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To Infinity and Beyond: Future of Travel

Our co-founder, Rob Girling, recently had the privilege of keynoting the Future of Travel Experience conference in Las Vegas. The conference gathers together the leaders in the airline, airport services and hospitality industries. Rob laid out a perspective on the technology and design trends that challenged the travel industry to look at innovations and new experiences through the prism of the outcomes they will produce—for travelers, for the industry, and for society. Below we discuss some of the highlights from the conference.


The travel industry is grappling with a wave of technology improvements and rapidly increasing customer expectations – from the utopian Hyperloop concept to the just-around-the-corner, completely automated airport. And while travel has never been safer and faster, and we have tons of new services, apps, and options to make our experience better, there are clear opportunities for airports and airlines to make a dramatic improvement in the quality of the passenger experience. At the same time, interconnected economic, regulatory and safety requirements make for a complex industry. This means that for innovations to really take off, they need to be deployed at scale. With so many new technologies, one of the travel industry’s biggest challenges will be to predict which innovations they should invest in and which ones will take off.

A forum for sharing success stories

Competition is intense across all segments of the industry, and the questions solutions providers face are both daunting and exciting. The FTE Conference provided a forum for airlines, facility managers, and technology providers to share the lessons learned as they overcame challenges. How can airlines strengthen passenger loyalty by dramatically improving the quality of the passenger experience in a differentiated, cost-effective way? Qantas has taken one approach, where they provide their flight attendants with passenger information that helps them identify and proactively deliver excellent service to high-value customers. Can the rapidly exploding number of potential technologies be applied in a way that delights passengers and increases employee productivity and satisfaction? American Airlines would say yes, as they release social applications for in-flight use that allow customers to communicate directly with the crew or a customer service team on the ground. Can solutions be created that allow airports and airlines to provide an experience that addresses customers’ top priorities, exceeds their expectations, and balances costs with a customers perceptions of fairness and value? The struggle for many airlines is to offer the right experience that a customer is willing to pay for, with limited impact on profitability.

On the ground: the self-service airport

Checking in and printing a boarding pass at home was only the start of a wave of self-service technologies that make the process of checking in and boarding much more efficient. Airlines like Iberia have gone beyond that point to allow customers to print their bag tags as well. Self-boarding is already mainstream in many European and Asian airports, and will be arriving in the US soon – Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport already has the technologies installed. Eventually, wearable technologies will make things even easier as they use biometric information to provide secure proof of identity – Tokio’s Narita airport is already using biometric gates to speed security checkpoints. Things like custom alerts and dynamic signage, which is already prominently featured at McCarran, promise to make travel even easier by keeping customers up to date on weather conditions, flight delays, and even in airport travel times.

However, the extra convenience of self-service and automation may be offset by an increasingly complex user experience, in which customers face a daunting number of decisions and transactions. As airlines and service providers implement automation, they should strive to build a passenger experience that not only improves efficiency but is also painless and enjoyable. Design research, behavioral economics principles, and insights can definitely lend a hand.

Intelligent, proactive, personalized service

In contrast to the self-service emphasis, there’s real excitement about the potential that intelligently used data has to power delightful customer service interactions with valuable customers. It makes sense that as self-service options proliferate, the basis of competition between airlines may shift from self-service customer-facing technology to technology-powered high-quality proactive service. With the right data and tools, customer service agents can anticipate customer’s needs, potentially turning a frustrated customer into a true brand advocate. Those experiences will be driven by well-designed systems that can alert a customer service agent to a passenger who’s struggling with a self-service channel, or tell the flight crew that a high-value passenger would enjoy a glass of pinot noir before dinner. Qantas has already deployed a system that enables many of those experiences by providing attendants during the flight with portable devices loaded with customer history and preferences data.

Still, the technology and experiences are in their early stages. Collecting, analyzing, and presenting the right amount of information to empower but not to confuse or overwhelm a flight crew member requires careful design. Making broad use of available information without breaking social norms or crossing live of passenger privacy also demands a deep focus and sensitivity to the customer perspective. There will be substantial innovation (and iteration) in this area as the industry experiments with to new norms and standards.

Making the case: standards and differentiation

As the industry adapts to the new technical innovations, there’s an interesting tension between standardization, which will enable broad market adoption and lower cost for all players, and custom solutions that come to market faster and provide more differentiation at a higher cost. Competitive dynamics in the industry continue to be intense, but the nascent state of the market suggests there’s a real opportunity to create brand-defining experiences that stitch together multiple components across employee and customer-facing systems to enable truly breakthrough experiences. Already we’re seeing airlines make concrete bets on the future, like American’s investment in on-board applications to communicate with customer service and the flight crew during a flight, or Qantas’ passenger data management system. Each travel solutions provider will need to have a specific point of view that connects passenger experience, investment, and business strategy. It’s a multifaceted problem, where design can help map out and define the customer experience and business outcomes so that the end user experience aligns with market opportunities and customer expectations.

As the pace of innovation increases, consumers have at their disposal a mountain of technologies that promise improvements, but often don’t live up to their expectations. In travel, the next wave of innovation can truly redefine the experience, and bring benefits to passengers, employees, and shareholders alike. But as possibilities increase, creating solutions becomes more complex. Focusing on the outcomes we want to achieve will be the key to identifying what new experiences will help make the visions of future travel a reality. Not coincidentally, creating these experiences will be the best opportunities for investment, as well.