We are part of a technological revolution, but travellers seemingly still prefer the human touch to automation at the airport

5 July, 2019

From self-service check-in and baggage drop via self-scanning security points to biometric boarding, it is clear that technology is changing the travel experience at airports across the world. There are numerous stories about how airports are working to further streamline how travellers pass through the terminal building and how digitalisation can help them personalise that experience.

It is clear that technological advancements will continue to create a buzz across the travel industry, but a new study from flight data and intelligence specialist OAG suggests that while the industry continues to test high tech investments, data shows there are easier and more affordable ways to reduce friction and delight travellers.

Its 'Airport Delight Report: Humans versus machines' says that while automation certainly has its place, travellers today still crave simplicity and practicality - and although technology delivers in many cases, it's not a cure-all and that personal touch cannot be beaten as a customer service tool.

OAG's survey of over 2,000 US travellers via its flightview app revealed that most still prefer human customer service to technology automation for almost every travel function - baggage (54%), security (55%), boarding (64%), concierge (83%), and in-flight services (80%). And less than one in five (19%) saw value in interactive robots for concierge services and travel information.

The findings echo the views of Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports and one of the leading and most respected airport leaders across the globe. As the world's largest international airport, Dubai International has been recognised for its use of technology to simplify the passenger journey. But, Mr Griffiths highlighted at the CAPA Middle East & Africa Aviation Summit in Dubai earlier this year that you can't beat that personal human touch.

Mr Griffiths highlighted that in his own experience where such new technologies are already available, consumers have shown a reluctance to embrace them. While this resistance is more about the resistance to change than the resistance to technology, it highlights that education and a mindset shift will be required to break away from the 'we have always done it that way' mentality. He suggested that technology shouldn't be about replacing the human touch and instead should be used to ultimately enable airport staff to deliver a better customer experience.

So, what exactly do passengers want from technology during their airport stay. The OAG survey revealed that the traveller wish list included turn-by-turn GPS directions for navigating terminals and gates (54%); more loading zones for preparing bags for scanning (40%); flight delays and cancellation predictions (78%); and real-time updates on expected boarding times (75%), security wait times (77%) and walking times between terminals and gates (55%).

OAG says the takeaway for travel leaders is that "investing in emerging technology is smart". Looking at other industries it is clear that preferences toward automation will shift quickly, but there are already many easy and simple wins that can boost the passenger experience. As the OAG report findings highlights, developments such as "consistent flight information, text message alerts before boarding, and more security trays can immediately reduce stress and delight travellers - and drive as much, if not more, value as multi-million-dollar tech investments".

OAG says that in fact, arming travellers with prescriptive intelligence can actually have "a direct impact on gate-side revenue". Travellers that feel informed with real-time updates "are generally more confident venturing away from the gate to patronise restaurants, retail stores and bars". This is something many aren't currently doing today over fear of missing important flight information.

The survey also highlights another key revenue opportunity that's ripe for airports and providers: on-demand food and beverage through mobile. The findings shows that two in every three travellers (66%) would pre-order food or drink for pickup at a gate-side restaurant if the technology allowed, while only slightly less (62%) would do delivery. This is a significant opportunity as only 6% and 9% respectively are doing so today, according to OAG.