Airlines in the region are exploring mobile technology for passenger booking and processing. Michael Mackey looks at what the future holds.
It is early days yet for mobile technology in the airline industry but the potential is there, being acted upon and there is plenty more to come.
For airlines in the Asia region the implications are two-fold. First and foremost, it is about how mobility will impact the customers, but there is also the issue of how staff and airports can be managed.
Mobile phones haven’t yet taken over the world, but they are getting there quickly. According to SITA, use of smart phones by people using six global airports – including two, Mumbai and Beijing, in the Asia-Pacific region – grew from just 28 per cent in 2010 to 70 per cent in 2012.
It is not so much the numbers that give it impact, but the increasing uses for those mini-computers in pockets and handbags.
According to SITA’s 2012 Passenger Self Service Survey, 55 per cent of airlines offer flight search, 50 per cent offer mobile check-in, 46 per cent offer mobile boarding and 43 per cent offer flight status notification. That is just for starters.
“What we see from the statistics is in 2012, 2 per cent have purchased their ticket via their mobile phone. We expect that to more than triple to 7 per cent in the course of 2013,” Ilya Gutlin, SITA’s president for the Asia Pacific, tells Asian Aviation. “21 per cent of passengers said they have used a mobile boarding pass,” he adds.
Backing this up is what the airlines say about how they are already using mobile technology.
“We are able to offer tickets to be more conveniently available online via more channels, whether it is through our website or on the mobile application. Currently, 85 per cent of our bookings are from our online channels and we know this percentage will continue to grow as internet penetration and smart phone usage increases in Thailand,” says Air Asia.
What is clearly happening is that a process is starting which will see the aviation sector adapt itself much more to mobile technology. For example, SITA reported in its Flying into the Future report 44 per cent of airlines enable ticket sales via smart phone apps and many more are gearing up, with 89 per cent expecting to offer mobile booking by the end of 2015.
The same report, noted some 70 per cent of airlines believe mobile apps will be one of the top two sales channels alongside websites by 2015.
“Right now there’s a huge push in developing native apps for iOS and Android – both for smartphones and tablets. Given how tuned-in customers are to their ultra-portable smart-devices, airlines have been quick to recognise that they need to reside in their customers’pockets,” says Shubhodeep Pal, head of innovation and operations at Simpliflying, a consultancy which helps airlines and airports craft profitable engagement strategies.
“Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines are among the leading carriers in Asia to have done so,” he adds.
Cathay for its part is modest. It launched CX Mobile and KA Mobile which offered mobile services to users of different smart phone platforms in 2009. This allows passengers to check for flights, view latest flight status, review their bookings, check flight schedules, access the Marco Polo Club Account, subscribe to notiFLY and specials. Besides the mobile app, the airlines also provide the mobile site m.cathaypacific.com and m.dragonair.com.
Cathay introduced mobile boarding pass services in 2011. Passengers travelling on their flights who check in online can choose to receive a boarding pass directly on their mobile via either email or SMS.
“Mobile Boarding Pass is currently available at 21 airports in Cathay Pacific’s network and four in Dragonair’s network,” says Cathay, with Dubai the next to be added to the list. “The service is well-received since its launch and we have recorded a more-than-double growth in usage at Hong Kong International Airport in 2012,” Cathay adds.
Other carriers have embraced the use of technology. Jetstar, for example, has online and SMS boarding passes, while AirAsia has a mobile application for both iPhone and Android users which allows purchase of tickets and other services.
But this take-up is not across the board in the region. Singapore-based Scoot, unusually for a carrier based in one of the most wired and consumer-oriented cities of Asia as well as being a low-cost carrier, is taking a much more cautious position saying its website will be the cornerstone of its distribution strategy, although mobile ticketing is “definitely an area we’ll be exploring”.
Mobile boarding passes are at the moment a niche option.
“Mobile boarding passes are still a fledgling technology and are restricted to only a few airlines, such as British Airways which offers QR-code based mobile boarding passes. However, the cost-savings and efficiency of adopting mobile boarding passes, coupled with the proliferation of smartphones, indicate that this is the logical step forward,” says Simpliflying’s Pal.
This is just the beginning of changes as SITA envisages a world where people will not only buy tickets but access data and store it on mobiles, Gutlin says. Data storage can cover anything from parking lot numbers or the quickest queue, as well as consumer information such as which books are available at the bookshop and where the nearest coffee shop is.
The future though is already with us as some airports such as Orlando in Florida which is providing flight information via mobiles. More importantly, just over two-thirds of global airlines are investing in the technology to read mobile passes, Gutlin adds.
“We are still at the beginning,” he says. “Mobility will change aviation both from the passenger point of view, airlines’ point of view and the airports’ passenger processing point of view. We are working with various stakeholders to get beyond the hype,” he adds.
The substance is real and very much an issue throughout the airline industry.
“The ability to contact the customer throughout their journey is becoming one of the most important components of good customer service. When problems arise such as delays or cancellations, it is vital that the airline can inform the customer in a timely manner to allow them [to] make choices for onward travel. Having direct contact details to personalise this service is key. With today’s technology in their hands, customers can be contacted and managed with a selection of choices that best fits their needs. There is also the ability to offer value added services directly to the customer, again, as meets their needs,” says Paul Behan, head of passenger experience at the International Air Transport Association.
Nothing ever runs smoothly though and, whilst Asian passengers are very comfortable with smartphones and would like to expand their use, the airports and airlines are constrained by security, privacy and aviation rules, such as the obligation of the airlines to validate the boarding pass.
“We have seen a number of airports in the region work closely with the aviation authorities to find ways to allow passengers to use mobiles” says Gutlin, who declines to be specific whilst adding that SITA was working with all stakeholders.
It isn’t just passengers who will be seeing increased use of mobile technology, but staff and cargo as well.
Ground staff at some of Jetstar’s busiest ports also use mobile devices to check in passengers who are lining up in the terminal during periods of heavy demand, such as school holidays and the Christmas/New Year period. It’s the kind of practice likely to spread quickly.
More telling is what Malaysia Airlines has done to fine-tune a customer’s flight. Via tablets, air crew have information about the passengers: usually recent flight history and their experience of it, allowing them to provide a better and more personalised service.
There are similar benefits to be had on the cargo side, according to Ruedi Steiner, senior vice-president cargo Asia and the Middle East for Swissport. “Direct access to the latest data by working with smartphones and iPads helps to better manage special cargo and the build up process,” he says. “Working with hand-held terminals we are able to get AWB data immediately and save cost for our customers.”
So what is the next step in a process that is acknowledged to be in its early phases but which is fast moving?
SITA’s Gutlin believes the next milestone will be the end-to-end use of mobiles throughout the journey both for passengers and those who they travel with and through the airlines and the airport.
It is, he acknowledges, going to be a difficult task as there is a problem and a possible delay caused by the need to share data and the right of privacy. “Absolutely passengers will need to give their consent,” says Gutlin. How long that takes though remains to be seen and much will probably hinge on it.
IATA’s Behan says: “The need to gather and share information is mainly driven by two distinct needs: governments require information for border control and security requirements and airlines need to share information with other airlines to ensure a seamless journey. The majority of the data shared between governments is either from travel documents, such as travel details, passports and visas, and between airlines around PNR [passenger name record] information to ensure good connectivity between carriers. All airlines must comply with the regulations surrounding data privacy and so operate within these legal frameworks.”