The self-service revolution really kicked in about a decade ago when IATA launched its Simplifying the Business program in 2004.
That program laid the foundations for the widespread use of online ticketing and check-in kiosks which many passengers now take for granted when they fly.
Over the 10 years, air traveler behavior has changed massively. Online ticket booking is now almost universal in many travel markets.
And globally nearly four in ten passengers use self-service check-in, either online, through a mobile app or at a kiosk, according to the recent 2014 Airline IT Trends Survey.
Ian Ryder, Senior Director, SITA Passenger Solutions, believes there’s also been a significant change in the way airlines view their customers.
“If you look back at passenger engagement for our industry, it was about taking bookings and boarding passengers to take a very simplistic view, with a bit of selling dreams at the same time to stimulate the business.
“Today we’ve moved on to a very different scenario. We’re building engagement that embraces the customer’s lifestyle.”
Some of that change has been forced on the industry. In the past, airlines and airports were very much in the driving seat with technology innovation largely initiated and managed by the industry.
“Now, we’re seeing change coming from outside of the industry; from generic technology development and entrepreneurs, with passengers embracing these changes,” says Ryder.
Paul Behan, Director, Passenger, IATA, describes the phenomenon as “it’s ‘my tech’ rather than ‘your tech’ that you’re asking me to use.” But he believes the change is more profound than who supplies the technology.
“Although it may seem not dissimilar it’s actually a big difference,” he says. “In one, the passenger feels compelled to use it, but when they’re using their own technology it’s because they want to do it. And that means there’s quite a difference in the mindset of the passenger.
As the latest Passenger IT Trends Survey shows, passengers want the ability to control what they do using their own device. “Our challenge as an industry is to make sure we’re able to meet that expectation by delivering valuable services to the passenger at the right time on that device,” says Behan.
IT has upped the ante. The pace of change that the industry needs to react to has accelerated alarmingly. Ryder warns that this means some change is being rushed on the industry.
“Previously a significant new IT challenge came along every 5-10 years. Now a potential revolution seems to appear every year,” he says. The recent arrival of NFC, wearables and beacon technology in rapid succession, illustrates his point.
So how do we make the self-service revolution fit for the fast changing expectations of passengers?
Behan believes we’ve moved into a third stage of the revolution. “We started with process simplification. Then there was semi-automation at the airport through kiosks and other self-service facilities.
“And now we’re moving into the sphere of process elimination and removal.”
In basic terms it means knitting together self-service technologies to give passengers an end-to-end journey that’s simpler, more convenient and faster than they have today.
The big focus is on process elimination, whether it’s at the airport or on a mobile. As Behan says: “It’s all around removing hassle and adding value into the overall product and service that we offer travelers.”
He gives check-in as an example. While the passenger is now often responsible for ‘pushing the button’ to perform check-in rather than the airline, the underlying process has not changed that radically.
However, a few airlines have started offering ‘automatic check-in’ as it’s known, and IATA is keen to see it become standard across the industry. To that end the airline body is working on a new initiative called ‘No more check-in’, although details have yet to be published.
He acknowledges that such a radical move could potentially impact on other key airline processes, such as scheduling. “You don’t have a clue if passengers are going to turn up at the gate, which could affect on-time departure,” explains Behan.
Nevertheless, passengers’ mobile devices and proximity sensing technologies could help alleviate some of the issues, but that in turn depends a lot on the ubiquity of IT infrastructure, and in particular, Wi-Fi coverage.
“Wi-Fi has really become the fourth utility after gas, electricity, and water,” says Behan. “But it remains patchy and in some places, quite expensive, particularly onboard the aircraft.
“As an industry we’ve got to find a way to turn what is today a cost item into something that can add value through new services to passengers.”
With check-in on the way out, attention has shifted to the two other pinch points of baggage and security. Here too radical changes are on the way.
In particular, with baggage processing Behan believes “a drop-and-go scenario at the airport” is not too far away and despite some regulatory hurdles unresolved, progress with the regulators is on track to remove the remaining obstacles.
He cites work already taking place on electronic permanent bag tags and home printed bag tags.
Some of the baggage issues can be solved by using biometric identifiers. It’s an approach that the industry is expanding with the aim of eventually using biometric tokens to develop a non-stop journey for passengers through airports.
“Using a single biometric token, such as an e-passport, for all elements of a journey would significantly streamline and simplify the travel process,” says Behan.
“We’ve had some trials with boarding and bag drops but it’s been fairly patchy in terms of a consistent flow throughout the journey.”
To explore the opportunity IATA has established a working group to investigate the single token approach, but it’s an area that requires collaboration from a large number of different players, each of whom has their own specific needs and requirements.
Getting governments onboard is pivotal, but no easy task. However, some governments have already started down the biometric path by using them within border management processes for both outbound and inbound immigration.
Nigel Pickford, Director of Market Insight, SITA, agrees that baggage will be a strong focus to propel self-service forward.
But he believes disruption management is also going to benefit from the self-service treatment. “Currently airlines are looking to improve the way they communicate with passengers in times of disruption, using new tools such as social media or mobile phones.
“And importantly, there are an increasing number of airlines planning to offer affected passengers self-service recovery options, such as re-booking.”
Pickford backs-up his view with figures from the latest Airline IT Trends Survey. “Today only around 20% of airlines can offer recovery options to passengers in times of disruption, but by 2017 that figure is expected to jump to nearly 70% of airlines.”
Over time, explains Pickford, airlines will develop sophisticated disruption management techniques that will not only allow them to keep passengers and staff informed in real-time, but also change from a reactive mode to one of preventing - or at least minimizing – the impact of disruption.
A key component for taking self-service to the next frontier will be compiling good quality data on both operations and passengers. But as Behan points out, airlines don’t even have basic information on many of their passengers, particularly those who book through a travel agency.
“Airlines have, at best, between 50% and 60% of the customer contact details. It rises to around 80% in mature markets where there’s a direct connect between the passenger and airline through their website.
“We’re working closely with the travel agents to further improve this for all passengers.” This will allow airlines to meet passenger expectations by providing tailored services right through to the customer’s mobile.
Another challenge facing the industry is ensuring consistent data and delivering a ‘fluid’ experience across all the different technologies used at customer touchpoints.
As Allison O’Neill, VP Passenger Solutions, SITA, says: “Today, people have a ubiquitous engagement with mobile technology. They rely on it to achieve their day-to-day activity goals. It’s important we can deliver services in the way that they’re expecting.”
Clearly to keep up with all this innovation the industry is going to need to be more agile, or “run faster” as Ryder puts it, but he believes to deliver the next frontier of self-service we also need to copy the way passengers use their technology and “act smarter”.
Self-service across the journey
SITA has developed an integrated set of solutions providing passengers with end-to-end self service.
Spanning nine stages of the journey, the self-service solutions address booking, check-in, bag drop, boarding, security, in-flight, transfer, border control and bag claim.