NEW YORK — Beleaguered, but unbroken, the air travel industry is proving its mettle by overcoming challenges of the pandemic and rekindling its innovative roots.
In a single year, we have seen unprecedented rapid-fire innovation, collaboration, and technology adoption across airports and airlines designed to protect travelers’ health and safety, improve efficiency, and most importantly, regain consumer trust. As we inch our way back towards a place called normal, ExpertFlyer explores the indelible mark COVID has left on many aspects of how we live, work, and travel. Fueled by a survivalist’s sense of urgency, the commercial air travel sector, which has not been regarded as a disruptor since the Jet Age, is signaling an innovation renaissance that is revolutionizing the way we experience air travel.
ExpertFlyer went One-on-One with a few creators and stewards of some of these technologies to gain insight about what inspired their creation, how their existence kept air travel safe and moving, and gain some understanding of how COVID has transformed – and accelerated – travel technology for the future.
“As we started working through this pandemic, new innovation challenges surfaced that had to be co-created with our airline and airport facility customers in a really short timeframe,” said Jamie Richter, Sales Director, Elo. As the originator of the touchscreen 50 years ago, Elo has gone through significant changes, from simply providing touchscreen equipment and monitors to developing industry-adapted interactive touch experiences that conform to the dynamic needs of vertical industries, like air travel.
“From our perspective, a silver lining of the pandemic has been the acceleration of placing technology solutions into airport locations. Things that were on the roadmap to go out in three to four years, went out in three to five months. And I think that’s a testament to the driving commitment of our customers and Elo’s ability to help deliver these solutions within timelines that we have never seen before.”
According to Richter, Elo, in collaboration with customers, like Tampa Airport, United Airlines, Jabbrrbox, and Servy, is developing a more modernized approach to servicing travelers’ needs safely, efficiently, and conveniently.
James Stathopoulos, managing director of Technologies for Airports & Network Operations for United Airlines, asserts that the pandemic has presented a lot of opportunities, even for technology that’s been around, but underused by consumers.
“QR codes have been around since the 90s, but their adoption faded out,” Stathopoulos explained. “Since the pandemic, you are seeing them make a big comeback at restaurants as a germ-free way to view menu options. Video is another great example. Again, that technology has been around for a long time, but now schools are using it to teach, doctors are using it for telemedicine, and it has become a ubiquitous stand-in for in-person business meetings.”
United is resurrecting QR code and video technology in their new product called Agent on Demand, which empowers their customers and customer service agents to communicate via video, voice, or chat in real time virtually anywhere in the airport.
“Now you don’t have to wait in line to get an update, to change your seat, or get a response when you’re in a bind, like when your flight is cancelled,” adds Stathopoulos. “To access Agent on Demand, travelers can either scan a QR code, which is visible throughout the terminal, and engage via their mobile device or they may interact with an agent through one of United’s kiosks placed in multiple locations across our hub terminals and gate areas.”
“With Agent on Demand, United is able to do two things,” explains Elo’s Richter. “One is creating a bigger bandwidth of agents that can assist when there’s a spike in calls due to flight disruptions and two, minimizing person-to-person contact to help mitigate the spread of viruses. By implementing Agent on Demand, United can redirect agents from across its vast customer service network who can quickly respond from an offsite remote location to assist travelers through their phone or on a nice big 22-inch kiosk. Seeing a friendly agent’s face and being able to talk through your issue, and re-book if necessary, is a pretty cool way to reduce the stress of travelers.”
ExpertFlyer co-founder Chris Lopinto is also optimistic about the continued advancement and swift application of customer-centric safety and convenience innovations by the air travel industry. “It’s great to see that a resilient entrepreneurial spirit has been a silver lining of the pandemic. Airlines and airports experimenting with new ways to serve their customers with a startup mentality will mean great things for customer service long into the future.”
Tech-Powered Convenience and Safety Help Maintain Airports’ Non-Flight Revenue Sources
According to a 2019 ACI Airport Economics Report, an average of 39.4% of global airports’ revenues are derived from non-aeronautical sources — think restaurants, retail and duty-free. Like other businesses, airports have had to protect these revenue sources by adopting Covid safety standards and new technology solutions to protect their guests’ health and improve the overall air travel experience.
At Tampa International Airport (TPA), Communications Manager Danny Valentine says TPA To Go is a major enhancement for passengers. “Not only does it bring added convenience, but it also gives our guests access to virtually all of our different restaurant options. A guest at one terminal can order from another without the need to go through security multiple times. The service, powered by Servy, is contactless, fast, and high-quality. Food items are cooked to order, boxed and sealed for a safe dining-on-the-go experience.”
Tampa International is among the 70% of top US airports utilizing Servy’s Grab platform. “The Grab Airport Marketplace is still our largest product and a big factor in supporting an airport-wide ecosystem where we can link all of the different restaurants and retailers together with customers through a variety of different digital channels,” says Jeff Livney, Chief Experience Officer, Servy. “By reducing a lot of those touchpoints through self-ordering, guests don’t have to be with an employee to place an order. They can pick up their order from a shelf or a locker for some sort of handoff.”
Privacy Pods Offer a Quiet Place for Meetings, Meditation, or a Good-Old-Fashioned Scream
If you’ve been to a major airport, like JFK or LaGuardia lately, you may have seen a Jabbrrbox privacy pod, which looks like a futurist phone booth. The brainchild of co-founders Brian Hackathorn and Jeremy Jennings, Jabbrrbox is filling the need for quiet solitude and private “anywhere workspaces” at airports across the county.
“Jabbrrbox is a future of work platform,” says Jeremy Jennings, co-founder and co-CEO of Jabbrrbox. “We provide an ecosystem of technology-enabled micro spaces to give mobile workers the privacy and tools to work and much more — anywhere at any time. As the future of work, travel, and mobility is fundamentally shifting, our solution gives people the ability to take advantage of not only those increasing trends of remote on-demand, but really just the ability to find a quiet place when and where you need it.”
The Jabbrrbox itself is 8-ft. tall and a comfortable 4-ft. by 4-ft. inside, which is decked out with a camera, speaker, microphone, and a 24-inch touchscreen interface. “The business use case is pretty straightforward. It’s your place to go do a Zoom call or jump on a Teams meeting with secure encrypted WiFi that’s unique to your session; all kinds of things that let you be collaborative. But we’ve built out three use cases for Jabbrrbox: productivity, privacy, and wellness and each experience speaks to those user cohorts.
“When we were beta testing Jabbrrbox, we would go to the airport and just watch users and how they were utilizing the product. And beyond our intuitive assumptions, like jumping in there for a quick phone call or a quick Zoom meeting, we had people that were practicing musical instruments or others who were turning the lights to blue and going to simply relax, breathe and meditate. We even had one gentleman who used it to release some pent up frustration with an angry cry.”
Digital Sensors and Custodial Protocols at the Core of Travel Industry Comeback
If there is one positive Covid change that’s here to stay, it’s tech-driven airport and airline cleaning and sanitization. Just ask Tampa International Airport (TPA), which was recently named one of the most hygienic airports in North America.
“Our cleaning and sanitization efforts have made great strides during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says TPA Communications Manager Danny Valentine. “Not only have we enhanced the frequency of cleaning key areas, we’re also using sophisticated new technology to ensure our facilities are safe and hygienic. This ranges from new cleaning devices to technology that helps us monitor our restrooms and deploy resources when and where they’re needed most.”
In Partnership with Clorox and Cleveland Clinic, United Airlines has been putting health and safety at the forefront of the entire customer experience since the early days of the pandemic. “If you don’t feel safe, you’re not going to travel, so that was the idea behind the CleanPlus product,” explains James Stathopoulos at United Airlines. “CleanPlus ensures our aircraft surfaces and air are clean by incorporating HEPA filters and digitally prompted and timed sanitizing sprays that confirm the airplane has been sprayed on time, so our planes are still hitting the right turnaround times.”
Other companies that are part of the air travel industry ecosystem, like Jabbrrbox, have also reevaluated their cleaning protocols since Covid hit.
“When the pandemic hit, our primary focus shifted to sanitization and the safety of our users,” Jeremy Jennings said.
“We’ve introduced an air filtration system to help reduce airborne contaminants, including particles containing viruses. Our boxes have an airflow of almost 200 CFM, which means that there’s continuous airflow for air turnover every 60 seconds. So there’s always fresh air. We are conditioned, which means that we take the conditioned environment around us and we’re forcing air through the units. All the surfaces are anti-microbial, which suppress the growth of microorganisms and limit the transmission of harmful microbes, but at the end of the day, nothing beats a good old Clorox wipe.”
Frictionless Tech and “Skunkworks” Plays Major Role in Air Travel’s Innovation Renaissance
As we look to the future, technology will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in keeping travelers safe and moving, but it seems there will also be a bit of old-fashioned ingenuity, trial and error, and gut instinct as the airline travel sector moves forward.
“The whole idea of ‘fast fail’ has never been more supported from the top,” says Stathopoulos. “When United brought out Agent on Demand, we did it in about three weeks. We put it out into our living lab, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. It was never on United’s roadmap; we didn’t have funding for it or anything like that. It was, in essence, skunkworks — We cooked something up and we got great feedback from our agents and our customers and now it’s turned into one of our core products. That empowerment is fantastic, and I expect we will continue down this path in the future.”
Stathopoulos also believes that biometrics will significantly change the travel experience and says there is a lot of infrastructure that will need to go into that. “United Airlines has been working with the government and the airport authorities and as that happens, we are getting ready to bring it online at different airports. We are currently testing some biometric solutions on the West Coast and in LA with some of our partners.”
“From the airline industry and many other verticals, you’re going to see more of a frictionless experience, where you have something like a digital ID that you opt into,” says Jamie Richter at Elo. “We’re already partnering with software companies and deploying biometric cameras that can attach very easily to our kiosks. So airlines and airports can identify anyone when they walk into an airport; understand where they need to be and get them cleared through security as quickly as possible. United Airlines is among those players who are setting the pace by pushing the touchless technology agenda. And because of that, customers like myself who are traveling all the time, are going to benefit from a streamlined travel experience in the near future.”
According to Stathopoulos, the other big advance will be analytics. “The government is really helping us to gather that type of information for passenger processing through airports, which I think will be really beneficial because you’ll know when you wake up if the lines are long or short. That will help travelers gauge when they need to leave home to start their day of travel.”
Servy and the company’s flagship Grab platform is powering airport food service and retail ordering and delivery. “On the concession side alone, whether it’s ghost kitchens in airports, and pickup from lockers or gate delivery by robots, there’s a lot of interesting stuff coming,” says Jeff Livney, CXO, Limney. “We’ve got a few airports adding QR codes to armrests, so they can pinpoint you’re precise location. I think that there are interesting things coming on the digital commerce and airport side of things.
“I’m really enthusiastic about all the different things that airports are trying. Whether it’s more robotics or machine learning-based tools, we’re seeing all sorts of advancements in airports these days, especially if you’ve got some CARES Act funds to help develop and move into these products much faster than a typical municipality procurement process would allow.”
To watch the video featuring commentary from travel industry leaders about current and future technologies used by the airline industry, or read the entire feature story, visit ExpertFlyer’s blog.
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