Monday, 1 May 2017

Challenges in travel technology - a holiday makers perspective

I love travelling, not because of going to new places - although that is great! - but because I enjoy the journey. Mainly because I'm a travel and systems thinking nerd. My latest holiday was a chance to look at airlines and airports in a different way. Scheduled flights to hubs for business are one thing, package holidays to small airports proved another thing entirely. In fact, comparing Gatwick airport to Heraklion it is a good example of this quote
The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed. 
William Gibson
It got me thinking about two major challenges to objectives of the IATA fast travel program being the norm across the whole industry.


The first is customer culture. Self-service common use technology is still in its infancy. Previously there has been a consistent expectation for example of what travel means, and how desks work, this is now being replaced with different tech and varying security rules. For example, even a large hub like Amsrerdam can have its issues

So far every "self-service" experience I've had at an airport has been slightly different. The only constant factor are there being a number of staff on hand, who are there to tell you how to use it. 

There is also the difference in business vs leisure/package travellers. For example, what use are home printed bag tags if your holiday rep is picking bags up and checking them in. So, all you have to do is go to security gate (best case) or if you have children you need to tag push chairs etc

Business travellers are also likely to have more idea about the self-service capabilities of the airlines and airports that they use most often. So giving leisure or infrequent travellers awareness of the airport facilities to prepare them can only be a good thing. 

But still, the experience and expectations vary greatly between airports. For example, a smaller airport like Heraklion where not all the check-in counters even take the luggage, here you have to get the bag tag from a counter and then take to the x-ray machine. Here it is not a simple case of installing a few kiosks and some software, there is a much larger infrastructure and business process improvement project to consider. Which brings me onto the next challenge.


The second issue is with technology roll-out. I don't see a major engineering problem needing solving. Additionally the problem isn't consumers, after all most "industrial" tech stacks a behind the consumer experience from finance and insurance to health and travel. It isn't the airlines, who although they have legacy systems largely in place there are providers that can deliver modern communications. It's the airports. Or more specifically the spoke and small leisure destination airports. IATA acknowledge this in their risk assessment:

Business case: Airports may be reluctant to invest and implement such solutions as they face the dual challenges of differing customer requirements in terms of technology and process as well as the lack of a coherent proposition that reduces airline costs while at the same time maximises value for the airport. Global industry standards help to minimise the impact and are at the core of the Fast Travel solutions offered by the service providers and vendors.
IATA Fast travel strategy

Part of the problem is the aping of consumer technology, but always being behind, so user experience is not consistent with the expectations set. Consumer replacement cycles are within two years but enterprise IT roll-out projects still take that long to complete; so it stands to reason that they will always be behind the curve. 

Two trends that will help here are firstly modular systems using off the shelf components pushing the "specialised" part of the system into software. The second is BYOD, having dumb infrastructure that again pushes the business rules and experience into a place where it can be easily updated to keep pace with consumer expectations. I don't think iBeacons and apps are the answer just yet, but I do think that they show a glimpse of the future way of working. 

Airlines probably stand to gain the most here from reduced ground handing cost and the airports that are going to be the laggards are in poorer areas. So it seems bonkers to me that the question of "who owns the customer" is heard as a blocker to both parties working closer together. 

Isn't the better question "what provides the customer value?" - so do more of this - and "what detracts from that value?" - so do less of this if possible. I saw a great example of a creative answer to the second question at Disney World, where young children can be made to queue for an hour during busy periods. So, they have themed play areas, with buzzers to maintain queue position, in the busy rides. The children are not only kept entertained and also out of the blazing Florida sun. 

I'll sign off with a couple of questions ... What would a creative solution to this look like for say security queues? Or maybe how could airlines share more data with airports to benefit from reduced costs?

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