Technology trends that will revolutionise the air transport industry – again

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As the airline IT industry meets up for its annual gathering in Brussels, SITA chairman Paul Coby examines how new technologies can be effectively harnessed to improve the customer experience.

I was privileged to open the SITA/Airline Business Air Transport IT Summit in Brussels on 22-23 June, where we examined future IT game-changers for air transport. What will be the game-changing trends that shape technology innovation in the airline business?

We will have to adopt new technologies quickly, being a growing industry with limited airport and airspace capacity. The 4.7 billion people who pass through our airports today (ACI data for airport passenger movements) are predicted by 2020 to grow to around 7.5 billion - another 2.5-3 billion people for us to serve at the airport. Delivering the vision of seamless travel for our customers will need the right mix of technologies. I believe that making the right IT will be a key differentiator for ­airlines and airports in attracting customers in the next decade.

These three billion extra people will be even more tech-savvy than current passengers. Generation X and Y (and Z, by then) will have been born and raised in the digital world.

We already travel with our own technology: smart phones, tablet devices and laptops. An increasing focus for innovation is how we can link our technology with that of our customers. And these days customer technology is often more advanced than corporate technology, so we find ourselves playing catch-up.

Consumer mobility is also driving new consumer trends. We can now be connected almost any time and anywhere - and we want to be connected more easily, quickly and ­dependably in even more places, of course including on a flight. Social networks such as Facebook have become valuable not only to users but to airlines and airports wanting to connect to potential customers.

But how do we get a meaningful return from social networks? Reaching the next generation of passengers demands a very different approach - and mindset - from the last decade.

So we have our first C trend: convergence. Voice and data are coming together on the same device, providing new services. Hardware is converging and today's smart devices replace what would previously have been multiple devices. Mobile phones replace cameras, we watch TV on our PCs and DVDs on our games consoles. How likely then is it that aircraft will need the type of seatback in-flight entertainment systems we install these days at a cost of millions of dollars?

All of this means more channels and ­complexity for airlines and airports - and more tough calls for all of us.

My second C trend is the ubiquity of communications. Everything as well as everyone will soon be connected through IP addresses. So everything - aircraft, engines, components, cargo containers, even bags - will be "talking" and exchanging huge volumes of data.

making sense of the data

An enormous challenge will be to make sense of that mass of data. Storing, processing, transporting and, above all, interpreting it is going to need a radically new approach. Then just add to this the sensor technology - near-field communication, Bluetooth, radio frequency - that we will be introducing at different points in the customer journey, both for passengers and their baggage. Plus, of course, there will be biometric data to process too.

So how do we turn all that data into useful information? Business intelligence, and how you interpret your data, is going to need to become a lot more sophisticated. If you can get this right, you will be able to drive effective customer personalisation, the key to loyalty.

So we have our first 2 "C" mega-trends: convergence and communications. What are the other game-changers for our industry?

The next mega-trend is connectivity in a mobile world. There are some five billion mobile telephones on this planet. But we have not seen the real impact of mobile communications yet. We can expect that smart phones will outsell personal computers by year-end.

A new wave of entrepreneurs has arisen - application developers who see "mobile" space as the new frontier. Users will expect software to offer the ease and flexibility of apps. People will simply not accept the clunkiness and load times of legacy systems. Even today's highly optimised sites seem inflexible and slow compared with easy-to-use apps.

My prediction is that the location-based services will evolve to give passengers information relevant to their precise location at every step of their journey. Location computing should also provide great productivity and efficiency gains in ground operations and maintenance, as employees get the information they need much faster and manual tasks become automated.

And as regulars know, my fourth mega-trend is the move of everything to the cloud, which I talked about in my last column.

So chief executives and chief information officers need to chose which technology horses to back. Get them right and you will deliver brilliant customer-focused service at a competitive cost.

Paul Coby is chairman of SITA and former BA chief information officer. Read his previous columns on distribution and social media at: flightglobal.com/ITzone