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New technology is driving change for good across the air transport industry, argues SITA CEO, Francesco Violante.

Just ten years ago, we could never have envisioned the impact technology would have on the air transport environment. 

From mobile booking to self-service check-in kiosks, automated boarding gates and automated passport kiosks complete with advanced biometrics, technology now touches every stage of the passenger journey. 

According to the annual SITA Passenger Survey, 97% of passengers carry a smartphone when they travel, and one in five passengers travels with three mobile devices: a smartphone, tablet and laptop. These passengers expect to remain connected, both on the ground and increasingly in the air on “connected aircraft”. 

Personal service

The adoption of new technologies has grown significantly in recent years, and passengers increasingly want more. Today, more than three-quarters of passengers use airline apps, and 56% want connectivity so that they can use their smartphone, tablet or laptop for in-flight entertainment.

Passengers also expect more personalised apps and services delivered to their phone or tablet via social media. For example, 53% of passengers would
like personalised alerts about delays sent directly to their phones and 30% expect support via social media when things
go wrong.

The air transport industry needs to be at the forefront of new technologies. This will enable airlines and airports to engage directly with their passengers and create a more seamless, personalised passenger experience. 

Looking forward ten years, we can expect five major trends to continue to shape the passenger experience: a shift to apps, the Internet of things and the subsequent data explosion, wearable technology, biometrics, and proximity sensing and beacons.

A shift to apps 

We are in the midst of a shift from web browsers to mobile apps. There are now apps available to control everything from the electronics in our homes to our health. The App for Everything world is around the corner and it will complement the Internet of Things. As an early example, downloads from Apple’s App Store are estimated at more than 50 billion, with around 800 apps downloaded every second. 

Airlines and airports globally are actively developing mobile apps to enhance the passenger experience. According to our recent industry surveys, 84% of airports plan to launch mobile apps over the next three years, and 95% of airlines are focused on enhancing their mobile apps. 

The Internet of Things and the data explosion 

The Internet of Things is producing a huge amount of data. This includes data generated by machine-to-machine interaction, in which devices are connected to sensors, and they become self-monitoring, self-controlling and self-optimising without any human interaction. 

Imagine arriving at the airport with your smartphone and having an Internet-enabled car parking robot and luggage robot meet you to park your car and take your luggage. Then imagine using your smartphone to turn down the heat at home, check that you turned off the coffee machine and activate your security alarm.  

This will all generate a vast amount of data, which will have significant potential business value for companies that can analyse the data and extract meaningful business intelligence. It will also provide new data to feed and control other connected devices, such as airport operations systems, which will enhance
the passenger experience.  


Wearable technology

Wearable technology is also poised to have a big impact on the air transport industry. Our strategic research and development team, SITA Lab, last year successfully trialled Google Glass applications with Virgin Atlantic and Copenhagen Airport. In both cases, the smart technology helped improve customer service by enabling agents to quickly access passenger details and operational data. 

We can expect to see wearable technology launched more widely in the future. According to the recent SITA Passenger Survey, 77% of passengers are comfortable with wearable tech if it helps support their journey. 


Biometrics are just beginning to appear in the air transport environment. Many of the major airports in the US now have Automated Passport Control kiosks for self-service immigration. Passengers simply scan their passports, provide their fingerprints and a camera on the kiosk captures their face biometric, while passenger validation takes place automatically in the background. The entire process takes just 60 seconds. 

Another interesting aspect of biometrics is the integration into wearable technology. SITA Lab is exploring the use of “persistent identity” in a wristband. The wristband uses your heartbeat like a password and provides authentication with a mobile device such as a smartphone. We envisage passengers wearing these wristbands for authentication at control points.

As the technology improves, biometrics could eliminate the need for boarding passes altogether. And when combined with proximity sensing, biometrics give the industry an opportunity to provide an end-to-end passenger process that is seamless, intuitive and secure.

Proximity sensing and beacons

Proximity sensing, which relies on sensors to detect the presence of nearby objects, can link airport and airline technology to passengers’ mobile phones. This will enable us to access new data and gain unprecedented insights into passenger flow and behaviour at the airport. 

Using aggregated and anonymous geo-location data, airport operators can keep an eye on passenger flows and adjust operational procedures to smooth out the peaks. They can also give passengers accurate queuing times at security and other bottlenecks, helping avoid congestion.

While passenger flow data is aggregated and anonymous, beacon technology can create more personalised communications to passengers. A beacon is a low powered wireless transmitter that sends out a Bluetooth signal over a radius of up to 50 metres. Combine this with an app and you can trigger context-relevant messages or actions on a smartphone at specific locations.

This might be as simple as a welcome message or a flight status update as a passenger arrives at the airport. It could also be a mobile boarding pass on the smartphone at control points or a personalised offer for airport shops and restaurants.

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