May 21, 2024

Time to engage

Markus Gilges explores how the onboard digital ecosystem can engage your passengers – from a captive audience to captivated brand ambassadors

Post COVID-19, airlines have the unique opportunity to turn what was an urgent need for contactless and socially-distanced passenger engagement into a positive – by creating many more, engaging digital touch-points for their returning passengers.

Pre-pandemic, the need for personalisation of the airline product was already apparent and the ultimate tool to achieve that is the passenger’s Personal Electronic Device (PED), the device that already plays an important part in the passengers’ daily life on the ground.

Connecting through these, via digitalisation, airlines can redefine their products, services and how they connect with passengers. Air Asia is a prime example of how this can work. Its app has evolved into a lifestyle icon and now, as a digital lifestyle platform, it is expected to help drive the carrier’s growth.

Cabin digitalisation

The companies now operating in the digital cabin space have varied backgrounds. Some big and well-established operators like Collins Aerospace or SITA have experience in streamlining and integrating data and connectivity processes for the cockpit and on the ground, for example with Electronic Flight Bags. While others, for example Inflight Dublin, Bluebox and AirFi, come from the IFE content side and see the use of passenger PEDs for Wireless-IFE (W-IFE) as a natural, complementary way to also offer cabin services. This market was already growing substantially before the pandemic.

Other vendors started in the ‘old’ passenger retail world (for example Guestlogix) or the airline IT side (like Lufthansa Systems) but are now expanding their solution footprint to cover the wider digital cabin.

Similarly, key players started in the airline catering world and now see cabin digitalisation as part of their service footprint (such as LSG Group). Then there are vendors for niche solutions that specialise in advertising (Motus, AERQ) and these now offer complementary modules for other solutions too.

It is also interesting to see companies from the rail or bus markets expanding their footprint into aviation, such as Passengera or Whoosh. Finally, there are also new starters driving cabin digitalisation. AERQ, for example, combines experience in consumer electronics and aviation MRO. Its goal is to become a digital (cabin) platform, connecting airlines, passengers and third parties, based on a cloud-based open software architecture.

Overall, cabin digitalisation is a highly dynamic and innovative environment, one where very interesting developments are coming through.

The power of digitalisation

As happened in the flight deck, in ground operations and in the MRO domain, digitalisation in the cabin will generate a lot of value for all parties, benefitting many airline processes.

Initially, the digitalisation of paper documents and the underlying processes will lead to weight savings and automated, therefore error-free and immediate, information exchanges. These digitised documents can be anything from the onboard magazine and shopping catalogue to the passenger manifest. Digitised processes are also the foundation for various analytics solutions used to provide insights into the operation as well as passenger behaviour, ultimately providing input for predictive solutions that can help, for example, supply chains with demand management.

Boosting the shopping experience

The unbundling of the airline fares often leads passengers to distressed purchasing onboard, when they realise they need, for example, essential items such as water and food. Limited shop opening hours at some airports can accerbate this further. But a digitally-enabled passenger can pre-order and guarantee the items of their choice, even several days before their departure. Passengers on Qatar Airways, for example, can pre-order up to 15 days in advance.

Similarly, inflight shopping for non-food items was already changing dramatically. The days of overpacked trolleys with only partly relevant merchandise that is hauled back and forth through the aisles were already almost over. Whilst those items are still important in the onboard retail space, in the digital cabin they can be accompanied by an increasing number of other products and services. On the app, for example, passengers find more than 15 types of products and services ranging from classical travel products via e-commerce to fintech solutions.

Browsing and ordering onboard can be transformed by cabin digitalisation. Leafing through an onboard magazine is replaced by browsing digital articles and catalogues through the comfort of one’s own PED.

This can be further enhanced through Augmented Reality technology, such as that recently launched by Retail inMotion. After browsing, passengers can order instantly from their PED too whenever they want, not having to wait for the trolley or having to touch the same overhead call button as many passengers before them and just wait.

The added back-office benefit of the digital ordering process is the immediate adjustment of the real-time inventory information, sometimes finding its way directly into the front-end solution by eliminating items from the catalogue or menu that are no longer available (Collins Aerospace, eCB). In this way, service is improved and crews can avoid those unpleasant and disappointing ‘out-of-stock’ conversations.

When it comes to payments, the effectiveness of the system depends to a large extent on the level of connectivity on the aircraft. If there is a continuous external connectivity, each transaction can get a real-time payment authorisation and, where required, the fulfilment part triggered. If there is no external connectivity and only onboard intranet, these transactions can only be authorised after landing. In either case, for all digital cabin systems it is important that the payment infrastructure is compliant with the PCI’s (Payment Card Industry) Data Security Standard for efficiency and reliability.

Technologies like ‘digital wallets’ allow for very easy and secure transactions. The digital wallet stores credit card details and then just confirms the card on file for each transaction. This reduces the need to touch for example a classical crew Point of Sale device or handle cash. Also, other payment forms such as Apple Pay or Google Pay can easily be initiated once external connectivity is available.

Engaging, interacting and interfacing

We are used to having fairly personalised digital experiences on the ground and therefore expect it also in the air. However, also absolutely central to personalising the passenger experience are the cabin crew. Whilst passenger safety is still their primary function, other functions are getting increasingly important. As the cabin crew might be the only human interaction a passenger has with the airline throughout their journey, the crew becomes the face of the brand, and their tasks are elevated to anything from onboard concierges to destination consultant.

Cabin crews in the digital cabin are equipped with a tablet or smartphone to handle all the data and interaction, and some airlines issue their crews with wearables such as smart glasses or smart watches to support service delivery. Ideally these systems provide a full suite of functionalities to support crew throughout the journey. Retail inMotion’s Kubis crew-centric solution is one example.

Integration is key

In establishing a digital cabin, the basic principle should always be to reuse as much existing technology or systems as possible. However, in the interest of achieving the most seamless integration of software, hardware and processes this may not always be possible. Because systems around the digital cabin usually touch multiple airline departments the comprehensive management of this integration is crucial. It is important for the airline to involve and get buy-in from all the relevant groups. Cabin crew, for example, are really the ones that can make or break the use of the new system through their interaction, so their involvement in introduction and acceptance is most critical, independent of how much the IT or engineering departments would like to ‘own’ the solution.

Vendors vary in the way they address the need for a well planned and executed integration. Most strive to provide tools that make the integration a simple plug-in, and often provide tools like SDKs (Software Development Kits) or API’s (Application Protocol Interface) to airlines to allow them to perform as much of the integration as possible themselves without needing support from the vendors. Integration for systems that operate as a cloud-based digital cabin platform has to be even easier. These can involve various software-based third party solutions with, for example, gaming, IFE content, destination mobility services and so on. In this case the onboarding of more value-adding solutions needs to be instantly possible.

The key to achieving best value from a digital cabin system is the level of connectivity onboard the aircraft. We differentiate the intranet, i.e. the wireless data transmission system inside the cabin, and the internet, the external connectivity to the world-wide web. In the past the industry focused heavily on providing access to the internet and the predominant question was always how much data capacity to/from the aircraft can be provided. However, in recent years airlines and system houses have realised that a lot of value can be generated for the passenger and the airline operation by digitising the data processes inside the cabin and transmitting the related data wirelessly inside the cabin, even without having the often very expensive access to external connectivity.

Another central question is how passenger devices are integrated into the digital landscape. The options range from the somewhat cumbersome need for the passenger to download an app before the flight, to scanning QR codes on the aircraft (as is the case with AirFi’s and Whoosh’s solutions) to logging onto the onboard wifi system and subsequently accessing the airline’s service portal.

Where airlines want to enable the passenger to operate multiple screens to replicate a home viewing experience, an embedded screen is probably a must-have. In that case technologies for pairing the PED with the in-seat screen are very useful to enable the control of the in-seat screen. This control could then also be extended to the use of the attendant call button to minimise touch-points.

Digitalisation results in wins for all

Best of all with a digital cabin, the passenger experience is better on many levels. Getting recognised by name, preferences, affiliation to frequent flyer programmes and so on generates a welcoming and personalised atmosphere, and opens the way for a deeper engagement. Using their own PEDs makes passengers feel more in control as well as more productive. Especially in Economy cabins, digitalisation is a low-cost, high-impact tool to engage passengers without the need for major financial investment in new physical infrastructure.

The very successful introduction of Premium Economy class in recent years shows the underlying potential for service upgrades to the Economy. Airlines gain many more touch- points with the customer, resulting, if properly managed, in a highly useful well of information about the passenger’s buying patterns and preferences, and offering the foundation for long-term paseenger engagement. This will inevitably result in higher NPS (Net Promotor Score) values.

The transparency and immediacy of digital solutions allow airlines to pursue revenues that would have been very difficult to achieve beforehand. One example are upgrades offered shortly before, or even during, a flight. These can be for services within the original booking class like the Lufthansa Sleeper Row or for upgrades to other classes or services.

For advertising, digitalisation brings new more compelling opportunities too with a far more targeted and pinpointed audience, which is hence more effective. Inflight advertising can be elevated from passive consumption by the passenger to active targeting by the advertiser. And with the increasing granularity of the target information comes the ability to command higher revenues for advertising (Motus, Inadvia).

Overall, digital cabin solutions are set to revitalise onboard shopping as an experience for the passenger as well as making life easier for the crew. The technology can create agile, user-friendly platforms for passengers and allow airlines to create and fine-tune their inflight product and promotions with ease. As growing amounts of data become available, these systems can even adjust and adapt in an automated fashion – in real time, to the maximum benefit of the carriers which take the step to deploy them.