Why the connected air travel experience is not all it’s cracked up to be

Not so long ago sharing core data seemed like madness, now it’s a necessity but it is still early days. Pamela Whitby reports

Picture the scene. You’re stuck in a traffic jam for over hour in an airport car park after a long-haul flight. Irritable, yet armed with your smartphone, you turn first to your preferred news channel, then to Google and finally the airport website. No luck.

You try tweeting the airport; still no news. So you do what you used to do in the old days - turn to the harassed human roaming the airport terminal. He politely informs you – as only the British can - that the Heathrow tunnel has been closed due to an incident.

Ha! So much for having information at your fingertips!

For the frequent and even not-so-frequent traveler, the idea of being always connected and accurately informed at all points of the customer journey sounds a lovely idea. However, as the above experience highlights, there is still work to do.

The good news is that progress is being made, if slowly.

“There is, I think, an absolute recognition across the industry that we need to collaborate and share data more effectively,” says Chris Annetts, Director of Commercial Passenger Services, Heathrow, who acknowledges that addressing such incidents are among the issues they are trying to solve.

There is…an absolute recognition across the industry that we need to collaborate and share data more effectively

Chris Annetts, Director of Commercial Passenger Services, Heathrow

It’s not that bricks and mortar travel brands are delighted about sharing their data. After all, not that long ago company data was considered too valuable to share with third parties. However, now it’s considered to valuable not to share and that’s down to the consumer who has more power than ever.

In the past, the last interaction the customer had with the travel brand before they arrived at the airport was when they left the home or office; when communication at the airport meant an information board, leaflet or with a person at a desk. Today, driven by the love affair with the smart devices in their pocket, travellers can access information, products and services in multiple ways.  

Heathrow knows that 80% of travellers leave home with some sort of smart device. But the competition is there. As Nikhil Gupta, Director of Hotels and Car Hire, at metasearch Skyscanner tells us, his firm saw a 77% global increase in visitors on mobile devices alone in 2014.

“Of course, we’d love everybody to reach us via our Heathrow app or website but that’s not realistic. Consumers will access information through a range of digital channels and we need to respond to that,” Annetts says.

Sharing isn’t easy

Sharing data with third parties may sound simple, but it’s not. Among the challenges: fragmentation, systems integration, a lack of standards, legal and compliance issues, operational stumbling blocks like service delivery and the list goes on.

According to Jens Wohltorf, chief executive of chauffeur driven service BlackLane, the biggest long-term issue is integration. Although he envisages a day when a traveller will simply have to enter a meeting in a calendar and be pinged with a complete itinerary, there is still work to do. This will require integration between calendar software, traveller profile information and corporate booking systems.

…the biggest long-term issue is integration

Jens Wohltorf, Chief Executive, BlackLane,

In other words, lots of people getting together carve out a way forward that works technologically, operationally and commercially.

Already Heathrow is sharing terminal map and information data with a number of airlines and partners, and is also trialing new technologies like iBeacons.

Meanwhile firms like Transport for London (TFL) are making real-time information available on Open Source APIs with, it is reported, positive results.

High stakes

What is yet to be cracked, however, is how to manage sharing of data with the big media giants, and countless others seeking commercial gain from airline and airport data, in a way that doesn’t unwittingly create operational issues.  

“This is a lot harder to do,” says Annetts.

According to IATA, airline industry profits are set to grow by a record 80% in 2015, and everybody wants a slice of the pie. Clearly airline data is valuable and big names Google, Apple, TripAdvisor and Skyscanner, and a raft of others, are weighing in on the opportunity.

Because of the power these brands hold over consumers, it’s crunch time. Heathrow is in talks with firms like Google, Apple, and other major global technology players, as well as the airlines to ensure that “there is one version of the truth and the information is used in an appropriate way”.

We want to make it as easy as possible to share information, but if you set up a data exchange and it fails, then everybody suffers


Heathrow understands that if you are handing over your core information with the goal of delivering on the promise of being timely, accurate, relevant and personal, then getting those partnerships right is business critical.

“We want to make it as easy as possible to share information, but if you set up a data exchange and it fails, then everybody suffers,” says Annetts.

For example, if a shop changes or an airline moves terminal, then it’s vital that all partners update that information in real time.

That’s not happening right now and it can have a negative impact, not only on the consumer’s journey but also their perception of the travel brand - rather than the information consolidator!

Commercial opportunities

Ask any brand linked to travel what their stated aim is, and inevitably it will be to improve and perfect their customer experience. A goal underpinned, of course, by commercial objectives.  In the airport context happy, relaxed travelers, who have checked-in smoothly and know exactly where they are going are far more likely to engage with products and services in the terminal. Heathrow’s data backs this up.

On this score, airports can clearly benefit from airline partnerships. As an example, the airport won’t know when the person is actually flying but the airlines will. The opportunity here to deliver relevant, personal and timeous messages is a no-brainer.

…the basic principles are there and there is positive intent

This benefits airlines too in the case of Heathrow, a regulated business because every pound of non-aeronautical revenue generated potentially reduces cost of airline operations.

In other areas, a lot of thought is being given to how airlines and airports can effectively collaborate when in-flight WiFi becomes widespread. The ability to connect with the traveler with offers of what products and services are available in the airport shortly before they land, represents a huge opportunity.

For many – and Heathrow is one of them – the basic principles are there and there is positive intent. But it’s early days and going forward companies will have to work leaner, more flexibly, with a common focus and far more trust.

Join EyeforTravel for the Connected Traveller 2015 (Oct 22-23) to hear more from Heathrow, Gatwick, Cabforce, BlackLane and other leading travel industry brands  

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