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Air travellers in the slow lane on technology

Most passengers now carry smartphones, but are wary of using them for travel tasks.

Airplane flying in clear blue sky

Inside the Enterprise: Air travellers are much more likely than the general population to carry smartphones, but remain wary of using them to book and check-in to flights.

Over the last few years, the proportion of airline passengers traveling with smartphones has grown to 76 per cent, according to SITA, the airline industry IT body. This compares to 40 per cent of the general population, but fewer than five per cent of travellers use mobile devices to check-in for flights, for example.

This is a concern for airlines and airport operators. Both have invested heavily in smartphone apps, alongside other tools, such as self-service check-in kiosks , and scanning systems that allow passengers to print their boarding passes at home. But moving to more integrated, smartphone apps holds the promise of both lower costs for airlines, and an improved customer experience. No-one likes to queue at the airport.

However, the 2013 SITA/Air Transport World Passenger IT Trends Survey, an annual exercise in gauging passengers' attitudes towards technology, suggests that such conveniences have not taken off (if you'll pardon the pun).

Although 69 per cent of travellers book their flights online, just 20 per cent use self-service kiosks, and a far smaller percentage use smartphones.

But SITA also asked passengers what they intend to use. Just over a third of passengers 36 per cent said they would use a smartphone for check-in purposes, against 73 per cent saying they would check-in from a computer. The figures for boarding passes were slightly better: 43 per cent would use a smartphone app, against 57 per cent using an at-airport kiosk.

The main barriers to using smartphones were reliability and ease of use. Passengers worry, sometimes with good reason, their smartphone or app might fail: this deterred 31 per cent of passengers.

Certainly a phone with a flat battery is no use at the security gate, and it can be a pain to switch a phone on just to show a boarding pass. But a further 24 per cent of travellers cited "phone compatibility" as a barrier and another 13 per cent found the apps too complicated.

This is despite innovations such as Apple's Passbook, which allows travellers to store boarding passes on their phones, and software such as BA's well-received app, which has moved from a simple check-in and boarding pass utility to a fairly complete travel management app.

Other airlines have gone further: Malaysia Airlines, for example, has developed MHbuddy (MH is the airline's code) as a Facebook app that supports both booking and check-in, and sharing itinerary details with friends.

Whether more airlines will follow this lead, and more passengers take to the services, will depend both on airlines continuing to improve their software and on developments such as a relaxation on rules about using smartphones on planes.

But, as SITA itself admits, airlines need to personalise their mobile services, so travellers receive the right information at the right time. Done well, this should be a competitive advantage.

"Airlines and airports that recognise this, and provide passengers with easy-to-use mobile services that improve the travel experience, will enjoy higher adoption rates and passenger satisfaction," says SITA's CEO, Francesco Violante. Either that, or give app users an upgrade to first class.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.

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