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The real-time journey

by Susanna Brown, American Airlines
The real-time journey

Travelers want to be empowered along every step of the journey, in real-time, both on the ground and in flight.

If there’s one thing that’s underlined in the new Passenger IT Trends Survey, it’s that passengers want real-time information to empower them along their travels.

We know that the vast majority of them travel with their mobile devices of choice, to stay connected at all times. And we all know about travelers’ rising expectations for service and connectivity.

More than half of them, for example, expect the airline to inform them of problems via a mobile app or a voice call.


Be it through mobility, self-service, social media, better intelligence or automated security – technology continues to make the journey smoother than ever.

But with travelers expecting ever more ‘empowerment’, it’s driving airlines and airports to focus investments on the availability in real-time of a whole host of information through multiple self-service channels to streamline the journey even further.


One airline forging the way, American Airlines, is investing in what it sees as customer-centered innovations to help ease travel, personalization and connectedness.

“At the end of the day, regardless of what industry we’re in, be it airports or airlines, we want our customers to have a great travel experience,” explains Susanna Brown, Managing Director of Operations Technologies at American Airlines.

“For us, that means worry-free travel. Our investments and innovations have been playing a significant role in this arena, including a focus on mobile. “Our customers are mobile and as they enter the airport, they expect their travel experience to be extended through mobile services.”


On their day of travel, American Airlines’ passengers get access to a range of services to speed up their journey – from flight updates sent to mobile devices in real-time, to mobile boarding passes.

The airline offers self-service kiosks in all major airports, while self-bag tagging stations at over 330 kiosks across multiple airports further assist the process.

With 10 million downloads to date, American Airlines’ mobile app provides intuitive and fast access to mobile boarding passes, flight details, terminal maps and other information.

“Passengers don’t want to hang around; they want the means to get through the airport quickly,” adds Brown. “This requires investment in self-service and an acknowledgment that passengers expect to be able to control their own experiences – not just at check-in but for every other touch point."

“We strive to connect with our customers through every phase of the journey, giving them the power to choose self-service options, to receive real-time information and to take greater control of their travel.”
Susanna Brown, Managing Director, Operations Technology, American Airlines


Across the industry, the number and variety of touchpoints are increasing all the time, offering new opportunities across the whole field of distribution and passenger services.

As a result, the rules of engagement with the customer and the level of personalization in real-time are changing radically and rapidly as passenger services systems enable knowledge of the customer and then increased personalization.

One example is SITA’s mobile app iTravel®. While driving revenues and improving customer service, it empowers passengers to take more control of their journey, tackling key steps along the way and featuring content-aware passenger updates.

iTravel allows individual or combinations of services to be incorporated, so that passengers can book and pay for flights, check-in, and check airline as well as flight information.


For any mobile solution, being an integral part of the distribution picture is an essential feature. “What's critical is that an airline's passenger services mobile app integrates seamlessly with the distribution strategy,” says Allison O’Neill, VP Passenger Solutions, SITA. “It needs to work in unison with internal processes and deliver a consistent experience across all customer touchpoints. That means seamless integration with the passenger services system (PSS)."

Based on seamless integration with SITA’s Horizon PSS, iTravel handles complex airline business rules and processes. The result is a set of rich features with relevant and accurate data for the passenger.

“These are iTravel principles,” says O'Neill, “allowing individual or combinations of services to be incorporated within the app, so that passengers can book and pay for flights, check-in, and check airline as well as flight information.”

IT trends

As passengers demand more mobile services, airlines and airports are responding with increased urgency.

Echoing the new Passenger IT Trends Survey, the 2014 Airline IT Trends Survey cites new services being deployed to give passengers more information and more control.

Over the next three years, flight status updates will be universally available; baggage notifications will be provided by more than two thirds of airlines; and recovery options when flights are disrupted will be proactively offered by almost three-quarters of airlines.

Airlines are also recognizing the potential value of connecting with travelers on their terms. Ancillary sales through mobiles are expected to increase fivefold from a low base to 11.6% of total ancillary sales by 2017.

Ease of use

Yet the Airline IT Trends Survey makes it clear that more can be done to increase passenger use of airline mobile apps. Functionality and ease of use must evolve further for airlines to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by mobile.

In particular, enhancements are needed such as integration with other mobile services, location-based services and increased personalization (see ‘Mobile evolution’).

Fly online

On the topic of in-flight mobile services, the voice of passengers is loud and clear. Connectivity across the journey must encompass services at 35,000 feet.

This too is being keenly addressed by American Airlines. Brown again: “About 60% of aircraft in the US are Wi-Fi enabled, while 90% of the American/US Airways fleet is Wi-Fi enabled.

“I have seen the value of this on several flights. In one seat you may see a passenger mid-flight ordering pizza for the family at home; another may be working collaboratively on a presentation; while another is keeping up with emails or social media.

“The point is, onboard connectivity enables people to continue with their business as they do on the ground. It’s been an area of considerable investment for American Airlines – and continues to be so,” she adds.

Fellow US airline JetBlue embraced in-flight travel on its first flight out of JFK in 2000, providing passengers with free, live TV.

The airline launched its own Ka band satellite to support its Fly-Fi offering introduced in 2013, as we heard in our interview with Eash Sundaram, Executive Vice-President and CIO of JetBlue.


To empower passengers, you must empower staff too. American Airlines gives employees mobile devices putting more customer information at their fingertips. Unconstrained by the physical barrier of a counter, they can spend more time dealing with the individual circumstances of a passenger.

“We have two programs,” explains Brown. “‘Your Assistance Delivered Anywhere’ is a mobile service that complements self-service check-in and boarding.

“It frees up our airport agents to walk the passenger side of the counter and help passengers with boarding passes, checking their luggage, giving them a flight update – anywhere in the airport. It personalizes the experience.

“The second program is a tablet for flight attendants. Used by about 17,000 staff, it’s not simply just for sales, but also provides flight attendants with customer information that helps personalize the experience in-flight for our passengers.”

“The flight experience is more personal, more attuned to the needs of the passenger, higher quality, adding value at every point.”

Be social 

Nowhere will empowered travelers see more change in this decade than in the very real-time experience of social media.

“The critical point to remember,” continues American’s Brown, “is that you have to be very responsive – and you need listening tools to be able to do that.

“Social media doesn’t fit with most organizational matrices. It’s horizontal – touching on media, communications, operations, technology and other areas. We’ve formed a social media governance board to provide a management umbrella at an executive level.

Engage fast

“Travelers think fast, they move fast, they communicate fast – and we have to engage fast,” she adds.

“One of our customers wrote: ‘On a recent trip home from Dallas Fort Worth to New Orleans, I was very impressed with your social media team. They were very responsive to me.

‘I have no status on America Airlines, but that personal touch from your airline meant so much that I am now contemplating doing a status match with AA and perhaps flying your airline with a little more frequency’.

“The genie of social media is out of the lamp and will never return,” concludes Brown. “We have to celebrate that fact that the connected traveler is helping us create a better experience for everyone.”


Regardless of standards or quality of data about individual passengers, the connected traveler is here, agrees Shashank Nigam, CEO of SimpliFlying.

“And guess what. Their decision to fly your airline, to stay in your hotel, to use your airport is actually influenced in real-time by what people say on social media.” (See ‘Social media: part of your business.’)

Recent research by Pew into how Generation Y (born since the mid-'80s) are developing as adults in the US makes it clear they’re different from earlier generations in their use of technology[1].

That difference will become more marked as Generation Y moves into middle age and a newer generation takes the stage. For the air transport industry this is essential knowledge.

Online social networks are the building blocks of social interaction for many young adults. They have helped them create wide-ranging networks of ‘friends’.

Pew’s research suggests that Generation Y have a median number of 250 friends, against 98 for the older, baby-boomer generation, those now in their 60s.

Tuned in

What’s clear is that connected travelers are increasingly giving little thought to digital technologies, simply because they are as natural to them as electricity and water.

But they do give thought to how technology can make travel simpler, less stressful and more enjoyable. And they expect the airlines and airports they use to be there, tuned in, turned on and ready to go, in real-time.

[1] ‘Millennials in Adulthood’, Pew Research, March 2014.

Also see 'Social media: part of your business' by Shashank Nigam, Simpliflying.

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