Why travel is still so traumatic and how to fix it
In a world where it is possible to order a fridge to a house in a village with a few thumb taps, it is baffling that travellers need to wait in endless, long lines between home and hotel. While most other industries have adapted to a world where simplicity and customer-centricity is paramount, travel continues to be broken, often resulting in trips that are much longer and tedious than they need to be.
To emphasise, let's take a look at a non-exhaustive list of queues in which you need to wait when travelling by air:
The above list is for single segment journeys. Imagine how much longer this list would be for trips with stopovers. Not only are all these waiting points time-consuming and outdated, but considering all the issues associated with Covid-19, this way of functioning can also be risky. Customers are looking for a change. According to this PwC brief, the Economist Intelligence Unit found that "78% of passengers expressed a strong preference to spend less time" at airports. However, over the years, the entire airport experience has only gotten longer and and more complicated. There should be a counter-balancing effort on behalf of travel service providers to improve the end-to-end customer journey and make this all-too-often unpleasant experience as seamless (and contactless) as possible.
Most airports still process tax refunds manually and travellers need to wait in typically long lines for a person sitting behind a desk to review their documentation. This no longer needs to be the case. For example, France has implemented PABLO, a simple barcode scanning system at its airports. After self-scanning your tax free documents' barcodes, you instantly receive an approval equivalent to a customs stamp. This kind of technology can easily be rolled out in many more countries. After all, passengers are already accustomed to self-service luggage check-in.
Speaking of self-service luggage check-in, were airlines to better optimise this technology in order to boost passenger adoption, they could unlock tremendous benefit. According to this comparative analysis of check-in technologies at airports, not only does self-check-in save time for both the airline and the passenger, but it also drives "a decrease in operating costs from $3.68 per passenger for standard check-in to $0.16...self-service check-in", a reduction of 96% that can be shared by both parties.
However, due to Covid-19, some passengers may now be increasingly reluctant to interact with public check-in screens. Again, smart technology can overcome these barriers to adoption. For example, Materna IPS just announced the development of Touchless.Connect, a solution that turns passenger smartphones into bag scanners and completely eliminates the need for a public console.
The security check is perhaps the most tedious (while essential) of all bottlenecks, but there are innovative solutions that exist to ensure a faster, smoother process. To avoid the wait and lack of social distancing, some airports encourage travellers to pre-schedule their security checks. Manchester Airport, for example, allows passengers to pre-book a 15-minute slot at security lanes in advance of their arrival. Pre-scheduling security checks is a smart, low-tech, and Covid-friendly way to make the journey less painful.
It's also possible to apply innovation to not only shorten security lines, but to also make them run more smoothly. Ever since 9/11, the security process has understandably become more complicated. New technology can help simplify aircraft security without compromising it. Heathrow Airport is installing enhanced CT security scanners which display 3D images of hand luggage contents. This upgrade eliminates the need to remove liquids and laptops during screening, drastically speeding up the whole process (while also eliminating the need for those tiny clear plastic bags). Britain's Gatwick airport has also installed automated UV technology to disinfect security trays. This measure decreases waiting time significantly, as trays no longer need to be cleaned between users. Once again, a relatively low-tech solution can have a very positive impact.
Taking it even further, some companies hope to do away with traditional security checks altogether. One such company, CLEAR, aims to reinvent airport identity checks by introducing biometric ID systems. Subscribers to the program are able to accelerate through airport security using their face, fingerprint, and/or eye biometrics as identifiers. The system can recognise pre-approved travellers, guiding them towards a faster, lighter security check. These types of innovations can have a dramatic effect on the speed of airport security and consequently the overall passenger experience.
States have an obligation to control their borders in order protect the health, safety, and economic security of its citizens and residents. Traditionally, this has meant controlling immigration levels to meet the needs of the economy and patrolling borders to prevent threats. Since the beginning of 2020 and the spread of SARS-COV2 this mandate has expanded significantly. Based on recent rapidly shifting geopolitical dynamics and unrelenting changes as to how people move around the world, it is likely that Covid-19 will have a more profound impact on travel and border controls than the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Passport and immigration lines at airports were already growing rapidly prior to the spread of the coronavirus. Add to that new health checks and things look likely to get worse as travel returns to pre-pandemic levels. Many countries are already using automated border checks to speed things up. The time is now to adopt more up-to-date technology and roll it out more widely. Dubai International Airport has recently introduced a facial recognition "smart tunnel" that allows passengers to clear passport control in 15 seconds without the need for human intervention. One ID believes face scans will replace passports at most airports helping to make the process entirely contactless and paperless, an added benefit during a pandemic. Canada's Winnipeg International Airport is working with Vision-Box to deploy automated border control units with biometric facial scanners to speed up border clearance for pre-checked travellers enrolled in the NEXUS program. The technology for accelerated, automated border checks is quick, robust, and well-tested, and innovation will make it even more so. This, however, will only solve half the problem.
More and more countries have now also opted for border health checks. These vary from self-authorised forms that need to be reviewed by border personnel and temperature scans, to Covid-19 tests on arrival. APPII, a blockchain-powered app, is working on a digital health passport for airport workers. This type of technology could be extended to all travellers. For example, Israeli company Pangea is developing a Covid-19 immunity passport which contains a host of coronavirus-related information, such as whether a person is virus-free or has developed immunity to the virus. Admittedly, much needs to be done both scientifically and to build social trust in the immunity passports. However, such initiatives would allow for earlier screening of travellers before they even reach their departure airport. Not only does this speed up the whole travel experience, but it also helps ensure that only "safe" travellers are the ones who begin their journey.
While all the previously-mentioned technologies and solutions could help make standardised airport procedures run more smoothly, the entire airport shopping experience also needs to be addressed. The world of retail outside airports has evolved dramatically over the past few months with an accelerating adoption of digital and mobile technologies. Airports have failed to keep pace. According to this Airport Technology article, at 8% year-on-year growth, duty-free sales was the second fastest growing sales channel globally after online sales. With travel expected to be depressed for the foreseeable future, airports will need to increase that growth rate to compensate for lost revenues elsewhere.
One way to go about this is by investing in an engaging digital ecosystem. Airports can push personalised content to passengers' mobile devices. They can leverage security, passport, and other lines to establish dynamic screens to entertain or inform travellers. They can push digital solutions that promote touch-free shopping and eliminate the need to wait in lines for food to be ready, or to pay for items at cash registers. The Istanbul Grand Airport is a great example. It was enhanced its duty-free offerings by integrating Unifree Duty Free's state-of-the-art retail technologies. This augmented reality and holographic tech allows travellers to digitally "try on" clothing and accessories before buying them. Establishing a duty free e-shop could allow travellers to access the full range of products available at the airport without having to physically step into each store. Imagine if a customer could order a coffee on her smartphone on her way to the airport and the retailer would be notified to make the coffee as soon as the passenger cleared security so that she could pick it up on the fly on her way to the gate. These kinds of experiences are just the tip of the iceberg. A more integrated and online shopping experience within the airport will help travellers spend less time at the airport while increasing airport retail sales — a huge win-win.
While it is true that airports have not been entirely complacent and have been thinking about the traveller journey for some time, much more can be done. Technology has been implemented piecemeal without really thinking about the end-to-end experience from the eyes of the customer. Travellers require faster, deeper implementation of the types of solutions that will make their lives easier. While travel has been negatively affected by the global health crisis, the silver lining is that Covid is acting as a catalyst for positive change, accelerating the need for more digitisation and personalisation. It is forcing travel providers to listen to the voice of their customers.
It is time for airports to rethink and redesign the whole travel experience from beginning to end. Airlines, airports, suppliers, retailers, the government, and more can no longer think in silos, solving pain points only individually. The airport experience should be thought of as an ecosystem where all procedures and processes, from security to shopping, are interlinked. Change needs to happen both within the airport's physical locale and beyond it. Even post-airport transport can be made more efficient by integrating ride hailing or ticket buying earlier in the traveller's journey. Only through adapting best-in-class digital solutions can we make people love to fly again. Ironically, by virtualising their spaces, airports can make the transition from being a bridge between destinations to a destination themselves.
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