GENEVA — Airlines are trying to shrug off a financially-plagued decade by promising passengers more low fares as well as a seamless, paperless and even “contact-less” travel experience, industry executives said.
After electronic ticketing and check-in booths, Dutch carrier KLM is trying out automated bag drop machines, while the International Air Transport Association is promising queue-skipping mobile phone boarding passes, ID scans and “self boarding.”
“The travel experience is going to change, that’s for sure,” Philippe Bruyere, global head of passenger services, said at IATA’s annual end-of-year media day, “self service is what passengers want.”
“And by self service we don’t mean a kiosk, that’s where we began the conversation two years ago. We mean new web-based services, more things you can do at home instead of in an airport line.”
“In some cases we are facilitating contact-less travel,” he added.
While airlines are trying to woo passengers they are also scrambling to cut costs after they haemorrhaged nearly 50 billion dollars in 2000-2009.
“The question for all regions is how to move from the Decennis Horribilis to a wonderful decade — a Decennis Mirabilis,” said IATA Director General Giovanni Bisignani, suggesting that wages were also part of the equation.
As the economy recovers, some 2.3 billion passengers are expected to take to the skies next year — close to a peak achieved in 2007.
Yet, mainstream airlines can expect more losses, with revenues some 30 billion dollars below those achieved two years ago.
Hikes in air fares are not an option for IATA’s 230 member airlines, which exclude rival budget carriers such as RyanAir and easyJet.
“With two years at exceptionally low levels, consumers and corporate travel buyers will expect travel to remain cheap,” Bisignani cautioned.
IATA underlined that consumers, especially in the world’s largest air travel market, the United States, have also emerged from the financial crisis with big debts to clear.
That could undermine household travel budgets for several years.
But “simplifying” the travel experience could yield nearly 17 billion dollars in savings for airlines, according to IATA.
Bigger airports are investing in the changes, but they are also feeling the pinch as airlines more readily pick and change their destinations, according to Airports Council International (ACI).
“Consumers want the lowest prices possible with the fastest service possible, and we sincerely believe the means to achieve that is by implementing automated processes and streamlining procedures,” spokeswoman Nancy Gautier said.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean a radical cut in personnel, rather it’s a way of seeing how they can be better deployed,” she told AFP.
Gautier underlined that the smartphone-equipped flyer was ever more commonplace.
“We’re seeing a new generation of passenger that’s willing to go further. We need to look for the technologies that allow us to do that,” she said.
Self service check-in kiosks are now available at 139 airports, although just 22 IATA member airlines allow passengers to self-tag their hold luggage.
However, airline and airport executives admit that the transition is not as seamless as they would like.
Gautier acknowledged anecdotal evidence of teething glitches, while baggage handling “accuracy” is an ongoing agenda for both carriers and airports.
ACI is also pressing airlines to accept common kiosks at airports, rather than the costly installation of different systems for each group.
“Airlines have a lot of commercially sensitive data like frequent flier programmes, so they’re reluctant to share,” Gautier said.
Bisignani took issue with a “maze of regulations” for passenger data and bolstered security requirements.
“Security processes became a nightmare after September 11. They have improved and the cost to the airlines has increased to 5.9 billion dollars,” he said.
“But in many places it remains a bad dream that won’t end.”