Flying The Changing Skies—ACTE Conference spotlights innovations in air travel

From the February 2019 print edition

While corporate and business travel is multi-faceted, air travel often comprises a large part of any organization’s travel program. At the same time air travel is changing fast—increasing passenger volume, technology and new processes are shaping what it means to fly for work.

From left: Anwar Tarique of Turkish Airlines, Nina Brooks, Airports Council International (ACI) and Toru Hasegawa, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), discuss the future of air travel with ACTE executive director Greeley Koch.

These changes were reflected in the agenda for the annual Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) Global Summit & Corporate Lodging Forum, held in Montreal late last year. Several education sessions focused on changes in the air travel industry and how those trends are affecting the business passenger.

An example of this was a session called Improving the Experience: Innovations That Await Air Travellers. The moderated panel looked at innovations that are under discussion in some organizations, along with changes expected to roll out in the near future. The session took an end-to-end approach—using cutting-edge technologies and design elements, travellers will encounter the innovations discussed from when they enter the airport terminal, go through security, board the plane and exit the airport at their destination. The session, moderated by ACTE’s executive director Greeley Koch, looked at three main areas: airports, the passenger perspective and what is coming in the future.

Those involved in moving passengers through the air travel experience have an increasingly challenging job, the panel agreed. Passenger numbers and air travel in general are growing, said Nina Brooks, a panelist and director, security, facilitation and IT, Airports Council International (ACI) World. In fact, the organization expects passenger numbers to double by 2030, she told the audience. While one potential solution would be to build bigger airports, the industry must also get smarter about how it uses available space. Improving efficiency and making the best use of technology must also be part of the solution.

“There are a lot of things we can do,” Brooks said. “Some of it is about automation—you can put people faster through automated solutions than slow, manual processes.”

The Turkish experience
One airport facing the challenge of high passenger volumes is the recently-opened Istanbul New Airport. Officially inaugurated last October, the facility has set its sights on being the world’s largest airport, said fellow panelist Tarique Anwar, regional corporate sales manager for Turkish Airlines. As a city, Istanbul represents an air travel hub, Anwar said. Within three hours, travellers can visit 122 countries, or 123 destinations. The airport also has architecture reflective of the host country. “It’s designed to ease each and every passenger,” Anwar said.

The total capacity of the airport is around 90 million passengers per year, a number that could jump to 150 to 200 million a year once fully completed. Overall, the project cost US$12 billion.

A trend at airports recently is the expansion of the range of goods and services that people can purchase, said Koch, asking the panel whether that expansion is designed to improve the traveller experience or increase airport revenue. Both play a factor, noted Brooks. “There’s definitely a demand for it,” she said. “It’s kind of a win-win—people really do want that.”

The panel also touched on the rise of technology in travel. From the corporate traveller’s perspective, technology will help airport security while making the traveller experience smoother and easier, Brooks said. The issue of identity is a good example of what can be improved through technology. There are trials underway involving the use of digital ID and smartphones, for example by using a traveller’s fingerprint to help them get through an automatic border. “What we’re trying to do is join all of that up so it’s a seamless experience,” she said.

Many of these advances bring advantages to executive travellers especially, she said. But as these processes improve, their value will touch other areas. For example, Brooks noted, the TSA Precheck is a great program that allows some travellers to get through customs and security faster—there’s no need to divest personal items at the security checkpoint. But as technology improves so that there’s no need to divest at all, that will make air travel better for everyone. The goal, she said, is to improve all security lines and minimize the boring, time consuming parts of the traveller’s experience of an airport.
Sharing among and within governments is beginning to improve, Brooks said, pointing to a bilateral agreement for a trial program between Canada and the Netherlands. The trial will see the adoption of biometrics and facial recognition for travellers between the two countries. She also predicted the rise of “virtual passports,” although it would take time to put them into a multilateral framework.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will also affect the traveller experience within airports in several ways, Brooks said. But it’s necessary to look at the business processes to which AI is applied. The technology is designed to use data better, with an obvious application involving an improved ability to predict the peaks and dips in certain airport functions. For example, Brooks said, AI can be used to predict where to put more security lines, or which gate number needs more staff.

“It’s being able to predict that traffic better,” she said. “Having the data is everything these days. I think that’s where will see it coming into its own.”

Airports are also beginning to use AI in security operations to remove some of the mundane tasks now performed by staff—to identify a set of keys in a tray, for example.

Unveiling the NDC
Meanwhile, another session entitled The Evolution of Air Distribution: Considerations for Your Travel Program, looked at recent ACTE research to help travel managers address cost visibility and the traveller experience. The organization released a whitepaper last month, said ACTE’s manager, global education, Jen Bankard, who moderated the session. While corporate booking processes have operated in essentially the same way for the past several years, business travellers now expect an experience similar to the consumer environment, Bankard said. With IATA close to unveiling its proposed new distribution capability (NDC), ACTE surveyed travel buyers around the world.

The NDC is a program launched by IATA to adopt a new, XML-based data transmission standard. This new standard is designed to enhance communications between airlines and travel agents. Currently, the NDC remains largely conceptual, said panelist Brian Gervais, senior manager at CBC/Radio-Canada. He also hadn’t heard from his suppliers regarding the impact NDC would have. With the roll out now so close, it was important for travel buyers to get up to speed on it, he advised. “Now it’s here, it’s going to hit us, and it’s going to hit us fast,” Gervais said. “We need to be ready and prepared.”

The panel began by defining the NDC, which represents a method for the industry to standardize connections from airline infrastructures into whatever point of sale tool used, whether that’s an online booking tool, travel counsellor or something else, said fellow panelist Alexandra Coughlin, manager GSR, American Express Global Business Travel. The system will offer technology standardization for airlines to distribute their content. As Gervais added, NDC is similar to plumbing, with suppliers deciding what travelled through those pipes.

IATA has also introduced a program surrounding NDC that involves certifying airlines, IT providers, distributors or aggregators, as well we sellers, said Cindy Tonnessen, senior director, NDC, Sabre Corporation. IATA checks whether organizations are using NDC as intended and whether they’re following the standard. “I think that is a great first step and as you can see, there are a lot of us in the industry that are taking that first step and putting that plumbing in place so that we’ll be able to, as an industry, start bringing that value forward,” Tonnessen said.

There are organizations that are already prepared for the new normal of NDC. For its part, Air Canada is ready to do business with any organization that can consume its content using the NDC, said the airline’s manager of commercial distribution and fellow panelist, Mark Kosikowski. With the advent of the NDC, the airline’s ability to share information back and forth and to use a common language will help it to work more closely with its partners.

“We made that commitment,” he told the audience. “We’re willing to work with anyone in the supply chain that wants to work with us in this method—we’re open and ready to work with you guys.”
Just like many industries, technology and new developments are changing how organizations do business. Travel managers and buyers would do well to keep abreast of these changes in order to reap maximum benefits.