12 technology trends for airlines and airports to focus on in 2020


Technology is central to the future of the air transport industry, and as a testament to this, this week saw Delta Air Lines become the first airline to keynote the annual trade show for innovators and breakthrough technologies. Delta CEO Ed Bastian laid out a compelling vision for the future of travel during his keynote including transformation of the Fly Delta app, parallel reality display screens, captivating entertainment options, full-body wearable exoskeletons, and an AI machine learning operations platform.

Taking inspiration from these ground-breaking developments in the travel tech space, we have compiled our prediction on the most exciting trends and technologies that airlines and airports can expect to shape the passenger experience on the ground and up in the air over the next 12 months and ahead. Take a look:

Robotics – from self-driving guide robots and autonomous vehicles to avatars and delivery drones

Automation in the aviation industry is gaining momentum due to rapid advancements in the fields of robotics. Robots in the terminal are becoming a more common site and among some of the most recent examples are Fraport’s new self-driving guide robot, called YAPE, for luggage transportation; “Airstar” robot at Incheon Airport; Munich Airport’s Josie Pepper; and British Airways’ partnership with startup company BotsAndUs to test AI-powered autonomous robots at Heathrow Terminal 5 to further enhance punctuality for passengers.

As well as robots in the terminal, automated vehicles on the airfield and baggage-related robots are also gaining traction. A prominent example is Vanderlande’s end-to-end baggage logistics solution FLEET, deployed at Rotterdam The Hague Airport, and trialled at Hong Kong International Airport to further improve the efficiency of the baggage handling process, enhance ergonomic working conditions for ground staff and future-proof the airports’ baggage handling operations, so we will likely hear more about this technology in the months to come.

Autonomous vehicles and drones have also been tested in the past couple of years. For instance, Delta Air Lines is currently in partnership with technology-focussed college Georgia Tech and smart city living laboratory Curiosity Lab to identify ways autonomous vehicles can benefit customers and employees. Researchers from all three partners will have access to Curiosity Lab’s 1.5-mile autonomous vehicle test track and smart city living laboratory in Peachtree Corners in Atlanta. As autonomous vehicle research advances across the world, Delta sees potential applications for autonomous cars, trucks or buses at airports and beyond. For example, autonomous vehicles could help customers make tight connections across an airport, deliver delayed baggage to customers or transport aircraft parts to airports. Fraport also recently completed a trial of a hybrid aerial vehicle at Frankfurt Airport Terminal 2. The company joined forces with startup Hybrid-Airplane Technologies GmbH to carry out test flights assessing whether the aerial vehicle could be used to perform status checks in the terminals.

Drone delivery is also becoming increasingly popular and recently Edmonton International Airport (EIA) entered a new strategic partnership with Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) that will see the airport become a hub for drone cargo deliveries in Western and Northern Canada. This is expected to be the world’s first regularly scheduled drone delivery service from an airport. Meanwhile, the technology is already gaining traction in the hospitality business with Yotel, for instance, experimenting with the use of drones to deliver food and drink orders to guests at its hotel in Amsterdam, so it is likely that this trend will soon be replicated in the airport terminal.

Another interesting concept to keep an eye out for is avatars. Japanese airline ANA is currently developing new platforms for telepresence to “impact the lives of all 7 billion people on Earth and to connect people, connect things, and connect ideas and dreams,” shared Kevin Kajitani, Co-director of ANA’s Avatar division. One of the team’s goals is to set up an experiment that could let sports fans experience the 2020 Tokyo Olympics through telepresence robots sitting in the seats.

Digital Twins

Digital Twins is a topic that came up on numerous occasions during the FTE conferences in 2019, and so we thought it is worthy of a mention.

SITA Lab is currently working on a fully functional digital twin, which is being tested at a US East Coast airport where the 3D interface is on an 86-inch touch-screen in the operations room. In a recent blog post on SITA’s website, Kevin O’Sullivan, Lead Engineer at SITA Lab, shared that the result will “improve decision-making, based on the holistic view of the airport operations”. He explained: “As well as showing what’s happening now, we can also select a moment in history and play back exactly what happened in the past. It’s a very effective way of investigating the handling of disruption, to identify what can be done better next time.”

However, he added that “a fully-functioning productised digital twin of an airport is still some time off. But as we build it out more widely and deeply, the full extent of its potential is becoming clear.”

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AI & Machine Learning

During the past couple of years, the air transport industry has been showing a great commitment to realising the full potential of artificial intelligence (AI) with a plethora of use cases. On one side, we have seen airlines and airports adopting chatbots to communicate with passengers, and on the other to improve operations.

In terms of chatbot applications, last year AirAsia developed and launched its AirAsia Virtual Allstar (AVA), a continuously learning AI-powered chat platform, which won the Silver Award at the FTE APEX Asia EXPO Awards 2019 for the Best Passenger Experience Initiative in the Airline category.

One of the highlights during Ed Bastian’s keynote at CES was a proprietary AI-driven platform to be implemented this year, that will help Delta’s professionals make even smarter operational decisions. The airline claims that it is applying AI-driven machine learning on a scale that’s never been done before by an airline. The proprietary AI-driven platform analyses millions of operational data points – from aircraft positions to flight crew restrictions to airport conditions – to create hypothetical outcomes that help Delta’s staff make critical decisions before, during and after large-scale disruptions. During his keynote, Bastian said: “Our leading source of innovation is our people. Our people shouldn’t be spending all their time taking tickets and scanning boarding passes. They’re too talented for that.”

Elsewhere, KLM has embarked on a unique partnership with Boston Consulting Group (BCG) which has the potential to “revolutionise global airline operations”. In a recent interview with FTE, Daan Debie, Director Engineering & Architecture, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, explained that KLM has developed a suite of advanced optimisation tools for the Operations Control Centre to help set up robust schedules by implementing smart tail assignment, manage and solve disruptions, and help with decision-making. He pointed out: “This has led to huge savings in non-performance costs.”

The benefits for passengers are clear too – minimising the impact of disruptions through real-time updates, reducing baggage delays and personalising information that has been provided to the customer through digital channels.

Virtual reality & immersive experiences

In a saturated market such as the airline sector, virtual reality (VR) and immersive experiences can be a true differentiator. Last year saw a raft of announcements in this space. As one of the leading virtual reality suppliers, Inflight VR attracted a number of airlines to its portfolio, including Evelop Airlines, SunExpress and Jin Air to name a few.

Renacen is another company that specialises in the use of virtual reality with its 3D SeatMap VR software, for which it won a Crystal Cabin Award in 2018. The application offers a virtual 360-degree view of the cabin and can be used for seat upselling, crew training, marketing and VR experiences. The technology has been implemented by a number of airlines, including Emirates, Evelop, Austrian, Aigle Azur and Etihad.

In partnership with VR company Neutral Digital, British Airways also tested the technology to introduce its new Airbus A350 aircraft. In an interview with FTE, Daniel Taylor, Brand and Marketing Content Manager at British Airways shared: “VR provided us with an immersive way of bringing this new product to life and engaging both external and internal audiences. The project was initially built for press events and for our own crew familiarisation of the new product and layout. But we’ve since found it to be invaluable across the whole marketing ecosystem. The tool has allowed us to quickly create visual assets including photography, film and 360° content that we have used across various marketing channels.”

5G – 100 times faster than current 4G networks

Recent developments in 5G technology are fuelling the new decade of innovation that will change business as we know it today. The technology will lower data latency, offer more stability, and connect more devices at the same time. In the aviation industry, the technology will be instrumental to satisfy the need for fast connectivity inflight and at airports; demand for predictive maintenance through data shared by the connected aircraft; and growing demand for a better inflight experience.

On the ground, last year Manchester Airport became the first UK airport to offer 5G network access as part of a trial by Vodafone. Vodafone installed a dedicated 5G-enabled ‘blast pod’ at Manchester’s Terminal One that allowed travellers to test the new super-fast network for downloading films or TV boxsets on their mobile devices up to four times faster than 4G.

5G has been the subject of speculation over the past few years, however, in 2020 it feels like the technology will come one step closer to reality ­– though still not that close. The possible impacts of 5G were widely discussed at the CES show, where network carriers insist that 2020 will be a turning point for the technology.

While 5G is being rolled out around the world with China, South Korea, UK, Germany and the US leading the fifth generation of mobile networks, the technology is still in its early stages. According to a recent article by Wired magazine, “5G isn’t a single technology or standard, but rather a constellation of different technologies, and deploying them could require a radically different approach than building 4G networks”. Moreover, only a handful of devices on the market support the technology, while flagship devices from Samsung, Google and Apple support 4G only. But in the next few years, we expect to see continuous efforts to make 5G the next big thing.

Inflight Connectivity – a real opportunity to drive conversion 

The future of the inflight connectivity industry is bright, with a growing number of airlines seeking to digitise their inflight experience in order to stay relevant. This demand is driving a real step-change in terms of the quality of connectivity on offer.

During his presentation at FTE APEX Asia EXPO 2019, Dominic Walters, Vice President Marketing Communications & Strategy, Inmarsat Aviation presented findings from the final instalment of the Sky High Economics report, which identified a market of 450 million passengers currently unengaged with traditional airline loyalty schemes, who could be driven to switch allegiance for high quality Wi-Fi up in the air. The study has estimated that this can drive a whopping $33 billion share shift – equivalent to 6% of total market share – that can create enormous opportunities for airlines adapting to what Walters refers to as the “always-on” passenger behaviour.

While many airlines, such as Qatar Airways, Norwegian and AirAsia, to name just a few, are stepping up their connectivity efforts, there is still much scepticism whether investments in connectivity today will stand the test of time. During his presentation at TFWA World Exhibition & Conference in 2019, Aldric Chau, Head of Retail and eCommerce, Cathay Pacific Airways, highlighted that: “If you are building an e-commerce site that can only be accessed outside of the aircraft it means you are missing an opportunity to work with retail giants such as Alibaba or Amazon. If you do have inflight connectivity this can be a real opportunity to bump up inflight sales by launching some real-time offers and initiatives to drive conversion.”

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Biometrics

Biometrics technology has been receiving special mentions in our trends reports for the past few years now, and while it is truly gaining traction, we believe that the full potential of the technology is yet to be uncovered. 2019 was a landmark year for its development in air travel with many successfully implementations, from British Airways’ biometric rollout at Heathrow, Orlando, Los Angeles and John F. Kennedy international airports to Kempegowda International Airport’s Digi Yatra Programme, and Delta Air Lines’ first biometric terminal in the United States at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, to name just a few.

This year, at FTE Global, 1-2 September, 2020, FTE will once again host a dedicated biometrics summit where we will hear case studies and lessons learned from first-movers that have been through implementations.

This year, we expect that more airlines will adopt facial recognition mobile apps to make the check-in process easier for passengers. In more recent news, for instance, we saw Iberia trialling facial recognition app at Madrid Airport to enable customers to identify themselves at both general and fast-track security control and at the boarding gates with their biometric profile, eliminating the need to show travel documents.

However, while the implementation of biometrics is gathering pace, there has been a number of challenges, and even misconceptions, around standardisation, privacy issues, integration, security, legacy infrastructure and establishing trust between all parties. To move forward, we’re yet to see the industry taking a united approach in tackling these issues.

This year, at FTE Global, 1-2 September, 2020, FTE will once again host a dedicated biometrics summit where we will hear case studies and lessons learned from first-movers that have been through implementations.

Mark your diary for Future Travel Experience’s 2020 events in Dublin (3-4 June), Las Vegas (1-2 September) and Singapore (10-11 November).

Sustainability

2020 will be a crucial year for the aviation industry to ramp up its sustainability efforts. Aviation contributes 2% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to IATA, and this number can double, if air traffic meets the forecasted growth of 8.2 billion passengers by 2037. In line with global climate goals, a Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) was launched by the UN agency ICAO last year, which is an international agreement to mitigate these emissions. To comply, all airlines are now required to monitor and report their carbon emissions.

For instance, in November last year, easyJet said that it is set to become the world’s first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights across its entire network, after announcing it would offset all jet fuel emissions. This move surpassed other pledges from airlines, such as British Airways, whose parent company, IAG, promised to be carbon-neutral by 2050 and to start offsetting all domestic flights next year.

Just this week, JetBlue announced it is aiming to become carbon neutral on all domestic flights by July 2020 and also announced plans to start flying with sustainable aviation fuel in mid-2020 on flights from San Francisco International Airport.

Inflight, airlines rely heavily on single-use plastics with more than 5 million tonnes of cabin waste created in a single year, according to IATA. Recent initiatives from tackling carbon emissions to reducing single-use plastic both on the ground and inflight, indicate that airlines and airports are united in their efforts to reduce their impact on the environment. However, many have spoken about the challenges to find suitable green alternatives for all single-use plastics, which are also lightweight to avoid higher fuel consumption. Legal requirements to dispose of some materials is also a setback. But what’s evident is that the industry is stepping up its environmental efforts.

Assistive Tech – self-driving electric wheelchairs and accessible IFE

Technological advancements are helping to bring about a much-needed change in the way airlines and airports assist travellers with additional needs. Among some of the most recent trials are All Nippon Airways (ANA)’s partnership with Panasonic Corporation to test the latest generation of personal mobility self-driving electric wheelchairs, as part of a far-reaching plan to increase mobility and accessibility options at Tokyo Narita International Airport in 2020. Incorporating robotic elements, these wheelchairs will be able to safely navigate through the airport independently, making them an ideal mobility solution for passengers with connecting flights.

In December, Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Airports completed guest trials of innovative autonomous wheelchairs at Abu Dhabi International Airport. The trials involved over 60 guests with restricted mobility, who self-drove the wheelchairs, navigating crowded areas and lounges before safely arriving at their gate. Intensive mapping and trialling of the wheelchairs continues, before a comprehensive evaluation will determine the viability of the wheelchairs in the Midfield Terminal.

Up in the air, a new onboard entertainment interface, considered to be the most accessible airline entertainment system yet, brought United Airlines to the forefront of inflight entertainment (IFE) accessibility. The airline was awarded the Crystal Cabin Award 2019 for Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity for its inclusive Entertainment for All solution, which debuted on the airline’s 787-10 Dreamliner fleet last year.

Technology, however, is only a small part of the equation when it comes to accessibility in air travel. It is essential for the industry to invest in new infrastructure, facilities and most importantly staff training and raising awareness of different passengers’ needs to create an inclusive experience for all.

As with many things in the industry, standardisation is once again in the epicentre of this issue, to ensure a seamless and consistent travel experience for passengers with disabilities, from one end to the other.

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Hearable, wearable & voice technology

While Google Glass may not have lived up to the hype, the air transport industry is still experimenting with the idea of wearable solutions. For instance, SriLankan Airlines teamed up with MAS Holdings to introduce Spryng – a smart accessory that is expected to help transiting passengers feel more rejuvenated. Spryng is a wireless, active pneumatic compression wrap that mimics natural muscle contractions in the calves and helps reduce muscle soreness by stimulating blood circulation and increasing cellular oxygen supply.

Meanwhile, recently we have seen some airlines, such as Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL) implementing smart earpiece technology to simplify communication between flight attendants. For instance, All Nippon Airways (ANA) has introduced a new hearable device, called, BONX Grip, which combines proprietary technology with a smart application, making it possible for users to speak freely and naturally at any distance, in any environment.

Akihiko Miura, Executive Vice President of ANA, explains: “By making it easier for flight attendants to communicate with each other, they will be better equipped to meet passenger needs. These hearable devices are just one important tool that ANA is testing, and we look forward to harnessing the latest technological breakthroughs to improve every aspect of the travel experience.”

Voice technology is already in our homes, thanks to mainstream devices such as Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple’s Siri. So, it’s not surprising to see it being adopted by airports and airlines to strengthen the relationship with their customers. For example, Iberia allows its Iberia Plus cardholders to find out the status of their flights and obtain boarding passes for some flights.

Just this week, American Airlines announced it is launching a new initiative offering real-time translation across 29 languages at its Admirals Club lounges at Los Angeles International Airport, using Google Assistant’s interpreter mode technology.

So as the technology continues to mature it will without a doubt open new opportunities for strengthening the relationship between businesses and their customers.

eVTOL & autonomous travel

In 2019, a number of initiatives to accelerate the development of commercial air taxi services took place. Urban air mobility pioneer Volocopter successfully completed its first manned flight over Singapore in October, while industry leaders such as Boeing, Bell, Embraer, Safran, Uber, Fraport, Groupe ADP and more, also unveiled plans for urban air mobility solutions.

Flying cars are also becoming a reality with Uber Air trialling its flying taxi services around the world. Melbourne will be the first city outside of the US to host trials of Uber Air and the company says that test flights will begin next year, with commercial operations to start in 2023.

Such initiatives prove that the future has arrived, and a new kind of disruptors are reinventing the air transport industry. The question is will airports and airlines adapt to these new transportation modes, so that a new travel ecosystem is created to fully benefit the passenger.

Cooperation with startups

The acceleration of technology, described in the previous paragraphs, has prompted airlines and airports to seek partnerships with younger, more agile companies to help reimagine the travel experience.

Major industry players have already turned to the startup community as a source of inspiration in the past few years, so we’re expecting this trend to continue in 2020. To bridge the gap between the air transport industry and the startup ecosystem, FTE launched the world’s first air transport innovation network, which has received great feedback from our startup and corporate members.

For instance, Gatwick Airport – an FTE Innovation & Startup Hub Corporate Partner – and Zurich-based startup Assaia are now working together, 12 months after their first face-to-face meeting at an FTE Startup Hub Live event.

In 2020, we expect that even more airlines and airports will seek partnerships with the startup scene as part of their efforts to improve customer experiences and enhance overall business efficiency.

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