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China is anticipated to become the world’s largest aviation market by the mid-2020s. By 2030, China will be the biggest passenger market in the world, and its domestic travel will represent the largest traffic flow. Unsurprisingly, all of this is reflected in the huge level and rate of airport infrastructure development across China.

I recently moderated a panel of aviation experts from China and Europe during the Institute for Aviation Research1  China Aviation Summit, at the World Aviation Festival. Our task was to look into the best ways for ‘Developing an integrated digital platform to engage travelers on their end-to-end journey’. We considered the status of China’s airline industry with regard to applications using big data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and blockchain. Here are some of my key learnings from our discussion.

Chinese travel patterns will drive innovations and investments

Technologies such as big data, AI and blockchain are vital to building a digital platform that enables aviation to meet the demands of Chinese travelers. Across the globe we’re seeing a new generation of tech savvy travelers defined as post-digital. Born from 1981 onwards, they’ve grown up interacting with online technology. They use it to manage their lives and will demand the same when they travel.

This new generation of travelers is changing travel patterns in Chinese aviation. Their expectations, and their huge number, will shape innovations around industry processes and drive technology investments in the next few years.

Trust is critical, as the foundation of commerce

The post-digital air travel experience of Chinese travelers will be characterized by the reliance on technology to build trust. This is because their choices are so heavily influenced by social media or review platforms, such as WeChat, which espouse the merits or otherwise of various travel destinations, service providers and each traveler’s overall experiences.

This is a critical point, as trust is the foundation of commerce. According to Matouschek, for sellers, trust can become a crucial competitive advantage because buyers are more likely to do business with companies they believe to be virtuous sellers (meaning they’re not solely interested in maximizing profit).

Personalization is a marked characteristic in Chinese travel

It’s clear to me that personalization is a marked characteristic of Chinese travel. According to travel experts in China, there’s a strong focus on creating outbound travel experiences for independent travelers instead of catering for the masses. Individual, tech savvy travelers want to explore the unknown of new destinations and experiences – created specifically for a more personalized and individual experience.

Tech savvy Chinese travelers are driving digital content

Tech savvy Chinese travelers are driving the consumption of digital content, which is also reflected in changes in consumer behaviour. For example, on-demand services, another marked characteristic, offer the ability to buy travel services such as airline tickets, ancillary services, hotel and other related services, via an aggregator like WeChat, or via online travel agencies such as Ctrip.

Combined, on-demand and personalized services will meet the needs of each individual traveler, delivering a truly personalized journey. Such characteristics will define the future Chinese traveler experience, which we can express succinctly as: Simple (easy to create your trip), Fast (a platform with services and social media content as well as payment services), and Personal (a trip that addresses the traveler’s specific needs).

China’s fast 5G networks: an advanced, transformational digital platform

Of course, China’s tech savvy travelers will need a robust and advanced communications infrastructure, which will also support the development and adoption of new digital business models. The core of this digital platform is connectivity enabled by 4G and the fast approaching deployment of 5G, the next generation of wireless networks.

Critically, 5G is more than just a network upgrade. It represents a transformational shift in the types of services and applications that aviation can embrace, enabling airports, for example, to deliver much better networks for passengers, their business partners and tenants. 

With speeds of up to 100x 4G speeds, 5G promises a whole suite of dramatic improvements, going beyond more than just speed. We’re likely to see the near elimination of processing delays, thanks to the highest levels of availability and reliability, with low latency for real-time applications.

While faster connections will be welcomed by travelers, we’ll also see major benefits on the business side. 5G will be a big game changer for operations, propelling the Internet of Things by connecting billions of machines, appliances and sensors at low cost with significant efficiency gains.

China’s 5G and mobile leadership

Already leading the world in the mobile market sector, it makes sense that China will reach the top in terms of 5G and its users. The country is serious about this achievement. Here are two examples showing what this means for Chinese aviation:  

  • Data harvesting: Airlines will be able to harvest more data more quickly, from their aircraft, which are fast becoming mobile data centers. The information they access will need careful collation and analysis, and it will offer great potential to make airline operations far more efficient. Most data will flow off the aircraft as soon as it’s on the ground, speeding-up the decision-making process. 5G over satellite will provide even more immediate data transmission.
  • Speed and ultra-low latency: I mentioned low latency before. Think of in-flight Internet services.  ICAO’s Air Navigation Conference Paper (2018) says that the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) plans to implement broadband interconnection services before 2022 in the rear cabin of civil aviation passenger planes by using 5G technology. Unlike nose, cabin data services will solve the problem of the rear compartment by delivering to passengers a good experience of big data bandwidth, ultra-low latency, and cheap service.

Seizing 5G’s advantages

Content and the digital platform will define the experience of the Chinese digital traveler across the whole of aviation. According to KPMG (2016), experience is expected to overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. Let me give you some more application examples:

  • Technologies such as AI and Machine Learning will help to identify and learn about the Chinese traveler’s buying patterns, supporting enterprises in crafting the right engagement models to provide personalized and customized interactions through dynamic marketing and on-demand services.
  • Online virtual assistants that know the traveler’s next preferences and loyalty programs will seamlessly help plan individual trips and manage disruptions. Intelligent assistance at the airport, whether robot or avatar, will deliver interactive, face-to-face assistance without the need for a human to be present. Making it possible will be 5G, providing the scalable network and data center infrastructure behind the scenes.
  • We’ll see increasing use in China of single token for authentication using biometric identification, with seamless and integrated touchpoints. For example, travelers could buy tickets for sightseeing buses on their smartphones, capturing their biometric facial image to create a single token allowing them to hop on and off specially-fitted buses. This is the same concept of SITA’s SmartPath, which enables passengers to use their face as their boarding pass as they journey through the airport. In the near future, I would envisage the utilization of the same token to make the overall travel experience easier, including authentication for payments.

Continuous journey-wide service through collaboration

However, in China as well as elsewhere in the world, it’s very evident that to deliver the ideal traveler experience there needs to be a willingness among all key players to collaborate, be they airlines, online travel agencies, airports, technology vendors and other suppliers (such as hotels and tour companies).

That’s because the passenger experience is not about one individual transaction or experience within the journey, like shopping, travel to the airport, check-in, security, boarding, on-board, arrival, transfer to hotel, tours and others. We need to consider the journey-wide experience. Technology is providing the connectivity and integration among all stakeholders involved in that journey experience to ensure that the traveler is always informed, in control and connected.

Industry collaboration and co-operation will be critical to develop a sustainable aviation industry in the post-digital age that incorporates technological advances with changes in processes and at the same time addressing regulatory mandates such as privacy, security, ethics to continuously build trust across all stakeholders and the passenger.

We’re collaborating now around 5G and new tech

At SITA, we’re already working with a number of airlines, airports and other stakeholders on opportunities that exploit the power of 5G networks and technologies such as AI, Virtual Reality and biometrics. This includes several applications around SITA Smart Path™, our self-service biometric passenger processing solution, and our baggage management solution, which already uses 5G-like networks. 

The focus of our work is to collaborate across the industry to improve economic benefits and operational excellence at and around airports, and in the air. Our vision is easy air travel every step of the way, and China is certainly a country where we see great potential in the realization of this vision. 

For more

Learn more about and download the 2025: Air travel for a digital age white paper or the 2019 Passenger IT Insights report. 

1Institute for Aviation Research (IAR), is an independent, non-profit Think Tank dedicated to aviation research with a particular focus on China whose mission is to promote research into air transport policy and aviation eco-system and to improve public understanding of aviation related issues through independent and rigorous research, seminars, forums and conferences, as well as advisory, training and public lectures based on collaboration with academic community, industry and governments.


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