the global head of LEK Consulting's aviation and travel practice.
But product features for individual market segments "need to be initiated, designed, developed, certified, implemented and then sold to the public in ways that clearly demonstrate perceived customer benefits", says author and interiors consultant Jennifer Coutts Clay.
"For example - an in-flight literature pocket positioned near the top of a seat-back is likely to be of enormous interest to potential economy-class customers, when it is presented as a perceived personal-comfort upgrade: 'Look! With our new seat treatment, passengers get two extra inches of knee-room!'"
Significantly, technology is helping carriers to unbundle and monetise their products and services, under the umbrella of passenger choice.
"Value-for-money offers are becoming more important in all industries. Clients expect to get what they pay for. The majority of legacy carriers, pushed by reducing yields, are increasingly focusing on ancillary revenues. Alitalia is on the same path, offering the possibility to buy high-value services like lounge access, fast track [at the airport], more comfortable seats and premium food. This lets the customer customise the product at their choice," says Alitalia director of customer experience and ancillary revenue Aureliano Cicala.
On the other hand, he says: "We are improving services for high-yield passengers, who are more demanding because they value the difference in fares. So, we made tangible investments in seats (full-flat on long haul), materials, food and beverage quality and lounge services, mostly in cooperation with famous Italian brands like Ginori, Frette and Bulgari.
"Alitalia aims to promote 'made in Italy'. This will lead to a broad gap in services between coach and business, but the ultimate goal is to get a value-for-money balance, in order to give more to the high value customer, and flexible options to the others."
Check out all the news and trends in onboard services from the Aircraft Interiors exhibition in Hamburg at: flightglobal.com/AIX11