Trends, Technology and Cooperation

Mobile devices are expected to increase their already significant role in airline sales and passenger processing. (Photo - Lufthansa)

Tom Allett attended SITA’s annual Air Transport IT Summit in Brussels.

Mobile devices are expected to increase their already significant role in airline sales and passenger processing. (Photo - Lufthansa)

Though the airline industry has employed cutting-edge equipment throughout its history, the impact that information technology is having on how we travel is truly remarkable.
The SITA/Airline Business annual IT Trends Survey acts as an industry barometer and forms the basis of discussion for SITA’s annual Air Transport IT Summit.  This year’s event took place in Brussels from June 19 to 21.  The 2012 survey and the summit’s discussion highlighted that the way airlines do business is undergoing what is described as a “fundamental transformation”, as mobile phone apps now play a part in “every stage of the journey and core aspects of operations”.
The survey, which SITA says represents the views of over half of the world’s top 100 carriers states that 93% of airlines have “mobile services for passengers as a top investment priority over the next three years,” with 58% of them said to be investing in major advances.  In addition, 35% of the airlines surveyed stated that they are investing in research and development.  While it is always difficult to judge the accuracy of such statistics – after all, why would any business publicly admit to not being proactive about its IT development – the overall trend is undeniable.  Over half of the survey’s airlines stated that they were already selling tickets via mobile devices and, “by 2015, 89% of the airlines plan to do so.”
Launching the 2012 Airline IT Trends Survey, Francesco Violante CEO SITA, said: “This year’s survey shows how airlines are committed to mobile across the whole business.  Mobile apps are being used to improve the passenger experience, reduce operating costs and generate revenue.  This is the second year that mobile services for passengers tops the list of investment programmes and it is the adoption of mobile apps across sales, customer services and passenger processing that truly shows that airlines are committed to transformation.”
He added that the annual survey had recorded the migration to mobile for many years but the 2012 results had shown the “absolute commitment from the airlines to a mobile future.”
 
No Queues?
Although sales via airline websites will continue to experience growth, it is predicted that social media will increasingly have a “significant impact” on direct sales and it is expected that mobile devices will eventually rival websites as the primary source of ticket sales.
Nigel Pickford, SITA’s Strategy Development and Market Intelligence Director stated that: “Mobile will be a dominant channel.  It is the highest priority for nearly all airlines.”  He added that, “By 2015 airlines are planning for significant personalisation [of sales and service offers] sold direct through new channels; 75% are committed to planning personalisation in direct sales.”
Mr Pickford predicted that by 2015 self-service will have “come-of-age” and suggested that there would be “no more queues at the bag drop.”  During the question and answer session that followed the ‘no queues’ line was picked up on by former Airports International editor Mark Pilling – now the publisher of Airline Business – who remarked (as politely as he possibly could) “that’s rubbish isn’t it; the queues will just move somewhere else – like security – won’t they?”
Nigel Pickford, SITA’s Strategy Development and Market Intelligence Director. (SITA)

Mr Pickford responded by saying that with passenger numbers continuing to increase, by 2030 there will be twice as many passengers flying as there is today and predicted that, despite the investment already being made in airports, the chances are that capacity management is going to become a bigger and bigger issue.  He added that passenger flow management throughout the airport will need to be re-invented, or at best, streamlined.  “Automation of the passenger process is a given – and in practical terms that means more self-service.  It may never be perfect, but if we don’t try to solve aspects of the passenger experience, everyone is going to be queuing for much longer in 2030.”
Mr Pickford concluded: “In summary, things have to change because the trend to travel is changing and we need to get more people through the airport infrastructure – which has finite physical limitations.  But it depends on the airports providing some of the basic infrastructure investment to enable the airlines to do that in a cost-effective way, perhaps through common use.  My personal view is that common use will become more and more important as we try to do more things to automate the airport – speeding up the adoption of full self-service and self-boarding in line with the airlines’ ambitions.”
 
App Cooperation
Speaker David Bulman, Virgin Atlantic’s IT Director, began his presentation by reminding everyone that a significant number of airline passengers don’t actually enjoy flying and, no matter how good the service is, for them, getting on an aircraft will always be down to necessity rather than pleasure.  Under those circumstances, all that can be done for the passenger is to ensure his or her journey is made as relaxing as possible.  Part of that process involved helping the customer to plan their onward journeys and highlighted the use of next-generation mobile apps as the way forward.  He called for the industry to create single-source applications that would do away with the need to download multiple tools.  Noting that, with regard to the consumer market, each airport and airline has its own app, he said that there could be more cooperation to create a single offering – he described it as a “Vanilla” app – that would work for all airlines and airports by taking a segment of information from each of the various companies’ own apps.  Mr Bulman believes that the still emerging HTML5 computer language will soon enable this, and added that flowing information into this multi-serving Vanilla app would allow passengers to plan their journeys much more easily.  He said it’s, “not just a single app that guides you between airlines and cities, but [one that guides you] down to the passenger’s departure gate”.  He acknowledged that cooperation between, often fierce, competitors is obviously rare but added that he was already talking to his industry colleagues on this subject and added that such a project might need IATA’s help to drive it forward.
 
Developer.aero
Mr Bullman’s message to the summit was well timed.  At the same event, SITA’s research technology team, SITA Lab, invited airlines to join its trials of developer.aero; an application programming interface (API) developers’ portal which should allow all industry players to develop an app by using a common standard in the same way that the credit card companies have.
SITA Lab says that it will supply APIs to developers in due course and revealed that it already has one on trial that studies the data created by the company’s BagTrac system.
SITA Lab states that it is designing the platform to allow airlines, airports and other industry players to extend their existing IT processes by engaging with the “application developer community” to provide new apps for the industry and passengers, adding that it is now, “moving into its next phase of [API] development”.
It remains to be seen which solution the market eventually chooses and who will produce the apps.