'Wheels Up' Means High Stakes, Though Advances in Technology are Making the Skies Friendlier
by Maria Montenegro
On the eve of the busiest travel period of the year, the U.S. airline industry is gearing up to ferry an estimated 25 million people safely across the skies over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend according to Airlines for America (A4A), a leading trade association. Considering that during non-peak times, more than 2 million people board an estimated 30,000 flights every day in the U.S. alone, and when coupled with constant physical and cybersecurity threats, it’s a wonder that airline executives are able to sleep at all.
Air travel is a high stakes industry to be sure, and this is before factoring in operational challenges, rising fuel costs amidst a challenging economy and the pressure to win over a frustrated consumer base that is feeling the pinch of a new era of travel where they are absorbing more of the costs such as baggage transport fees and even peanuts.
There is much to cheer about however as advances in technology have improved the passenger experience, in addition to making air travel more efficient for both passengers and the airlines, according to Paul Bedard, an aviation expert with Verizon Enterprise Solutions. Consider today’s streamlined passenger experience where travelers are now checking in for flights using their smart phones, mobile phones are doubling as boarding passes, and many flights are offering in-flight Wi-Fi and satellite television. For the airlines, improved fleet and asset management tracking systems are bringing efficiencies to “below the wing” tarmac operations such as maintenance and baggage handling.
In addition, a long-awaited move from the heavy, paper-based flight and passenger manifests to tablets, or “Electronic Flight Bags,” is beginning to see adoption. As tablet-like devices replace the paper flight manifests – the FAA-required record sheets carried by the pilots and crew that track information for the flight and each passenger on board – data that currently must be printed in advance of each flight can be available for digital downloading instead. The fuel savings alone of an estimated one million dollars annually for the thirty-five pound binders should be a welcome relief to an airline’s operating budget, according to Bedard.
Airlines are also evaluating LTE network technology as a business continuity solution to their primary network, a move that will decrease dependencies on jurisdictional airport authorities which have traditionally sold back-up connectivity. Also, as the industry consolidation trend continues, airlines are recognizing the value of outsourcing their IT functions to systems integrators who can efficiently manage the complicated integration of disparate systems that result from mergers and acquisitions.
On the horizon, Near Field Communication (NFC) technology is steadily gaining adoption by smart phone handset chip manufacturers and some airlines outside of the U.S, allowing passengers to simply tap their phones to a kiosk for identifying themselves when checking in, printing their luggage tags, passing through security and even boarding the plane.
A healthy airline industry is absolutely vital to the economy and continual efforts to make upgrades and improvements are imperative. According to A4A, commercial aviation drives more than $ 1 trillion into the U.S economy and accounts for 10 million U.S. jobs and 5 cents of every dollar of U.S. GDP. In addition, the value of U.S. merchandise transported by air in 2012 reached an all-time high of $427 billion.
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