Full steam ahead

The travel technology space is moving at such speed that it’s hard to keep up with all that is going on, but it’s also incredibly exciting….

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Whatever we think about the pace of change in our everyday lives, technology has been right at the core, enhancing and personalising our experiences like never before. And nowhere is this truer than in the travel world, where technology has positively disrupted how we plan, book and stay when travelling for work or leisure.

This technological transformation has spawned a new generation of tech-savvy, app-wielding consumers who demand smart, friction-less travel at every point of the process. From booking travel and accommodation to checking in, shopping and booking transfers, the power is literally in people’s pockets.

This new ‘on demand’ dynamic and fast-paced travel culture has thrown a spotlight on corporate travel, because it openly challenges the stigma which has, for so long, defined business trips – bleary-eyed men and women in suits rushing through an airport to catch a flight they’re likely late for, before spending the night in boring, corporate accommodation and eating bland food off the room service menu.

This could not be further from the truth. Technology has inspired the rebirth of corporate travel like never before, giving business travellers a greater sense of freedom and exploration, as well as validating time out of the office – something which has blighted business leaders for years.

In fact, we’re seeing the rise of a new class of ‘bleisure traveller’. The lines between business and leisure travel have blurred, with holiday opportunists taking the chance to extend their business trip for personal pleasure.

A TECHNOLOGY-POWERED BOOKING EXPERIENCE

In many ways, technology has short-circuited the travel booking process immeasurably – making methods such as booking through travel agents or calling airlines and hotels directly a thing of the past. Travellers today expect speed, instant confirmation, access to real traveller reviews, diverse places to stay and price transparency – demands which traditional booking methods simply cannot fulfil or keep pace with.

Booking.com research suggests that 93% of business travellers experience some level of stress during their trip, with 25% stating they are always or frequently stressed throughout. By making travel apps, gadgets and tools an essential part of their travel process, executives on the go can simplify travel and eliminate many of the most stressful aspects of the journey.

HIGH-TECH ACCOMMODATION

The impact of technology does not stop when business travellers leave the airport. In fact, this is where it becomes even more interesting. Accommodation providers are increasingly recognising that the sweet spot in customer service excellence lies in a mix of self-service technology and human interaction. It’s why we’ve seen interest peak in things like Artificial Intelligence (AI) or machine learning. As human beings crave personal interaction, travel technology providers are now trying to mimic this through cutting-edge innovations.

This includes overhauling the check-in experience to make it more intuitive, seamless and personal, as well as providing app and gadget recommendations to help travellers navigate their neighbourhoods while in town on business. From language apps such as ‘Duolingo’ to learn while on-the-go, to foodie apps like ‘Foodspotting’ which take the hassle out of finding places to sample local cuisine – technology is enhancing the full spectrum of the travel experience, well beyond flights and accommodation.

The Blow-Up Hall 5050 hotel in Poznan, Poland, for example, combines innovative technologies with luxury to create a modern and artistic experiment.

Guests are captured on camera as they enter the hotel, and stylised images of their profiles are projected back. Instead of traditional keys, guests are handed iPhones at reception which are linked to specific rooms and use digital recognition software to guide users to the correct room and unlock the door on proximity. This tackles a real pain point for business travellers – one in five state that checking in and out is the most annoying part of a work trip.

GENERATION WIRED

Advances in technology have altered the course of travel forever. Consumer expectations of travel, whether for work or leisure, are increasingly intertwined and sophisticated. People now expect a basic level of technology throughout their journey – at the airport, on the plane and in their accommodation. But they also want to be in control of their trip at all times, from any device and with the touch of a button.

From digital luggage tags, to portable espresso machines, to apps like Booking.com which instantly find you a place to stay even when standing on a street corner anywhere in the world, technology has raised the bar when it comes to expectations of corporate travel.

With the advancement of travel technology, the ways business travellers book, manage and enjoy their journeys have become increasingly easier, slicker, and stress-free. And for the future, the sky may be the limit. Who knows – perhaps we will soon see artificially intelligent personal assistants installed in hotel rooms, or driverless cars taking business travellers to and from the airport?

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Picking up on that last point, there’s no doubt that AI is one of the hottest topics in the travel technology space.

Google’s Vice-President of Engineering for Travel and Shopping, Oliver Heckmann, says that nearly 60% of consumers believe that their travel experience should deploy the use of AI and base their search results on past behaviours and/or personal preferences. Google’s data shows that 36% of consumers are willing to pay more for these personalized experiences.

Further to that, a 2018 survey by YouGov found that 68% of the British public would welcome the presence of AI at the airport.

Carried out on behalf of inflight entertainment and passenger engagement company Spafax, the survey asked 2,110 people for their wish list for a “lounge of the future”.

Findings showed a disparity between what young and old want. While 27% of all respondents said they would not like artificial intelligence to assist them with anything for their trip, over 55s were most resistant to AI in airports, with 33% saying they would not like it to assist them. In contrast, only 17% of 18-24-year-olds said they didn’t want help from AI.

Of those asked, 37% aged 18 to 34 said they would play augmented reality (AR) board games with other passengers, but only 9% of those 55 and over said they would. Other findings included:

– 17% of 18-24-year-olds said they would like to try on hologram clothes at an airport, while only 6% of 55 and overs said they would

– 36% of women said they would choose a virtual reality (VR) preview of tourist attractions at their destination, along with the opportunity to pre-book tickets once they’d browsed

“We commissioned this research to find out what the British public actually wants out of their airport and airport lounge experiences,” said Charles Vine, Head of Brand Alliances at Spafax. “Airport lounges in particular are evolving from faceless waiting rooms with chairs and a coffee machine to being providers of an experience in their own right. The results send a clear message to us that people want the introduction of technology, but only in a way that enhances their trip, entertains or is enjoyable.”

Backing up the stats rolled out by Google and Spafax, one just needs to take a look at some of the travel industry AI stories emerging from 2018 to get a sense of how much is being done in this space, and what to expect from 2019.

BIOMETRICS

As it is, advances in machine vision are seeing a growing convergence between AI and other sophisticated technologies like biometrics, which has been a feature of airport technology development in the past 18 months.

According to Forbes, most airlines and airports are exploring the use of biometric identification to get travellers checked in, through security, and boarded on flights.

A survey by SITA, a technology company serving the aviation industry, found that 77% of airports and 71% of airlines are either researching biometrics or planning to implement programmes to identify travellers using facial recognition or other biometric means.

Biometrics are already becoming a familiar part of the travel experience, to the extent that Delta has launched the first end-to-end biometric terminal in the US, promising to speed up the passenger experience at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.

Facial recognition technology can be used to confirm passenger identity at check-in, bag drop, security and boarding, removing the need to show a passport and boarding pass at each step.

After a partial roll-out in October, the facial-scanning cameras will now be used for all international flights from Terminal F on Delta and its joint venture partners Aeromexico, Air France, KLM and Virgin Atlantic.

“Customers have an expectation that experiences along their journey are easy and happen seamlessly – that’s what we’re aiming for by launching this technology across airport touch points,” said Delta’s Chief Operating Officer, Gil West.

In 2018, British Airways expanded trials of biometric boarding and arrivals technology at US airports, with partnerships at airports in Los Angeles, Orlando, Miami and New York.

Travellers going through Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) can also now make use of new automated e-Security Gates powered by facial-recognition technology, cutting down the amount of time it takes for them to proceed through security to just 20 seconds.

At launch in September 2018, just four e-Security Gates were available to passengers, located in the Terminal 1 South Departure Hall prior to baggage scanning and immigration. Additional gates are to be introduced in phases, however, with a total of 44 to be introduced by the end of the first quarter of this year.

Eligible travellers can use the electronic gates to scan their documents and boarding passes, which are then verified by facial recognition technology using the gates’ embedded cameras. Previously, airport security staff conducted this process manually.

No prior enrolment is required in order to be able to use the gates, and any passengers over the age of 11 that hold a valid electronic travel document are able to use the service.

“This new smart initiative will speed up and enhance the accuracy of the document checking process,” said Chris Au Young, General Manager, Smart Airport for Airport Authority Hong Kong. “It also marks the first step in our efforts to streamline passenger boarding at HKIA by using biometrics.”

“In the near future, HKIA will extend the use of biometrics and facial recognition to check-in and boarding procedures with the aim of using passengers’ faces for identity verification throughout their departure journey at HKIA, providing a seamless experience for travellers.”

HKIA has long provided automated gates at immigration for Hong Kong residents, which read their smart identity cards and scan fingerprints, however it has been slow to implement biometric screening, and facial-recognition technology in particular, across the rest of its security and immigration processes.

Regional rival Changi Airport in Singapore, meanwhile, opened its new Terminal 4 in 2017, offering automated end-to-end processing across its check-in, security, immigration and boarding procedures, with facial recognition playing a key role.

Technology companies like Apple have also made biometric identification more familiar to the masses.

“Biometrics not only have the power to create a more secure world by validating identity with more certainty, but also create a more seamless customer experience,” said Caryn Seidman Becker, CEO and Chairman of airport security firm CLEAR.

“We picture a not-so-distant future where biometrics replace the need for cash, credit cards and physical forms of identification – think health insurance cards, hotel check-ins, restaurants, car sharing, smart cities and more. The possibilities are endless.”

OTHER TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENT

There were a number of other stories grabbing headlines in 2018, emphasising just how much work is being done in the technology space to make the travel process seamless and more enjoyable.

These were just a few that caught the eye:

Star Alliance trials VR technology in Paris and Rome lounges

Visitors to Star Alliance lounges at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport and Fiumicino Airport in Rome were able to test out virtual reality systems that could eventually be part of the entertainment offerings on aircraft and at airport lounges globally.

The Airline Passenger Experience Association (Apex), a trade organisation, said that travellers were able to use the Pico Goblin VR headsets to play games, watch films, experience destinations and meditate.

Raphael Baumann, Chief Commercial Officer of Inflight VR, said the equipment could be used in lounges or on flights.

“We have experiences which are only 15 minutes, but also 45-minute short films as well as games which can last an hour or longer,” he said. “It’s a good mix that fits to the average stay of lounge visitors, which is close to an hour.”

Baumann said that Star Alliance’s 27 airline members — including United, Air Canada, Lufthansa, and Swiss — could also introduce their own branded content on the VR platform.

Iberia, a member of the Oneworld alliance, is already using Inflight VR headsets on some of its flights after initially testing them in airport lounges.

And in 2017, Air France trialled the use of Skylights virtual reality headsets in-flight, allowing passengers to “enjoy 3D and 2D films or series in their own private movie theatre in isolation from the rest of the cabin”.

World’s first built-in massager backpack

Indian brand EUME unveiled a built-in massager backpack, designed to reduce pain and relax the back and shoulder muscles — you can adjust the massager as per your torso size to get maximum benefits.

A perfect blend of technology and style, the bag is ideal for heavy commutes and can handle extreme weather conditions.

Additionally, the bag also features an in-built portable USB charger and a specially crafted anti-theft zipper.

“The backpack will serve as a hybrid between a 24-hour bag and a weekend bag and is versatile with a high longevity,” said Naina and Sanjay Parekh, founders of the EUME brand. “EUME fits everything you need, and more. Like everything we do, it is a product we intend to constantly refine and you will see the design evolve over time. For now, we have tested this bag day in day out and we love it, so do our first customers.”

Airports turn to technology to keep airport toilets cleaner

Airport toilets are getting cleaner thanks to new technology and a recognition by airport operators that toilets are a key factor in customer satisfaction, the New York Times reported in October.

Industry group Airport Councils International’s (ACI) Airport Service Quality: Airport Cleanliness report found that clean restrooms and terminals had the greatest effect on travellers’ airport ratings.

“If you want a pleasant experience, clean bathrooms are a must,” said ACI Associate Director Dimitri Coll.

Airports like Atlanta’s busy Hartsfield Jackson International Airport and LAX have invested in technology from TRAX SmartRestroom, which manages both restroom clean-up and stall availability to cut bathroom wait times.

The system is simple for travellers: a red light indicates an occupied stall, while green means the stall is available. In the background, sensors track how many people enter and exit the restroom so that cleaning crews can be alerted after certain thresholds have been met — 300 users, for example.

A smile/frown-based rating system also provides customer feedback to airline officials and custodial staff.

Washington D.C.’s Reagan and Dulles airports are using an app that provides updates on restroom cleanliness.

“We know that there’s nothing worse than a dirty bathroom, and this app helps us make sure that ours stay clean,” said Airport Spokesperson Andrew Trull.

Boeing completes first autonomous air vehicle flight

Boeing has successfully completed the first test flight of its autonomous passenger air vehicle (PAV) prototype in Manassas, Virginia, USA. Boeing NeXt, which leads the company’ urban air mobility efforts, utilized Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences to design and develop the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and will continue testing to advance the safety and reliability of on-demand autonomous air transportation.

The PAV prototype completed a controlled take-off, hover and landing during the flight, which tested the vehicle’s autonomous functions and ground control systems. Future flights will test forward, wing-borne flight, as well as the transition phase between vertical and forward-flight modes. This transition phase is typically the most significant engineering challenge for any high-speed VTOL aircraft.

“In one year, we have progressed from a conceptual design to a flying prototype,” said Boeing Chief Technology Officer Greg Hyslop.

Powered by an electric propulsion system, the PAV prototype is designed for fully autonomous flight from take-off to landing, with a range of up to 50 miles (80.47 kilometres). Measuring 30 feet (9.14 metres) long and 28 feet (8.53 metres) wide, its advanced airframe integrates the propulsion and wing systems to achieve efficient hover and forward flight.

“This is what revolution looks like, and it’s because of autonomy,” said John Langford, President and CEO of Aurora Flight Sciences. “Certifiable autonomy is going to make quiet, clean and safe urban air mobility possible.”

CONCLUSION

That’s what revolution looks like, and that’s what the future looks like.

Nothing is off the table and there’s seemingly no end to the technological development currently taking place in the travel industr y.

Best you grab on, hang on and try to keep pace, if you are going to stay relevant.

2019 TRAVEL TECHNOLOGY STATS & TRENDS

Just take a look at some of these stats and trends collated by TrekkSoft in a blog posted in 2018:

  1. Personalization is the name of the game when it comes to the travel customer experience. (Skift, 2018)
  2. 57% of travellers feel that brands should tailor their information based on personal preferences or past behaviours. (Google/Phocuswright, 2017)
  3. If a travel brand tailored its information and overall trip experience based on personal preferences or past behaviour, 36% would be likely to pay more for their services. (Google/Phocuswright, 2017)
  4. In a 2018 interview, GetYourGuide CEO Johannes Reck said that ‘true success in the future of travel comes down to personalization.’ (Tnooz, 2018)

James Waters, Global Director of Customer Service at Booking.com said “as we operate in an industry that is incredibly personal, emotional and complex, maintaining the right balance between genuine human interaction and efficient automation is something we’re always trying to fine-tune and optimize throughout every stage of the consumer journey.” (Booking.com, 2017)

  1. Booking.com found that 80% of customers prefer to self-serve in order to get the information they need. (TechRadar, 2018)
  2. In the US, data shows that 26% of travel searches in the fourth quarter of last year occurred on a mobile device. In other parts of the world, it’s even higher: Travel searches conducted on a mobile device totalled 47% in Europe; 40% in Asia; 38% in the Middle East and Africa; and 34% in Latin America. (Sojern Global Travel Insights, 2018)
  3. Over 70% of U.S. travellers agree that they “always” use their smartphones when travelling, up from 41% in 2015. Travellers most frequently use their mobile devices to research activities or attractions, to locate shopping areas and restaurants, or to look up directions. (Google Consumer Insights, 2018)
  4. 70% of requests to Google Assistant are expressed in natural language, meaning that people are getting more comfortable having conversations with computers. (Google/Phocuswright, 2017)
  5. Over 1 in 3 travellers across countries are interested in using digital assistants to research or book travel, and they’re already searching for everything from hotels to flights, and things to do in-destination. (Google/Phocuswright, 2017)