United's new DIY boarding at US airports
What if you can hop on board a flight after scanning your own boarding pass? How about tagging and checking your own bag? Or finding the nearest spot for an airport manicure by tapping a screen?
It may sound like a flying experience far, far in the future. But it's happening right now.
US airlines and airports are innovating on the ground and in the air, rolling out new gadgets, kiosks and systems designed to put more power in the hands of business and leisure fliers, and enhance the overall flying experience.
"Number one is to put control and convenience in the hands of our customers," says Jeff Foland, United Airlines's executive vice president of marketing, technology and strategy, adding that the new tools also enable employees to spend more time with customers who need help tackling problems.
On April 30, United Airlines will open its new Terminal B at Boston Logan International Airport, and officials say that it will be a state-of-the-art showcase of the latest technology.
"It's a very important station to us ... a very important business market, so we decided to invest there and put the best of the best technology innovation all in one place," says Foland of the US$160 million (NZ$185.87 million) terminal.
"It's the most advanced station we'll have in the system at this point in time, and we'll continue to advance other stations as we go forward."
Inside the lobby of Terminal B, fliers will find 24 kiosks where they can weigh and tag their own luggage without the assistance of an agent. Then they can drop the bags off at one of six luggage acceptance points. Agents will be at stations throughout the lobby to provide help when needed.
There will also be do-it-yourself boarding, with eight of 10 gates outfitted with units that allow passengers to scan their boarding passes and then proceed onto the plane, speeding up the process of getting everyone to their seats. And the new Boston terminal will have self-service kiosks where passengers can resolve issues, such as booking new flights if theirs are cancelled.
Meanwhile, in October, Delta Air will start providing its 20,000 flight attendants with a new mobile device that will eventually include everything from the name and age of minors who are travelling alone to notes about a passenger who didn't get his or her requested upgrade and might need a little extra attention.
"The airlines, and Delta Air, need to upgrade our technology ... because it's expected," says Joanne Smith, Delta Air's senior vice president for in-flight service. "Our challenge then is how do you make it not just expected, but also a surprise and be noted as an airline that is really forward thinking in making that travel experience more highly differentiated."
Delta Air will announcethat all of its flight attendants will have handheld Nokia Lumia 1520 devices by the end of this year. The airline previously said that its pilots would be getting Microsoft Surface 2 tablets this year to take the place of the flight bags that they've traditionally used to tote heavy manuals.
The new Nokias, which are a cross between a phone and a tablet, will initially be an on-board manual for flight attendants, a transactional tool for the sale of on-board meals, and a tip sheet on some passengers, such as the elite frequent flier in seat 4A who doesn't want to be awakened for a meal.
But Smith says the possibilities for the device are seemingly endless. Within a year of their distribution, the tablets will also contain the information flight attendants routinely receive about young travellers flying solo along with passenger connections.
And if a passenger's previous flight was cancelled, "that information can be pushed to flight attendants so they make an extra effort to turn that experience around for the customer," she says.
Eventually, the devices will even be used to hasten maintenance. The flight crew can "snap a picture of a (broken) tray table and ... the mechanics can meet the plane at the other end and fix it," Smith says.
"We have so many ideas for it. It's prioritizing them to have the biggest customer impact that we can, the fastest we can."
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has also focused on using technological innovations to improve the passenger experience.
"The key to every one of our customers is making them more mobile, more flexible," says William Flowers, the airport's vice president for information technology services. "We're talking about the airport of the future."
DFW is rolling out 70- and 40-inch digital touch-screens that allow passengers to find restaurants, restrooms and other services within a five-minute walk in any given terminal. The entire airport will have the "digital way finders" by 2018.
The airport also has 30 automated passport-control kiosks where passengers scan their passports, then answer Customs questions by using the touch screen.
It will install 24 additional kiosks this summer, allowing additional categories of travellers to have a quicker pass through.
Staffers at DFW airport are also equipped with iPads that allow them to do inspections of their concessionaires and to report any issues, such as an overflowing trash can, complete with photographs, to the venue owners, who can address the problems.
Eventually, the airport also hopes to enable passengers to order food and gifts right from their seats in the terminal.
That's what happens when you push the envelope, Flowers says - you have to keep pushing.
"If you keep delivering that type of technology, (customers) keep on expecting it," Flowers says. "That's why we're constantly looking."