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From a landscape dotted with iBeacons to hyper-contextual mapping and in app payments, there are many new mobile opportunities for airlines. Pamela Whitby investigates

In the next 18 months, a lot of things look set to come together in the mobile space. The customers of brands on the ball can expect to find themselves in a completely different landscape. As EyeforTravel guest columnist Phil Butler points out in a recent article, it doesn’t matter what business you’re in, you must go mobile or you will go broke.

Now let’s take a look at three major mobile trends that are likely to play a role in this shifting landscape.

1. Forget the hype, iBeacon technology prepares airlines for a hyper-local future 

Virgin Atlantic, for one, recently put its weight behind the low-cost, low-energy technology that can send out messages, via a Bluetooth transmitter, which a smartphone can detect. At Heathrow Airport, passengers who had downloaded the Virgin iPhone app and, importantly, opted in, would be sent notifications about a relevant deal or promotion from currency exchange provider Moneycorp when in the vicinity of an outlet. For Virgin’s upper class passengers, it will also be possible for your electronic boarding pass to open automatically as you approach security.

Virgin Atlantic is not alone in throwing its weight behind iBeacon technology. According to Philip Easter, Director of Mobile Apps at American Airlines, this is something that his organisation is “investing in heavily”. In Europe, many airlines fly point-to-point, but in the US, it’s more of a complex connecting network and travellers don’t have much time. On a flight with one or more connections, the gate or time of flights often changes and this can cause stress.

“Our customers want accurate information and beacons are going to give us that hyper local edge,” explains Easter, adding that the plan is to deploy beacons throughout the terminals that American flies to.

Our customers want accurate information and beacons are going to give us that hyper-local edge

For American, the technology will be a cross-platform play, available on both Apple and Android devices. Among the services it expects to offer include:

  • Telling customers they are at the right or wrong gate
  • The time they have left to do some shopping
  • Services available in the vicinity 

2. Hyper-contextual mapping to help the time-pressed and stressed traveller

American is currently working with a small startup in San Francisco to improve its mapping functionality. Why? Because right now around 65% of American’s customers go straight to the gate. They don’t want to waste time shopping when there is a chance they could miss a flight. So having clear and accurate data would make a big difference to the customer experience.

“We’re amping up our maps and adding a much more contextual layer,” says Easter. The aim is to give people the information they want from where they can find aspirin or chargers to pizza or disability and infant-related services. For Easter, there is huge opportunity to offer more accurate and contextual information. Right now all customers receive via the app is a map and from there it's up to them to figure out where they are going.

3. Wearable devices: what will be the winner

“We’re not sure what it’s going to be yet,” says Easter, “but ‘wearables’ are a huge, new opportunity for travel,” he says. In fact, so committed is American to finding the winning wearable technology that in San Francisco in June it is hosting a hackathon for “top-notch developers” focused on just this. A month later it will test out the apps live in the air on one of its Wifi enabled flights.

One thing seems certain, this is not just about Google Glass. “It’s watches, it’s 3D augmentation visors for inflight entertainment, it’s some sort of heart rate and breathing monitor that could help relieve anxiety,” says Easter. “We are just trying to make people happy.”

4. In app payment is picking up

For in app payments to work, there has to be a trusted relationship with the customer and data security is right up there for airlines. In the retail space, Amazon has managed to crack this but airlines, whose customers have actually downloaded the app and handed over their payment details, are in a pretty good position too.

For in app payments to work, there has to be a trusted relationship with the customer

Indeed most people who have already downloaded an app are frequent fliers and looking to accumulate miles or points. This could explain why in app payments at American are starting to pick up month over month. Among the ancillary services it offers via mobile are:

  • Existing customers are automatically offered a better seat with more leg room or even an upgrade to first class
  • New customers checking in within 24 hours of travel will be given the option to do so via the mobile app. If they do so, then sometime during that window, they will be offered the opportunity for a better seat or upgrade. 

Of course, there is always a balance between offering the right services at the right time, and potential privacy issues. “When we make an offer within a check in window we are not pushing them. It’s part of the workflow and makes sense at that point,” says Easter. 

Going forward, there is the possibility to ask people to opt in for location information and receive push updates. “We’re taking it one step at the time to ensure we are doing right by the customer,” he says. 

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