Technology's Role in Providing Passengers with a Positive & Enjoyable Flying Experience

Janakiraman S R, Strategy & Business Development, Rolls-Royce India & South AsiaAn alumnus of IIM, Lucknow, Janakiraman has over 15 years of experience in Management Consulting, Manufacturing, Engineering Management, Product Design, Product Life cycle Management (PLM), CAD/CAE & PLM solutions and many other areas.

Globally, the demand for air travel is growing continuously. Not only is the number of people flying increasing, also their demands & expectations too are changing. Passengers are growing to expect greater comfort & space, personalised services, in-flight connectivity, and zero-compromise on timely arrival and departure. This is being driven by advancements in technology, the explosive growth in social media, as well as the rapid rise of smartphone usage. So, whether a first-time traveller or a frequent traveller, the expectations are for technology to assist and enhance the overall journey, as more people are getting accustomed to interacting with technology in their day-to-day lives.

To cater to these changing expectations, airports around the world are investing in new technologies and innovative solutions. Airlines too are introducing new and innovative methods such as self-check-in by phone apps, self-printing of boarding passes at the airport, real-time flight updates, in-flight connectivity, and personalised menu choices for better comfort and a positive travel experience. With the technology landscape evolving in India, it is an opportune time for airports and airlines to leverage new and emerging technologies to be future ready and provide passengers with an innovative, positive and enjoyable flying experience, and ultimately to create a significant competitive advantage.

Technology as the Enabler
Technological innovations hold the key to creating more efficient operational processes that transform overall passenger experiences both on the ground to in-flight. From automated self-service check-in kiosks and bag drop services, food & drink delivery at the gate to chatbots and airport way finding apps, various processes in a passenger’s journey are being transformed to redefine the overall passenger experience making it more positive, stress-free and enjoyable.

Globally, the civil aviation ecosystem is benefiting from more effective data gathering and real-time updates and is beginning to embrace transformative technologies, including Internet of Things (IoT), Automation, Big Data, Robots, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality(AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality(MR). For example, humanoid robots are appearing at some major airport hubs, including at Seoul’s Incheon Airport, where they carry-out tasks, including cleaning & carrying luggage, while Munich Airport’s robot directs people to their gate and provides information to passengers about restaurants and shops.

Additionally, the ever-increasing adoption of mobile and wearable devices, coupled with the increasing number of aircraft offering inflight connectivity, are creating opportunities for improving the travel experience. Gatwick Airport uses AR way finding, which allows passengers to view AR directions to wherever they need to go within the terminal. Several airlines in Europe have already started testing the use of VR headsets that are pre-loaded with movies, destination information, including sightseeing tours and
shopping to showcase a range of entertainment options for passengers. Emirates and Etihad are the latest airlines to announce trials of VR headset in its lounges. VR is even used by a number of airlines, including American Airlines, Japan Airlines, and KLM for enhancing training and operations.

"The key for airlines, airports, and the government is to collaboratively build the right processes, guidelines, and solutions for creating a fully integrated and secure ecosystem with the use of technology that promises a redefined & seamless passenger experience"

Leveraging technology,data sharing and collaboration to create a more efficient and positive passenger experience will be the key differentiator. However, staying on top of these emerging technologies, as well as fighting against cyber threats will be crucial for airlines, airports and government.

Creating an Intelligent Airport
Each one of us is now used to accessing information at the swipe of a finger and being kept constantly up-to-date by social media. Airports & airlines can use the accessible data ecosystem more intelligently to empower passengers with information at all stages of their journey, from the time they arrive at the airport to take-off and arrivals. This would mean creating a hassle-free passage through check-in and security procedures, providing real-time tailored flight information on delays, cancellations, or gate changes and baggage status.

Some of the world’s leading airports are already using technology to manage rising passenger numbers and to meet the increasing demands of ‘connected’ passengers, providing a seamless experience. For example, Abu Dhabi International Airport uses Facebook and Twitter to provide passengers with real-time flight updates, including gate departure and arrival times. Several airports in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and UK are implementing Biometric Facial Recognition(BFR) technology to reduce human factors and enhance the seamless experience. JFK Airport in New York is one of the latest in the industry to leverage VR & MR technology to let customers experience destinations, hotels, or even the inside of an airplane before the trip, from the comfort of their own home.

In India, the government is already making the most of digital technologies through initiatives like Aadhaar linked biometric authentication system for e-boarding, and the launch of the Air SEWA mobile app to check flight status. More recently, the government allowed phone and internet connectivity, while in air, which means passengers may use mobile phones for both voice and data services on domestic and international flights. Several Indian airlines have welcomed the decision as it creates a better experience by enabling passengers to catch up on work or watch their favourite entertainment.

An Engine that is Intelligent
Today’s new generation of aircraft generate a significant amount of data from engine operation, fuel usage, crew activity, and even weather systems encountered during flight. For instance, a single Airbus A350-1000 has nearly 6000 sensors throughout the aircraft and generates an average of 2.5 TB of data per day. Rolls-Royce recently launched its pioneering Intelligent Engine vision, which will help people fly more reliably and efficiently than ever before. We see the worlds of product and service becoming so closely connected that they are inseparable, made even stronger by the revolution in digital capability underpinning the two. For our customers this means ever-greater reliability and efficiency and opportunities to find greater value. Engines will be able to communicate with other engines, they’ll sense and respond to their operating environment without any need for human intervention and they’ll learn from their experiences and adjust behaviour to achieve better performance.

Similarly, airlines and airports can use advanced analytics & artificial intelligence to gather information from this vast amount of available data to optimise operations & maintenance on a real-time basis. For example, airlines can closely monitor arrival and departure data and correlate it with weather patterns to predict possible delays or cancellations. Passengers can be updated accordingly about schedules and options from the minute they leave their home for the airport. The available data could also allow for more accurate prediction for maintenance and inform if parts may need replacing, allowing airlines to further optimise operational efficiency. This would mean fewer delays and a better passenger experience.

The Future
Technology will continue to impact the constantly evolving aviation industry. The key is for airlines, airports, and the government is to collaboratively build the right processes, guidelines and solutions for creating a fully integrated and secure ecosystem that promises a redefined and seamless passenger experience. In doing so, the challenge will be to focus on protection against cyber threats and keeping systems secure and reliable. Another crucial area will be to stay on top of the latest technologies to make sure passengers’ changing expectations are met, as these are evolving through their day-to-day interactions with the newest technologies.