Airports once were places that people were excited to visit.
That long-gone time may come again as big airlines jettison their archaic passenger management systems for new-generation technology that recognizes you and your personal in-flight preferences automatically.
Qantas, Lufthansa, British Airways, Finnair, Star Alliance, and others are ripping out their old technology for advanced systems like the Amadeus Altéa, which, through a mixture of simplification and automation, will alter the way you deal with your airline in the airport as thoroughly as the new Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 will alter your experience in the air.
Nobody's reporting on this because the future hasn't arrived just yet. But as soon as 2008, fliers will begin to see changes. Significant changes.
When several airlines in the same alliance fully "migrate" to the same passenger management system, the difference in customer service will be that much more noticeable. Now, while it's up to each airline to decide how they'll configure a new-gen system to satisfy personal preferences, here is just one example of how Altéa could change your experience.
Let's say Mr. and Mrs. John Smith three months ago went online to book economy seats on flights from Lisbon to Bejing via London's Heathrow. When Mr. Smith entered his frequent flyer number, the booking system automatically retrieved his personal preferences and added them to his booking. This is possible because the airline using the new passenger management system has only one passenger record to check. No longer will airlines maintain separate "silos" of data on each customer — data that in the past wasn't always synchronized with every other info silo.
Systems like Amadeus Altéa deliver real-time information across the entire passenger management system. The fancy name for this is "end-to-end integration." What it means in plain English is that no matter where in the airport Mr. and Mrs. Smith stop to ask an airline representative for information, those airline reps all will be looking at the same passenger record, always up to date, always accessible at every "touch point."
Let's say the day of Mr. and Mrs. Smith's flight arrives, but suddenly the airline sees a demand surge. Now their flight is overbooked! No worries. Automation means the airline is on top of it. They are already weighing options, such as deploying a larger plane to accommodate the crush.
Automation also ensures that all of Mr. and Mrs. Smith's personal preferences about where they want to sit, and so on, board with them.
Let's say that a Mr. Brown is on the same flight to London as the Smiths. On the day of departure Mr. Brown arrives at the airport early, ahead of the Smiths. A check-in agent swipes Mr. Brown's gold frequent flyer card, which instantly tags our early bird as a high-value customer to the airline.
In fact, the system instantly identifies an unfilled seat on an earlier flight.
Would Mr. Brown be interested? You bet.
Meantime, Mr. Brown's original seat is immediately made available in the system for re-sale or to clear a customer from the wait list. At the same time, there's no need for Mr. Brown to wait in another line to get his ticket for the earlier flight. The check-in agent updates Mr. Brown's e-ticket and directs him to the new gate. The new booking reflects all of Mr. Brown's personal preferences, which were automatically posted to his new ticket.
While Mr. Brown is taking off from the airport, the Smiths are just arriving. A swipe of their credit card means the system instantly recognizes them. The system also recognizes that a visa is required for the Smiths' travel to China. It prompts the agent to ask to see the Smiths' documents. The Smiths are thus checked in correctly and quickly right from the start.
Before they get into the air, however, a storm breaks out in Lisbon, limiting visibility and reducing aircraft movement at that airport. Delays are inevitable. The Smiths hear an announcement that their flight to London has been pushed back two hours. Will they miss their connection?
No. Thanks to the system's ability to instantly shuffle both bookings and seating across the entire airline, and because the airline is a member of an alliance that uses the same passenger management system, the connection problem has already been solved, again, automatically. The Smiths are simply booked onto a later flight from London to Bejing.
But because the system also recognizes that the Smiths are frequent flyers and have been delayed, they are automatically upgraded to business class — without having to ask — as compensation. The agent simply issues them new boarding passes for their new connecting flight.
Bottom line: The way fliers deal with the airlines at the airport is going improve noticeably. Not all of the stress and not all of the mistakes will disappear. That's not reality. But what is real is that the airlines will finally have the integrated technology that that will transform challenges into opportunities, numbers into names, and passengers into customers.