AI in airports, self service airlines and high end rental cars are key trends driving traveler satisfaction.
A record 965 million airline passengers flew in the United States last year, a 3.4% increase over 2016. So far this year, major airports in New York, Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas and dozens of others have reported record passenger growth.
While all of those eager travelers should be great news to airports, airlines and rental car companies, the stratospheric growth, set against a backdrop of straining infrastructure, is putting a serious strain on travel customer satisfaction.
Still, despite the threat of long security lines, packed parking lots and cramped overhead compartments, the industry is finding ways to keep travelers happy. Increasingly, that’s happening through the use of technology.
J.D. Power Travel Practice Lead Michael Taylor has been living and breathing the good, the bad and the ugly of traveler customer experience as he crisscrosses the globe talking with travel industry business leaders about what’s working and what’s not.
“The airports, airlines and rental car companies that are identified as high-performing in J.D. Power rankings are all upping their technology games considerably to deal with the surge in volume. It’s no easy task, but some of the investments being made now are showing serious promise,” Taylor said.
Following is a snapshot of key travel tech trends J.D. Power is watching most closely:
Airports Tap AI, Facial Recognition Software to Wrangle Passenger Traffic
Airport managers are very interested in the movement of passenger through their terminals. They’re even more interested in non-movement, which sometimes happens when you’re stuck at an overcrowded security checkpoint during peak times.
Airports have a few ways to track passenger movement and behaviors. Many of the airports identified as high-performing in the J. D. Power rankings “digitize” human beings in order to track them as they travel through the airport. Some airports use video tracking with face recognition to track how long it will take one “face” to get from the land side of the airport to the secure air side.
To be clear, the airport isn’t interested in identifying someone as a single person; rather, a specific person is just a data point that helps measure the ability of the security line to clear passengers efficiently. Some airports use “beacon” technology to track passenger movement. In this case, the airport is studded with smoke-alarm sized transponders that latch onto the Bluetooth signal emitted by your smartphone. A Bluetooth signature is converted into a set of random digits and each time a person passes by a battery operated beacon, that digital ID is recorded and the time between beacons is registered. The benefit of all this tracking is to optimize the number of TSA employees at a given checkpoint at a given time, to schedule cleaning crews and eventually to make sure there is sufficient coffee brewing whenever a passenger might have need of caffeine.
Airlines Go Self-Service and Passengers Love It
According to research conducted by J. D. Power, the highest-rated part of the airport and airline experience is check-in/bag check. Those used to be airline employee-intensive tasks but that work has shifted to the passenger.
Today, check-in and (increasingly) bag check are mainly accomplished by the passengers themselves using a kiosk, self-serve bag tagging or the passenger’s smartphone before they even get to the airport. How does this make the passenger happier? The design of these activities addresses a basic traveler frustration: waiting on someone else to complete a process so you can start the process yourself.
If you’re checking in at a kiosk, you’re working at your own pace and the slowness of the person next to you doesn’t affect you at all. Self-service solves two problems: 1) it reduces the stress of standing in a queue, and 2) it frees up airline personnel to accomplish other tasks associated with flights. The new TSA “Smart Lanes” use this same principle of human nature: taking passengers out of an in-line process and allowing them to work beside each other, each at their own pace. One obstacle preventing this approach from being perfected at every airport, though, is infrastructure. Most older airports aren’t physically designed to accommodate the space needed to make Smart Lanes as efficient as the check in and back check processes.
Rental Car Companies Connect with Millennial Smart Phones
Millennials are turning several industries inside out. According to J. D. Power data, as a group, Millennials are much less likely to own a car. But when Millennials rent cars, they are more likely to choose higher-end, stylish automobiles with a lot of bells and whistles. This is in contrast to Baby Boomers who are more likely to economize and choose cars based on rental costs.
J. D. Power data shows that renters who choose fancier wheels at a higher price are more satisfied and more likely to rent again. Renters who choose to rent cars based on price are less likely to be pleased and less likely to rent again. Millennials seem to want to “splurge” a little with their rentals and this leads to higher likelihood to rent again. Millennials also crave convenience above most everything else. Having their smartphones connect with the rental car is a key feature as is never having to interact with rental car personnel and more companies are deploying this technology to great effect.