Reinventing the Travel Experience

A dispatch from the Airport Innovation Summit

Passing through airport security with a flick of the wrist.

Boarding an airplane by taking a selfie.

Receiving hand-delivered food and drinks throughout the terminal by a friendly, roving robot.

Are these the distant dreams of a faraway air travel utopia? Hardly. Each of these innovations are being piloted in U.S. airports right now.

After years of experiencing the rapid pace of innovation in consumer tech–push button, get car— we may be reaching an inflection point poised to transform the travel experience.

Why now? For starters, global demand in air travel is higher than ever with no decline in sight. In 2017, an additional 275 million people were projected to fly globally, according to the International Air Transport Association. At the same time, our airports are in dire need of improvement, with more than $100 billion in infrastructure needs in the next five years, according to Airports Council International.

With more people than ever flying, aging terminals and sky-high consumer expectations, how, exactly, can the industry provide stronger and more seamless service to growing numbers of travelers, while also driving operational efficiencies and growing revenue to fund a world-class facility, and above all, prioritizing safety and security?

More than 20 startups explored this challenge at the recent Airport Innovation Summit, hosted by Silicon Valley tech accelerator and venture fund Plug and Play, where stakeholders from across the industry got a look at the technology and ideas–from facial recognition, biometrics, machine learning, and robotics–set to hit airports today or in the near future.

The pitches included autonomous robots capable of serving up goods and services on-demand, back-end tools for airports using predictive analytics and customer-focused services offering more tailored journeys from booking all the way to arrival. Each addressed a different challenge, but over the course of the day, a few themes emerged:

  • Keep the journey personal and make it seamless: No two travelers are alike, and the wealth of data available today can be leveraged more effectively to better understand each traveler and create an experience tailored exactly to their needs. Likewise, everyone can get on board with a streamlined experience. There was excitement throughout the room at opportunities to minimize wait times, make it easier to shop and dine before a flight and automate customer service.
  • Borrow from consumer tech (but adapt accordingly!): There’s no reason the best ideas from outside the industry can’t be introduced into airports. Why not look at virtual assistants (AKA chatbots), augmented reality, or autonomous vehicles–even of the robot variety? Of course, airports still need to be careful to avoid things that would be at odds with safety and security.
  • Create a shared value proposition: The innovations most likely to succeed in the airport environment are those that create value for each of the many stakeholders. For example, imagine a dynamic digital platform that not only helps guide customers to shops and restaurants–tailored to their specific tastes–but also points the way to the most efficient route to their gate. This frees up staff to focus on providing stronger service and is capable of alerting them of any safety threats in real-time. Revenue generation, operational efficiencies and a strong customer experience should all work in harmony.

Innovation within the industry has never looked so promising, but when it comes to driving real change, continued collaboration among all stakeholders is key. We look forward to taking part in this ecosystem primed for transformation.

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