When Allegiant Travel Co. sells a ticket, it sees not only a passenger but a member of a captive audience.
When it comes time to take off, people do not board a plane so much as step into “a private store where you have their undivided attention for as long as it takes to get from point A to point B,” Todd Cinnamon, Allegiant’s vice president of information technology, told an audience Friday on the final day of the Future Travel Experience convention on.
To try to boost the revenue from nonplane ticket transactions, Allegiant is equipping all its sales staff — “I think they are called flight attendants,” Cinnamon said — with computer tablets to record their sales of $2 Diet Cokes or $5 Budweisers. The flight attendants also receive commissions on their sales.
Some ideas to improve air travel have run into a gauntlet of obstacles, including complex airline computer systems and government security bureaucracies, such as using biometrics to identify passengers rather than humans looking at photos. But the conference spotlighted a number of other experiments and innovations that may be smaller but are moving ahead, such as Las Vegas-based Allegiant’s point-of sale technology.
Rather than sell just in-flight refreshments, Allegiant has tinkered with a broader product line, such as cowboy hats on a flight to Texas. Others talk about broadening the reach so that passengers can order merchandise in the air using their tablets or cell phones. Virgin America does this through touchscreen monitors built into seatbacks.
The industry has also placed great store in what is called Big Data, accumulating as much data as possible about a passenger in the name of providing a “personalized experience.” Australia’s Qantas will try to compile a profile on its good customers down to pet names.
But even enthusiasts admit there are limits. While touting the virtues of knowing customers, including one hotel that put cookies in his room reflecting his devotion to the Boston Red Sox, MasterCard vice president Craig Duncan acknowledged it can go too far. Knowing pet names potentially introduces “a creepy factor that we have to be aware of,” he said.
Other concepts highlighted at the convention included:
— Different ways to keep children entertained rather than dreaded. Brazil’s TAM has a Commandant Kid program that allows them to help flight attendants as they wheel the carts down the airliner aisles. Air New Zealand flight attendants read bedtime stories. Emirates has introduced a flying nanny.
— Several airlines, none U.S.-based, have designated women-only bathrooms. Japan Air Lines recent installed a curtain around four seats in the back of its flights to Hawaii as a sanctuary for women.
— Canada’s WestJet, the largest foreign carrier at McCarran International, has equipped planes with what it calls Tray Vu, tray tables specifically designed to hold tablets.
— Spain’s Iberia has created a program as part of its website to allow passengers to print not only boarding passes but bag tags, which can be folded and inserted into plastic sleeves at the airport and attached to suitcases.
— Panama’s Copa, which comes to McCarran, and China Southern have instituted auctions for selling empty first class seats.
— Some in the industry pushed the idea of permanent bag tags with embedded RFID chips that could be reprogrammed for each flight. Others foresee loyalty or frequent flyer cards with RFIDs that would contain personal travel histories and preferences.
— The kiosks that fill many departure halls may find new uses, even though Rowan Chalmers, Qantas’ head of ground operations in Sydney and Canberra, analogized them to pay phone booths as being “useful but out of date.’
Officials at McCarran, which installed its first kiosks a decade ago, still see a lot of value in them. Las Vegas attracts millions of vacationers that may fly only once a year and not have access to a printer at their hotels, so the kiosks are still an important source of boarding passes. These kiosks have spit out nearly 70 million boarding passes to date.
New technology forms the foundation for many predicted changes, but Peter Meyerhoferbeer, a top planner at the Vienna International Airport in Austria, takes a tempered view. “Technology is not everything,” he said. “It is better to be an early follower than a leader in technology.”