5G has the potential to significantly impact the air travel experience and enable numerous process improvements. Enhanced connectivity will benefit both travelers and employees by improving everything from passenger processing and security to baggage management and retail operations.
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Long security lines, lengthy wait times at retail stores and restaurants, and unreliable technology, such as slow or spotty Wi-Fi, can frustrate and disrupt air travel passengers, airport operators, and service workers alike. 5G, the fifth-generation mobile network, has the potential to be a game changer for air travel, enabling services that can alleviate passenger impediments and improve operations.
“With low latency and high-speed data connectivity, air travel passengers and transportation associates could enjoy a plethora of new capabilities and services in airports and airplanes,” said Jerri Traflet, managing partner, retail, travel, distribution domain, at Verizon. “From navigating security checkpoints and airport amenities, to ordering and paying for merchandise, food and beverages, to staying connected and streaming content, 5G has the potential to significantly enhance the travel experience.”
This article explores five key ways in which airlines, airports, industry workers, and passengers stand to benefit from this cutting-edge technology and what the customer experience could look like in the coming years.
A majority of airline passengers are already using their smartphones to manage air travel logistics, such as checking in, dropping off baggage, accessing mobile boarding passes, and receiving flight status updates. 5G can enhance all of these touch points — from the journey to the airport to takeoff — by providing faster network speeds with lower latency of data access for mobile-based activities.
From the airport’s standpoint, 5G can provide greater capabilities to offer wayfinding apps, personalized mobile messaging, and other proximity-based digital signage that can be updated in near real-time so travelers can make the most of their time before they board their flight. For instance, several airports, including Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX) and John F. Kennedy in New York (JFK), utilized next-generation connectivity capabilities to send messages to remind passengers and staff about Covid-19 safety protocols.
As passengers traverse the airport, they will be able to seamlessly roam between cellular and Wi-Fi, which will allow the networks to better manage traffic demands, including streaming and downloading large files.
“5G can enable passengers to have a touchless and personalized experience throughout their travel journey,” said Traflet. “Travelers’ smartphones have become the standard for boarding passes, and with opt-in preferences, airlines, airports, and in-airport businesses can trigger personalized messages and offers as travelers traverse airports.”
As important as high-speed connectivity is for travelers, 5G can enable enhanced services and capabilities for airport retailers and restaurants.
With faster, cloud-based, point-of-sale systems and mobile apps, not to mention self-serve kiosks for ordering and payment of food, beverage, and retail, both customers and employees can benefit with convenient ordering and payment options, as well as faster service. Reducing long or unpredictable wait times for airport shopping will lead to increased customer satisfaction, smoother operational efficiency, and greater employee retention.
According to SITA, a leading IT provider for the air transport industry, 4G technology can manage approximately 10,000 devices in a square kilometer. Meanwhile, a 5G network is expected to eventually manage up to one million. Imagine the possibilities of being able to confidently connect and track bags, packages, pallets and containers, and all other airport inventory, which are constantly swirling through security, around the grounds, to the planes, and back — all at once.
“5G allows the use of existing networks, such as Wi-Fi, while providing a pathway to adopt more advanced networks and unlock the benefits of increased scalability of adding devices, speed, reliability, and support for advanced imaging applications,” said Traflet. “With the ability to seamlessly connect IoT devices, data can be captured, transmitted, stored, and processed in near real time.”
IoT connectivity capabilities will also improve processes that are simple in theory, but involve massive undertakings in practice. Everything has a potential IoT application: optimizing line lengths; controlling lighting for runways, loading areas, and roadways; cleaning bathrooms; transporting people and baggage with autonomous vehicles through the airport and via shuttles; and as many more that one can envision.
As an example, at Heathrow, British Airways tested autonomous electric tugs to automate airplane taxiing and the system reduced pushback-related delays by 53 percent.
The ability to remotely and robotically manage the execution of simple actions will enable more people on the ground to engage in customer service activities that require the human touch, all while improving the traveler experience and the safety of passengers and agents.
Efficient and comprehensive security measures are a top priority for airport operators and travelers. Since 5G networks can provide the ability to run effective and high quality security systems, airports can implement high-definition video surveillance, which feed streams for near real-time situational data analysis promised by AI-powered security monitoring services.
From a processing standpoint, biometrics devices can also rely on 5G for secure entry. Concessions and automated passport scanners can be coupled with these to reduce labor intensive screening with automated processes. In addition, with customer consent, airports can use biometrics (facial recognition, handprint, fingerprint) to reduce boarding times.
For example, Face Express allows passengers at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport to check in, pass through security checkpoints, drop their luggage, and board their flights, all with facial recognition scans.
The Future of In-Flight Operations
“While still in development and testing with multiple technology providers, in-flight could someday offer enhanced connectivity while planes are in transit,” said Traflet. “With high-speed data and communications transmission, 5G could create greater quality streaming services for passengers and increased capabilities for airline staff.”
The ultimate benefit of 5G for air travel will come via full connectivity for the airplane itself. More data, easily processed and analyzed, means the potential for better maintenance and faster turnaround, which could lead to tighter and more predictable scheduling. Pilots’ ability to communicate seamlessly with air traffic control and use enhanced technology in the cockpit could improve safety and flight optimization, features that could also support autonomous flight operations as they continue to evolve. All of this, of course, translates to the best possible traveler experience.
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