From left: Oliver Dlouhý, Kiwi.com; Jeff Kaelin, Avis Budget Group; Dorothy Creamer, Hospitality Technology; and Dr. Joe Leader, APEX. Image: Kristina Velan

APEX Media’s coverage of CES in Las Vegas this week began with a panel about smart tourism, whose speakers included APEX CEO Dr. Joe Leader, who contextualized the relevance of emerging technologies for the airline passenger experience industry.

Dr. Joe Leader represented APEX on a panel on smart tourism at CES today, accompanied by speakers from Avis Budget Group and Kiwi.com, and moderator Dorothy Creamer, editor in chief of Hospitality Technology. Touching on everything from voice recognition to Internet of Things, panelists predicted where the travel ecosystem is headed – and where providers risk getting it wrong.

No More Missed Connections

The importance of onboard connectivity will be magnified in the next 10 to 15 years, when, Oliver Dlouhý, CEO and co-founder of Kiwi.com, predicts people will be traveling by air as frequently and casually as they do on Ubers today, thanks to the increasingly nomadic nature of the work force and possibilities of online education. “Thanks to Wi-Fi coverage on board, these travelers won’t be wasting their time,” he said.

Travelers will be connected both on board their flight but also across the different segments of their journey, with current interruptions dissolving in the wake of new technologies, Dr. Leader predicts. “Where we are going with travel technology is a continuum. When you get on board a flight today with Singapore Airlines or Qatar Airways, for example, you already have the technology in which you can tap your phone and use NFC to pick up where you last left off with a movie from your last flight. The same will be true from your first search to your booking, trip, hotel, and car rental,” he said.

The increasing popularity of voice technology – Dr. Leader himself says 90 percent of his e-mail communications are narrated by voice – will help move the needle. Jeff Kaelin, vice-president, Product Development, Avis Budget Group, sees a similar direction taking shape in the auto space. And with 185,000 new cars purchased by Avis on an annual basis, the car rental company is among the earliest adopters of such types of new technologies on a large scale.

Voice is here, but it isn’t always the right decision, Dlouhý warned, saying that clicking a single button is still preferred — especially by younger generations. “I completely agree,” Dr. Leader said, “especially when it comes to food and beverage, where it so much more convenient to tap on an app or a screen.”

Getting Closer and Closer

“Hotels, airlines and most companies are doing a better job now at recognizing people for the individuals that they are,” said Dr. Leader, pointing to the rise of facial recognition technology in airports, the use of hearables and tablets by flight attendants to provide “that right touch at the right time,” and the introduction of intelligent seats with built-in sensors capable of culling personal data.

Passenger well-being is among the areas that will benefit most from such technological backing, said Dr. Leader, with existing wearables that can detect dehydration already presenting a useful application. “Your seat or your aircraft will know when a drink of water should be offered to a passenger who is thirsty or getting dehydrated,” he said. “Airlines spend millions of dollars in health-related emergencies on aircraft that are avoidable if they could get better intelligence on how to better serve people.”

But such hyper-personalized service should only be available to those who’ve given their explicit consent to it — something APEX has instructed its member airlines to do before collecting any personal biometric data.  “You should not get on an aircraft and ever have your consent assumed,” Dr. Leader said. “You should own your identity. It should not be owned by another and the only reason an airline or any travel provider should be using your identity is in genuine service to you, not for stalking you.”

An Ever-Evolving Ecosystem

“There are more ways for passengers to get from Point A to Point B than ever before,” Kaelin said, adding that Avis is giving customers more control of the end-to-end journey than ever before. “We’ve been preparing for this shift in mobility for a long time. This is my fourth year at CES. When we first started coming, we didn’t understand why a car rental company needed to be here, he laughed. “But if you look around, you’ll understand why though.”

CES continues to make headlines with developments in autonomous vehicles, but predictions that flights or long drives across the country will be replaced with self-driving pods are perhaps a little premature, said Dr. Leader: “I think we are getting ahead of ourselves… The first thing that will be autonomous will be baggage vehicles – in low-speed continuous transit environments. When you start to see those embraced, it will game-changing for all of us.”

Nonetheless, Dr. Leader agrees that there will be a major shift in how people travel: “It will no longer be about a jet flight from Point A to Point B, but about the totality of travel.” Thinking in more comprehensive terms can help keep providers in step with their customers, but also with efforts to address the climate crisis. As an example, Dr.Leader cites KLM’s call for travelers to replace short flights with train rides. “That’s what we need to be doing … thinking of it as a totality,” Dr. Leader added.

The session closed off with Dr. Leader’s comments on sustainability — one of the two key initiatives of the APEX Board of Governors, headed by Delta Air Lines’ CEO, Ed Bastian, who will be delivering a keynote tomorrow morning. Since the 1990s, airline fuel consumption per person has reduced by 50 percent, and carbon emissions per person have dropped by over 50 percent, largely thanks to airline efforts to cut fuel costs, Leader said. But airlines shouldn’t rest on these successes: “We all need to be moving faster and better,” he said. “Greta is right. This isn’t a time to delay; it is time to defend.”