Last weekend I travelled to Portugal for the annual digital marketing conference Upload Lisboa.
The event was great but the usual delayed trudge to and from Heathrow left me longing for London’s tech entrepreneurs to stop inventing ways to help me borrow a dog (if I see one more winsome cocker spaniel on Facebook…) and start inventing ways to improve air travel.
Although my carbon footprint has by now no doubt stamped a polar bear or two into icy oblivion, I still haven’t lost the sense of awe I felt on my first flight, aged six, to Gambia. From the dawn drive to Gatwick to the blue giraffe in the BA goody bag, every detail of the trip sparkled with strange magic.
Nowadays, when I hear a fellow passenger bitching about the onboard internet I can’t help but think of Louis CK’s brilliant “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” rant.
Nonetheless, the air travel user experience undoubtedly sucks.
In any industry where even the service providers have minimal influence over most of the factors that determine their success – weather, fuel prices, terrorists, politicians, ebola – the customers are bound to feel agonisingly disempowered, particularly when they’ve become so used to being wooed.
Once we step through those sliding doors, whether we’re precessing barefoot along a security queue or being herded through the Kafaesque convolutions of duty free, we keenly feel our transformation from valued data-jewel into raw economic meat.
The upside for startups is that, in this atmosphere, any tool that gives us the smallest illusion of control becomes a treasured talisman.
Apple’s Passbook is little more than a fancy oyster card, but every time I march past the masses fiddling with boarding cards and scan my phone I feel like a futuristic pioneer.
I’ve dabbled with TripIt, an all-in-one journey planner; its sync-with-email function may have seriously dubious privacy implications but its autofilled itineraries complete with real-time flight alerts and crowdsourced local recommendations are very nifty.
Two apps. Two apps which are essentially just ever-so-slightly less frustrating versions of the old paper-and-human system. Is this really the best you wizards can do?
The seven hour date
Believe me, I’ve searched around. I have used the ugly and slow Priority Pass to find lounges, but it often takes so long for the ancient card machines to process my booking that I barely have time to swipe a complimentary snooty magazine before boarding starts. I’ve tried the airports’ and airlines’ own apps but they are both unreliable and aesthetically criminal.
Social media can help a bit; many times I’ve found airline and airport service teams to be better informed and more responsive on Twitter than in person, and KLM in particular are famously good at making their customers feel loved.
Unfortunately, such activity is hard to sustain at scale, so you’re unlikely to get a response unless your Klout score is high; and frankly, a world that rewards the sort of people who have high Klout scores is a world of pain.
There are a few more ambitious ideas out there, such as ‘social seating’, which allows fliers to view other passengers’ Facebook or LinkedIn profile details to help them choose their seat. KLM has pioneered this with its Meet and Seat scheme, and company Seat ID has a couple of case studies.
But it is hard to see what problem this ‘solution’ solves. Who wishes they were obliged to talk to the random in the next seat? Who wants to flirt for seven hours over rubbery chicken? Who thinks it is a good idea to connect with a potential client, then dribble on their shoulder?
Game changers not gimmicks
Certain that I must be missing a trick, I talked to Kevin May, Co-founder and Editor of travel tech empire Tnooz. He agreed that there is more hype than help in this space, and says that most airports need to get their basics down pat before they can even think of anything more exciting.
“I am still amazed at the complete inability of airports to realise that wifi shouldn’t be treated as some kind of luxury item, for only a few passengers who can either a afford it or have lounge access,” he explained. “Mobile boarding passes are an obvious evolution and travellers are beginning to manage their itineraries and mobile payments in new ways. But although sexy tech like Google Glass is lovely for nerds and hipsters, it’s pointless for your every-day traveller.”
What about the future? “Airports such as London City are embracing the so-called Internet Of Things in a major way, using cutting-edge technology to manage passenger flow around the terminals and just generally make the traveller experience a better one. Although this is nowhere near the scale required for a facility such as London Heathrow, the understanding that travellers are always connected in some way is an important step and one from which other airports should learn.”
When we’re in an airport, our location is defined, our emotions high, our actions predictable, our movements trackable; and our expectations rock-bottom. You’d think it would be an innovator’s and a marketer’s dream.
Could we be ripe for an air travel hackathon? Over to you…