Thursday, 24 May 2012 00:54

Mobile impact on air travel: what’s happening now, the future?

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Whichever way you look at it, IT mobility, including the use of smartphones and other mobile technology, is already having an impact and influence on airports and air travel and that trend is only going to increase.

Two reports just out look at the mobility impact from both an industry-wide perspective and a ‘world first’ trial at a French airport involving airline passengers. On one hand, Unisys in a report just released, predicts that mobility will be the “most disruptive” IT trend to impact airport operations this decade, not only changing the way airports engage with air travellers, but also enabling more efficient monitoring, management and effective use of the continually changing real-time data involved in running an airport.

And, in another report by SITA, one of the world's leading specialists in air transport communications and IT solutions, we are told that France’s Toulouse-Blagnac Airport has just become the world’s first airport to trial, over coming months, SIM-based Near Field Communication (NFC) to allow passengers to pass through the airport’s checks, controls and gates using only their mobile phones. The trial, using the security of the SIM card, will enable 50 selected passengers at the French airport to use the new service on BlackBerry smartphones. French telecommunications giant, Orange, is also involved in the trial.

As the head of Unisys’ Asia Pacific aviation practice, Sury Chanali says “we’re already familiar with boarding passes and flight information being delivered to travellers via their smartphones and tablets, but the real magic of mobility is not just the ability to make existing process more efficient and flexible.”

“ Rather, it is also the possibility for airlines and airports to completely rethink their business processes and the way they offer services so they can change the customer’s experience and run the airport more efficiently,” says Chavali.

According to Chavali, the rapid take-up of mobile devices has not only changed the way people want to interact and access information related to their travel, it also “enables airports and airlines to make greater use of mobile devices to better manage their businesses by untethering employees from their desks, sharing key information more quickly, and replacing paper-based processes to drive efficiencies and increase revenues.”
 
And, coinciding with the Unisys’ report, SITA announces that 50 selected passengers will trial the SIM-based Near Field Communication (NFC) service on their BlackBerry smartphones over the European summer.

SITA director, Renaud Irminger, says the test passengers’ mobiles are the latest BlackBerry smartphones with NFC technology that allow communication with other NFC-enabled devices using radio frequencies by either tapping or bringing them within a range of a few centimeters.  “The phone will effectively become the passengers’ pass allowing them access to car parking, the boarding area via a premium access zone and to a premium passenger lounge. At the same time, passengers will receive up to the minute information such as changes to their flight times, departure hall or boarding gate.”

According to Irminger, using the GSMA SIM-based NFC technology during the passenger journey provides “many benefits over current technology,” and, he adds, “is extremely secure, will work when the device is powered off, does not require the passenger to launch an app or retrieve an SMS or an email, and is not affected by reading problems caused by dirty screens.”  “Overall, a passenger using an NFC-enabled device can be processed faster than any of the boarding processes available today,” Irminger says.

Jean-Michel Vernhes, CEO of Toulouse-Blagnac Airport says that with NFC technology, the mobile phone simplifies the passage of the flyer through the airport. “The mobile phone now becomes a personalised tool, displaying the required information at the right moment. It also enables the flyer to better manage his time, optimising his choices.”

And, on the potential benefits of integrating mobile technologies into airport operations, Unisys’ Sury Chanali makes five predictions:

1.    Smartphones and tablets will be used to more efficiently manage and monitor constantly changing data – Airports will incorporate mobile platforms into their operational systems to deliver information and alerts to smartphones so that airport staff receive the latest information immediately, regardless of where they are in the airport.  Information automatically delivered from the airport operations database may, for example include which stand has been allocated to an incoming flight, gate changes for departing flights, when first and last bags are placed on the baggage belts, and whether any incoming transfer passengers have tight flight connections to make sure the passenger and their baggage complete their journey

2.    Tablet enabled applications will  enable roaming check-in – Using  applications on hand-held tablets, “roaming” passenger services agents could  check-in passengers before they reach the check-in counter.  This would enable agents to pull out from the check-in queue people who are running late to check them in on the spot.  Or they could meet passengers at the airport’s bus stop.  The agent would perform the check-in using their tablet and then direct the passengers to a bag drop counter, or directly to security if they have no baggage.  The boarding pass could be delivered to the passenger’s smartphone or the agent could use a small hand-held printer to produce a paper copy.  This service would be particularly valuable to help reduce queuing and avoid passenger inconvenience – both during peak traffic periods and when staff must manage special service requests.   This approach could also help increase airport revenue streams by moving passengers quickly to the air-side duty free shopping areas to maximise the time they have to make purchases.

3.    Smartphone alerts will be used to proactively manage irregular events – Airports will     further leverage mobile devices by automatically generating alerts to staff triggered by the
absence of an event.   Such alerts would use a rules-based engine to identify when a pre-defined expected event has not taken place by a certain time. It could match events against service level agreements (SLA) or key performance indicators (KPI), for example, the deadline for ground handling staff to load the first and last bags from a flight.  This would help quickly flag if an SLA was going to be missed and enable early and proactive action to mitigate the impact.. Such alerts could be customised based on an employee’s role to ensure that the right information goes to the worker responsible for meeting the SLA. For example, the mobile system could enable ground handlers to subscribe to check-in alerts by airline or flight number.

4.    Airport security staff will be freed from the command centre for faster action – Physical security is a crucial element of airport management, but security staff members can’t always be everywhere. However, mobility can give them virtual access to more places. Integrating mobile devices into video surveillance systems can free airport security staff from the confines of the control room so they can view real-time footage and other sensor information while on the move.  This enhanced visibility can help them better understand and respond to potential security threats as and when they occur, anywhere and anytime.  Such applications already exist. For example, the Unisys Perimeter Security app displays a dynamic map showing the position and movement of individuals and items in an area under surveillance.

5.     Arriving passengers will receive faster baggage alerts – Airports are also likely to develop mobile applications that passengers to use themselves, such as a downloadable smartphone or tablet “app” to advise arriving travellers when their bag has been loaded onto the belt and on which carousel it will be delivered.  Passengers could then decide whether to go directly to the baggage area or spend time in the airport’s shops.  Such applications are an example of sharing existing operational data to provide greater convenience to the passenger while boosting the airport’s retail businesses.

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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham is a co-founder of iTWire and a 35-year veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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