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US airlines & the passenger experience: biometrics still lumpy

US airlines continue to embrace new technologies in 2019. United recently completed a proof of concept that leverages blockchain for ticket settlement, and Delta has opened the first biometric terminal in the country at its Atlanta hub.

United concluded that the proof of concept allowed it to demonstrate the capabilities of blockchain, simplifying the payment and booking process for corporate travellers and their employers. The airline stated that several time consuming processes could be greatly improved.

Delta's is a big step with the opening of the first biometric terminal, but certain global standards need to be adopted in order for biometric usage to become more widespread.

Although the promise of those technologies, and others, continues to build, for now they remain in their early days, and widespread adoption is far off in the future. However, there is growing consensus that emerging technologies can be used in a variety of capacities in the aviation industry to create a promising financial upside. 

Summary

  • United Airlines and Delta are testing the use of Blockchain for various functions ranging from ticket settlement to cargo. 
  • Delta takes a big step with the opening of the first biometric terminal in the US at its Atlanta hub
  • But certain global standards need to be adopted in order for biometric usage to become more widespread. 
  • Improving passenger experience should be the goal, not seeking individual publicity

United and Delta show that new technologies are applicable across their businesses 

United Airlines and Airlines Reporting Corporation (ARC) recently concluded a proof of concept to determine the viability of using blockchain in ARC’s settlement system. 

ARC partnered with Blockskye to create an end-to-end test using ARC’s private blockchain to report and settle United tickets. ARC’s secure system tracked ticket life cycles and identified transaction modification through smart contracts. 

United concluded that the proof of concept allowed it to demonstrate the capabilities of blockchain and simplify the payment and booking process for corporate travellers and their employers. The airline stated that time consuming processes, including receipt collection for expense reports, could be greatly improved. 

The next step is for ARC to work with United and Blockskye to test the technology with one of the airline’s corporate customers. 

Delta Air Lines recently stated that it was working on blockchain applications that included putting chatbots into production.

"To take some of the really low hanging queries and questions and interpret that in natural language and be able to respond to that in real time, thus freeing up our customer service agents to focus on higher value-added, more meaningful conversations with our customers”, said airline Delta Chief Information Officer Rahul Samant. 

Mr Samant remarked that not all of Delta’s explorations into blockchain and other applications will “make it to prime time”, but some, such as predictive maintenance “are going to a major force to reckon with within our operation”, he said. 

See related report: Delta Air Lines leveraging AI, sees blockchain opportunities 

Speaking at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the airline had just received certification as the first passenger carrier to transport cold-sensitive pharmaceutical materials as cargo, and explained that blockchain could offer “full transparency in terms of where that [the cargo] is and when it will arrive”. 

Delta is also using AI for some of its human resource functions and has been using machine learning and AI for predictive maintenance. The airline takes data that streams off aircraft and overlays it with machine learning to look for patterns and identify changes in those patterns; the aim is proactively to identify trends that would eventually lead to a mechanical issue capable of causing a flight cancellation or necessitating a repair. 

Standards could be necessary for global adoption of biometrics 

In late 2018 Delta Air Lines opened the first biometric terminal at its headquarters and largest hub in Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. Passengers travelling through international terminal F do not need tickets or phones for check-in, bag check or security. All of those functions are completed through facial recognition technology.

Other US airlines are also using biometrics. JetBlue has trialled biometrics at Boston Logan, Fort Lauderdale and New York JFK, and in late 2018 introduced a biometric boarding gate at JFK.

American Airlines has introduced biometric boarding from Los Angeles on selected international flights. 

Obviously Delta is the most advanced in deploying biometrics, but the technology will take some time to achieve global adoption. Recently Tony Chapman, Senior Director Marketing, Product Management and Strategy at Collins Aerospace, told the Collins-sponsored publication Connected Aviation Today that current biometrics programmes in place are largely US-centric, and the challenge is making biometrics a global solution as each country has different requirements. 

But Mr Chapman also added that some of those challenges should start to be addressed in 2019. He predicts that this year pairs of countries will start collaborating for a biometrics programme, “but for a global solution, there needs to be a governing body involved that can make recommendations and set standards”. 

Aviation stakeholders should take a rational approach to new technology adoption

Mr Chapman said that while new technologies are changing the traveller experience, a key challenge is leveraging them for “the best use case, not the first use case”, according to Connected Aviation Today. “There can be a tendency to want to leverage an emerging solution, such as blockchain technology, for the sake of being the first, and not thinking strategically about the solution,” he said.  

As airlines work to explore blockchain, AI and machine learning for use in various aspects of their business, there is a positive financial upside in investing in those technologies. 

PhocusWright has cited a World Economic Forum report that calculates that a movement toward data mining and greater digitisation of the customer journey will create USD700 billion in benefits for aviation, travel and tourism customers between 2017 and 2025, with USD305 billion in increased profitability. 

Testing and use of new technologies will continue to grow in 2019 

Airlines worldwide are at various phases of examining and adopting blockchain, machine learning and AI for a variety of business initiatives. Even as the use of those technologies remains in its very early days, US airlines executives are increasingly using those terms in regular discourse, and testing and studies of those technologies will continue to intensify in 2019. 

Global airlines are also working to strike the right balance – ensuring that they do not adopt new technologies for adoption’s sake, and instead work to put those technologies into use where they can improve efficiencies and, ultimately, their profitability.

There are clear implications for enhanced revenue generation, if the technology solutions can be implemented effectively. But juggling the equation between the passenger experience and higher profits can be a dangerous game.

Standardising the  passenger facing processes will be key to winning hearts and minds, a priority that can sometimes get lost when commercial departments seek to exploit the "passenger experience" primarily to improve profits.

With that caveat, there are potentially some very welcome innovations coming down the line now, in the US, as well as globally. Coordinating them is something that has to date largely been neglected, as airports and airlines seek publicity for their individual initiatives.

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