Airline innovation takes off

From Delta's in-air mentorship program to Virgin's Google Glass attendant, airlines beef up the customer experience.

Everyone seems to have their own unpleasant memory of airline travel – whether it’s feeling like you’re in a sardine can, listening to a screaming child in the next row or turbulence-induced nausea.

People seem to accept air travel as being a miserable experience, says George Nguyen, managing director and chief strategy officer, TBWA\Toronto, whose agency worked with WestJet in the past. He offers examples of how there is less space nowadays between the seat in front of you and passengers must pay to sit in the emergency exit aisle for extra space, unlike in the past.

Air travel is “a bought and paid experience now,” he says, noting the two separate classes of passengers and how certain credit card holders have access to a special lounge and security screening line.

New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas echoes this sentiment in an article suggesting the American air travel industry has become increasingly stratified, from varying degrees of legroom and food services to early boarding. “What is changing today is the erosion of the idea of a common minimum experience,” he writes.

Meanwhile, another significant problem the category faces is the devaluation and commoditization of seats, says Nguyen. Current innovation in this space seems to be about adding something to the customer experience, he explains.

“Anything they can do to try to add value to being on [their] airline’s flight is fantastic because right now it seemingly is just a hunt for what’s the best value, what’s the lowest price to get me from A to B.”

Delta Air Lines recently gave passengers a unique reason to fly with the airline by unveiling an on-board mentoring program. Delta Innovation Class allows “up and coming doers and innovators” to apply for vacant seats beside top-level professionals. Applications are currently being accepted to fill the seat beside chef Sean Brock, as he heads to New York City in May for the James Beard Foundation Awards as a finalist for the Outstanding Chef title.

For Nguyen, the Delta initiative is unique because it offers something people actually want, the opportunity to engage with an industry guru, whereas other airlines, in recognizing travel is not the most pleasant experience, just provide passengers with things to make their experience more enjoyable.

From a tech perspective, Virgin Atlantic recently made headlines when staff at Heathrow Airport wore Google Glass as part of a trial to more easily access personalized information about their Upper Class passengers. In one reported example, a Google Glass-equipped agent welcomed a passenger right as he arrived at the airport and confirmed information about details such as his flight and passport.

But improvement in technology can be a double-sided coin.

Nguyen points to the immediate nature of communication and how a passenger aboard a plane posted a photo of a rocky landing on social media.

“It’s fantastic that I can have Wi-Fi on the plane, but God forbid, someone comes down and spills their coffee on me – the world is going to know right away.”

An airline’s successful initiative can quickly be dismissed when people start tweeting about a couple of cancelled flights, he adds, explaining how airlines must maintain the positive momentum, engage with people and discuss their value offering beyond just low prices.

Additionally, customers now expect an immediate response because of the volume of communication channels available, he says.

At home, Air Canada has tapped into this new consumer, and according to travel data and news company Skift, is one of 10 airlines around the world to respond to tweets in less than an hour.

While social media is a means for brand building for other airlines, Air Canada has staff who resolve issues through Twitter and Facebook, says Craig Landry, VP, marketing Air Canada.

In its quest to enhance the consumer experience through technological innovation, the brand focuses on making travel easier and more comfortable for everyone, not just the first-class cabin. On the easier side, the airline will improve its iPhone app to enable users to manage bookings by the end of the year (you can currently purchase but not change bookings), and expand its accessibility to Android and Microsoft phones, says Landry. It is also actively looking into enhancing the baggage process with bag-ticket-printing capability from home and automated kiosks that weigh and identify a bag’s size.

In terms of a larger vision for the future of air travel with the brand, Landry says Air Canada invokes the concept of a “connected journey,” which draws upon the connectivity of devices to enhance the consumer experience. In the future, it could be possible to connect through devices such as watches and household appliances, he says.  As such, new touch points through which one can connect, could be used to communicate with passengers, he explains.

“For example, if there is a change in a flight schedule, if there is weather that’s coming, or if a customer wants to make changes to their travel arrangements – how could all of that information be passed in ways that’s quite different than it is today.”

Another futuristic concept Landry offers is one of a smart in-flight entertainment system where users prepare a profile before boarding to order movies, food or drinks.  Although the idea is futuristic, Landry says the required technology falls into three categories which are in the realm of possibility – near field communication, such as a virtual wallet; customer profiles and on-board connectivity.

In the meantime, passengers on the airline’s new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, slated to arrive this spring, will experience new touch-screen entertainment systems featuring 600 hours of content (enough to fly around the world 13 times), a shopping app, meal menu and seat-to-seat chat capability.

And as for the potential future of air travel?

Seeking to fuel creativity, the Airbus Concept Cabin offers a possible vision for the future, comprising morphing and self-reliant materials, transparent walls and holographic technology, while Airbus’ A380 aircraft already features lotus-leaf-inspired, self-cleaning materials.

Image via Shutterstock