If going through airport security is a flyer’s biggest pain, then capacity is the airport manager’s living nightmare: Airports around the world today are hard-pressed to process more passengers and cargo than their terminals were originally designed to manage, and projected air traffic growth indicates no coming relief. Most American airports were built between the 1950s and 1970s. Take Chicago O’Hare International Airport: By 1975, O’Hare was the world’s busiest airport, handling 37 million passengers a year. In 2017, more than double that number – 79.8 million people – traveled through O’Hare, along with 1.9 million tons of cargo!
Capacity issues have led to a multibillion-dollar infrastructure crisis in the airport industry, not to mention low customer expectations on the part of airlines and airline passengers (airports’ two main customers). It’s not enough for the industry to work on quickly processing travelers and avoiding delays; improvements and solutions are needed for the end-to-end travel journey, as well, including the terminal experience and flying between destinations. The pressure is on for airports to invest in new technologies that improve the efficiency of airport processes and reduce service disruptions; thereby allowing passengers to spend less time in queues and more time enjoying airport facilities.
Ideas on the ground and on board:
The airport industry first began toying with wearable technology with the release of the original Google Glass in 2013. Early on, a number of airlines trialed smart glasses at the boarding gate and offered digital boarding passes for consumer smartwatches. More recently, the use of wearable augmented and virtual reality devices by airport and airline technicians to train, perform maintenance, and receive remote support has gained traction. Additionally, the growing popularity of AR and VR in architecture, engineering and construction has implications for the future of airport renovations and new airport design. Other ideas floating around look to a future in which travelers regularly use wearables and even lightweight smart glasses to receive real-time flight notifications, directions to their gate, and pre-flight shopping and dining promotions.
In IATA’s 2017 Global Passenger Survey, 85% of those surveyed indicated they would be willing to give up more personal data in exchange for faster process checks and more personalized service at the airport. As consumers become increasingly receptive to sharing wearable-generated biometric data and are exposed to augmented reality via smartphones; ideas like replacing traditional travel documents with personal wearables and implementing AR wayfinding in airports seem less and less far-fetched.
The history of wearable technologies in the airport industry:
From supporting airport ground operations with AR to in-flight VR entertainment; the airport industry has experimented with wearable technologies throughout the travel experience. In fact, airports and airlines gave us some of the earliest – and incredibly imaginative – use cases of Google Glass Explorer Edition, arguably the device that set enterprise wearables in motion. Let’s look back:
Virgin Atlantic’s 2014 trial at London Heathrow Airport – in collaboration with SITA – included both Google Glass and the Sony SmartWatch 2. Staff at the airline’s premium entrance at Heathrow used the devices to view individual passenger information and real-time travel updates. This allowed agents to greet first-class passengers by name, process them quickly for their flights, and provide the most up-to-date travel information. The following year, Virgin partnered with Sony to equip its Heathrow engineers with the Sony SmartWatch 3 and Sony’s SmartEyeglass to test out real-time job notifications and live video streaming to remote expert technicians.
Around the same time, Vueling, Iberia, and Air Berlin launched smartwatch boarding passes for early Pebble and Samsung smartwatches. EasyJet and British Airways followed with Apple Watch apps allowing travelers to receive real-time flight updates and board their planes with just a flick of the wrist.
Japan Airlines made another early attempt to prove Google Glass in maintenance, with airline personnel wearing Glass on the tarmac at Honolulu Airport so that experienced staff at headquarters could inspect planes remotely. Airports got into the game, as well; including Copenhagen Airport, where duty managers used Google Glass to document issues and answer travelers’ questions on the spot, and London City Airport, which considered how Glass might be leveraged in its operations. Allegiant Systems, a software company, also developed a proof of concept in which airline staff used Vuzix smart glasses to create a more personalized passenger experience. Scenarios included using the glasses at security, at the gate, and at the door to the aircraft to identify passengers (facial recognition tech) and to view preferences of frequent First-Class fliers in the air.
While these trials made an early splash for wearables, most did not amount to full-blown adoption. This was especially true in the case of smartwatches. Smart glasses did, however, enable workers to keep eye contact and better engage with customers.
Later use cases:
By 2017, the idea of using smart glasses to improve airport processes no longer seemed so futuristic. That year, SITA worked with Helsinki Airport to explore visualizing airport operations with the Microsoft HoloLens. Using the feed from its Day of Operations software (already in use by Helsinki Airport), SITA reproduced the airport operational control center (AOCC) in mixed reality. This made for a new way of visualizing and analyzing the airport’s complex operational data (aircraft movement, retail analytics, etc.) to make decisions. It also allowed remote viewing of the AOCC in real time.
Along with delays, heavy commercial passenger and cargo traffic can produce unexpected changes in an airport’s operations that put the airport’s facilities to test. Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky Airport (CVG), which sees 6.7 million passengers a year, turned to wearable technology when quality metrics revealed that the state of the airport’s restrooms had a great impact on traveler satisfaction. In what became a successful use case, CVG installed counting sensors in its restrooms and gave housekeeping staff Samsung Gear S3 smartwatches with Hipaax’ TaskWatch platform. The sensor data helped to better direct staff resources, so instead of following a standard cleaning schedule, housekeepers were notified in real time via smartwatch when a nearby restroom required attention.
Out from behind the scenes in 2017, AR and VR began to make more public appearances in the airport industry. Heathrow Airport worked with Ads Reality to create an augmented reality app for entertaining and distracting children – some of them first-time travelers – during the long wait to board a flight. As an added benefit, tracking the triggering of the AR markers through the airport’s five terminals also tracked foot traffic, revealing busy areas where customer experience could be improved. Qantas Airways was actually the first to introduce VR headsets, partnering with Samsung in 2015 to bring the devices to select first-class cabins and lounges for travelers to virtually experience some of Australia’s greatest attractions (like the Great Barrier Reef). The airline has since released a multi-platform mobile app showing off Australia’s beautiful scenery, with the goal of inspiring consumers to book with Qantas.
Using VR as a sales tool has been popular at other airlines, too, including Lufthansa and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which offer VR experiences of destinations and the aircraft itself to encourage seat upgrades. The KLM Flight Upgrader is a VR experience enabling people on budget flights to “pretend” to fly KLM, complete with in-flight movie, reading your favorite newspaper, and a virtual meal served by a caring crew. Singapore Airlines, Eithad Airways and Finnair have also experimented with VR to show off their airplanes, cabin classes, and travel destinations. Very recently, Air New Zealand announced a partnership with Magic Leap and Framestore to develop MR content highlighting New Zealand as a travel destination. The airline has also trialed HoloLens for displaying key passenger information like preferred meal choices and emotional state to flight crew and Google Pixel Bud Bluetooth earphones to help employees with live translation onboard and in the airport terminal.
Late 2017 saw larger and more ambitious trials of wearable technologies at airports. Changi Airport, one of the busiest in Asia, announced plans to pilot 600 pairs of smart glasses among its staff to improve the accuracy, efficiency and safety of cargo and luggage handling. Using its camera to see visual markers and labels on luggage and containers, the glasses project information like loading instructions on top of the user’s real-world view, shortening loading time by as much as 15 minutes. This will create a competitive advantage for the Changi’s airline customers, while video streaming will allow real-time monitoring of ramp handling operations.
Hamad International Airport signed a Memorandum of Understanding with SITA, providing a framework to trial biometrics together for seamless identity management across all key passenger touch points at the Doha airport, along with robotics, blockchain, AR and VR.
Though Copenhagen Airport was actually the first to provide an AR wayfinding tool back in 2013, Gatwick Airport installed 2,000 beacons to enable the same in 2017. At Gatwick, through which 45 million people travel every year, passengers can use their smartphones to view AR directions to wherever they need to go. Helping people navigate the airport prevents minor disruptions resulting in late departures and missed flights. It’s also the perfect use case for consumer AR glasses, allowing you to travel heads-up to your gate with your hands just on your luggage.
SkyLights, maker of immersive, cinematic in-flight entertainment (IFE), has content partnerships with the likes of 20th Century Fox, DreamWorks, and BBC. Last year, Air France and Corsair trialed SkyLights’ Bravo Evo VR headset in some business class cabins. In the spring of this year, Emirates and Eithad announced their own trials of the new Allosky headset in select first- and business-class lounges. Japan Airlines and JetFly have also tested the headset, which can store up to 40 high-def films including five VR titles. Such VR entertainment could transform the cabin experience.
In the last few months, both Philippine Airlines and Lufthansa have revealed they’re using VR for training. Lufthansa is just the latest in the aviation world to consider VR for pilot training. The German airline already uses VR to teach flight attendants how to search the aircraft for foreign objects and is now seeking to keep up with the growing attrition rate among its 10,500 pilots. Philippine Airlines is applying the technology to cabin crew training, which, unlike flight simulators, has evolved very little over the years. The first batch of cabin crew trainees to use VR are now being deployed to select craft.
Whereas the use cases for wearable technologies in industry – on the construction site, in the factory, etc. – are clear, consumer-facing industries like retail, financial services, and travel are less certain about how to go digital. There’s no shortage of experimentation: In the last five years alone, the airport industry has turned to wearables to make boarding more convenient, improve the in-flight experience, better understand airport operations in order to correlate events and manage staff, speed up flight inspection and turnaround, entice consumers to upgrade their travel, distract those waiting for flights, and more.
Wearable and immersive tech is accelerating across the industry, most recently popping up in air traffic control, and even carving out new revenue streams as in the case of First Airlines, the world’s first virtual airline based in Ikebukuro. Actual consumer-facing use cases, however, are not really sticking; but what has been consistent from trial to trial ever since gate agents for Virgin Airlines first put on Google Glass is that feedback is largely positive—consumers generally support technology that will speed up and simplify the airport experience. IATA’s Global Passenger Survey confirmed this last year. Passengers may not be aware of wearable notifications flying across airport hubs but they do notice when airline employees look them in the eye, know the answer to all their questions, and predict their beverage choice before the cart reaches their row.