Privacy statement

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies Read more


Beacons, biometrics, wearables. With mobile high on the industry's investment agenda, what's next for air transport?

“Most people would rather forget their wallet than phone,” suggests Phillip Easter, Director, Mobile Apps and Wearables, American Airlines.

Such has been the transformational impact of smartphones on people’s everyday lives it’s surprising to reflect that they’ve only been widely available for about six years, following the launch of the iPhone in 2007.

Even so, as Easter notes, today it’s the‘must have’ item that you leave the house with.

Recent results from the Passenger IT Trends Survey indicate 81% of passengers carry a smartphone when they travel, while the 2014 Airline IT Trends Survey shows that mobile features high on the investment agenda of airlines.


So why has adoption of mobile services not been as fast as the industry expected?

Mobile check-in was introduced by airlines very quickly – today almost 70% of airlines offer mobile check-in. In 2010, passenger usage of mobile check-in was just 1%.

Airlines were predicting an increase to 9% of passengers within three years, yet four years later we find the global level of mobile check-in has yet to pass the 5% mark.

But averages can be deceiving. Across the industry some airlines have been very successful in moving passengers onto mobile check-in.

In particular, the low-cost carrier sector is seeing much higher usage of mobile check-in among their passengers, with a sector global average of 8.6%.

Given the greater disposition of business travelers to use mobile services, it’s likely airlines with high business passenger volumes have had more success raising mobile usage. Results from the last Airline IT Trends Survey indicate a few airlines have managed to reach as high as the 15% level for mobile check-in.

Airlines have high ambitions for the mobile channel. They’re heavily promoting their apps, while making them more usable.

App design

The first generation of mobile apps released by airlines were not sufficiently engaging to take passengers from alternative options.

There was also a tendency for airlines to create the mobile channel by just copying their website – or as Easter puts it, “cut ‘n’ paste dot com” – onto a screen size a magnitude smaller.

High ambitions remain

Today though, airlines have developed a much better grasp of the mobile channel and there’s no longer an expectation that passengers will ‘automatically’ shift their travel interactions to mobile phones in the way they have with other parts of their lives.

Nevertheless, airlines still have high ambitions for the mobile channel. They’re heavily promoting their apps, while making them more usable.

New services are also being added, aimed at better baggage management, reducing passenger frustration in times of disruption and boosting ancillary revenues.

The push to personalize

But underpinning it all is the need to personalize services, as we see in the latest Passenger IT Trends Survey.

Paul Behan, Director, Passenger, IATA thinks it’s the key component if airlines are to boost mobile usage.

“Airlines need to figure out how they can best leverage that one-to-one relationship and tailor a range of goods and services. It’s almost about creating an individual shop for every single passenger.”

“And that’s the real trick,” he continues. “Because browsing content on a small form factor is difficult, especially when you’re on the move.

“There isn’t time to stop and flick through, whereas at home, sitting with a larger device, you probably have. So it’s about understanding what the content should be for a consumer in a particular circumstance.”

Rapid change

Today, such a level of personalization is rare even on the airline website let alone in smartphone apps. But the situation is expected to change rapidly over the next three years, with two-thirds of airlines wanting to provide services based on real-time information and the passenger’s location.

SITA's Tom Knierim believes if this happens the value of mobile would increase significantly. “The unique features of personalization and location awareness make a smartphone a fantastic platform to cross and up sell.

“It gives the airlines a way to interact with the customer at every step of the journey by offering the right service at the right time.”

Yet determining the ‘right time’ is not so simple, unless you can pinpoint accurately the location of the passenger. A breakthrough in this regard is expected by placing beacons that emit a Bluetooth signal around the airport.

Beacons: missing link?

When an app on a passenger’s smartphone detects the signal by moving into range of the beacon, it can trigger an action in the app taking account of the passenger’s location.

This could include displaying the mobile boarding pass on the phone’s screen on arrival at the gate or a coupon for a discounted drink as the passenger passes a coffee shop.

Jim Peters, SITA CTO, thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg for beacons. “In the airport environment, we see a lot of different use cases.

“For example, when you enter the airport terminal, it could trigger an app to find out the current queue time, the best path through the airport, and the flight status.

“From this it can tell you the gate and how long it will take you to get there. I think that's the killer app.”

Proximity based services, as they are called, using beacons, could be the opportunity that airlines have been waiting for to personalize mobile services for passenger at the airport.


American Airlines is one carrier that thinks so, and it’s working with SITA at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on a pilot program to understand the opportunities.

Airports are also showing great interest in beacons. Miami International Airport (MIA) is starting a major trial with over 200 beacons throughout its North terminal (see ‘Beacon breakthroughs’ below).

Shared approach

Peters predicts other service providers at airports will want to start deploying beacons. But that could cause beacon mayhem, he cautions.

“In an airport environment, there's going to be an issue if the different app owners go to every airport and install their own beacons. The more you put out there, the more they interfere with each other. It's a little bit like putting speakers all playing different music next to each other. You can't hear the song,” says Peters.

One solution is to deploy a set of beacons at each location and treat them as common-use infrastructure, available to all airport service providers. It is an approach that has the support of ACI and IATA, and Peters believes a community type service makes a lot of sense.

Beacon registry

“It needs to be formalized but SITA has created a beacon registry where you can register any beacon you’ve deployed or ask for the information to use someone else’s beacons. It will reduce the cost and the complexity by avoiding unnecessary duplication of deployments.

“We are going to work with the industry to define some standards so that apps work the same in every airport that a passenger passes through,” he says.

Peters cites MIA’s move as a great model for the industry to follow. “By installing the beacons and registering them on the SITA Common-Use Beacon Registry, the airport has set the standard for being truly open and collaborative with its partners.

“Miami has made it easy for airlines, and other partners working at the airport, to take advantage of iBeacon technology and provide information that’s relevant to the passenger’s location or stage of the journey.

“And of course, it is not just for passengers; beacons can be used for staff notifications and to beam operational information – such as temperature, noise levels and vibrations – from throughout the airport to allow efficient operational management.”


Other concerns that could inhibit passengers from using mobile services are also starting to be addressed, particularly around privacy.

“People are afraid they’re either being tracked or spammed,” says Peters. “But while an app can be set up for tracking, it still requires the person to actively download the app and agree to it.

“On the spam issue I think it will be self-policing. I don’t see people using these apps. So, with those safeguards in mind, I think the privacy aspects should be OK.”

Real-time awareness

The ability to personalize interactions with passengers through smartphones based on location doesn’t just mean airlines will be able to boost ancillary sales.

Knierim believes the immediacy that mobile phones bring can also be a huge benefit to airlines in handling unscheduled events, such as a sudden change of gate or wider disruption.

“The real-time awareness of smartphones gives mobile a unique role to play in solving customer service issues in situations like flight delays or cancellations.

“By 2017, 92% of airlines will be able to inform passengers in real-time through their mobile should a disruption occur.”

The more progressive airlines are aiming to use the mobile channel to go further than just communicating with the passenger in times of disruption by making self-service options, such as rebooking, available through their app.

Mobile future?

These types of smarter apps – which offer services based on the real-time awareness of the passengers’ needs, their position and what’s happening to their individual journey – are expected to create a more appealing mobile experience for passengers.

The smartphone may then become the indispensable companion for travel that it is in the rest of our lives.

Beacon breakthroughs

Will proximity based services such as beacons give airlines the opportunity to personalize mobile services for passenger at the airport? Who stands to benefit and why?

American Airlines is one carrier that sees opportunities for beacons to change the way things are done. It’s working on a pilot program with SITA at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) in what will be the world’s largest deployment of beacons by an airline.

The beacon pilot will mean passengers receiving up-to-date and relevant information on their mobile devices.


American’s Phillip Easter believes knowing where a passenger is before sending information enables more effective communication.

“Beacons will help us understand about the moment the passenger is in and provide useful services to their smartphone through our app, based on that moment.

“During the trial the beacons will provide navigation way points. Passengers will see on a map where they are in the airport and where they need to be. We can’t do that today,” he explains.

Miami International Airport (MIA), in the meantime, is the first airport in the world to have a complete and open deployment of beacons. There are now beacons registered and available via the SITA Common-Use Beacon Registry.

Covering entrances, sky trains, check-in, gates, baggage claim and valet parking zones, the airport’s beacons can be used by airlines, retailers and other partners’ apps to trigger useful content to passengers or staff.

“Now we invite airlines and our other partners to invent new ways to make the passenger experience at Miami even better,” says Maurice Jenkins, Division Director, Information Systems, MIA.


“With our beacons," Jenkins explains, "they can now give passengers relevant information on their phones at every point of their journey through our airport.

“Working with SITA has made it easy for us to do this quickly - onsite deployment took just two days. And by using the SITA Registry, it makes it simple for us to collaborate with our partners, both domestic and international, and let them take advantage of this new technology too.

“Airlines that fly to Miami are already working on their apps so passengers will start seeing the benefits very soon.”

For more information, visit the Common-Use Beacon Registry.

False identity

Could wearable tech solve the problem?

A new technology that has not even made it into the shops yet could reshape passenger travel in the not too distant future.

The Nymi wristband made by Bionym is still in the early prototype stage, but if adopted by consumers in large numbers, it could provide a way to automatically authenticate passengers throughout their journey.

It works using the unique heart rhythm that each person has. When you attach the wristband it reads your electrocardiogram (ECG) and matches it to a stored version in an app on your mobile phone.


Once that verification has taken place the wristband can interact with other devices and apps using Bluetooth to carry out tasks securely. Authentication is lost as soon as the wristband is uncoupled and taken off and requires re-authentication to work again, making the device useless if stolen.

Outside of air transport, this could replace items such as keys for getting into your car or into a hotel room, or replace passwords for accessing computers and making secure payments.

Secure air travel

But the SITA Lab also believes it could have a number of use cases in air travel, particularly for secure passenger processing in areas such as automatic check-in or boarding.

Another potential use could be in providing personalized customer service. The SITA Lab is conducting trials with an application loaded onto tablets used by roving customer service agents.

The app senses the presence of a wristband as it gets closer and pulls up the booking or profile of the wearer, allowing the agent to provide prompt assistance, whether in the airport or in the aircraft cabin.

Connect with us