Opinion: Air travel in China in the post-digital age

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Carlos Kaduoka, consulting director at IT specialist SITA, moderated a panel of aviation experts from China and Europe at the recent World Aviation Festival. Here, he shares some key learnings from the discussion.

The task of the panel – which took place during the Institute for Aviation Research  China Aviation Summit – was to look into the best ways for ‘Developing an integrated digital platform to engage travelers on their end-to-end journey’.

We considered the status of China’s airline industry with regard to applications using big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain and arrived at several conclusions.

Chinese travel patterns
Technologies such as big data, AI and blockchain are vital to building a digital platform that enables aviation to meet the demands of Chinese travelers. Across the globe we’re seeing a new generation of tech savvy travelers defined as post-digital. Born from 1981 onward, they’ve grown up interacting with online technology. They use it to manage their lives and will demand the same when they travel.

This new generation of travelers is changing travel patterns in Chinese aviation. Their expectations, and the sheer number of them, will shape innovations around industry processes and drive technology investments in the next few years.

Trust and personalization
The post-digital air travel experience of Chinese travelers will be characterized by the reliance on technology to build trust. This is because their choices are so heavily influenced by social media or review platforms, such as WeChat, which espouse the merits or otherwise of various travel destinations, service providers and each traveler’s overall experiences. This is a critical point, as trust is the foundation of commerce.

Personalization is a marked characteristic of Chinese travel. According to travel experts in China, there’s a strong focus on creating outbound travel experiences for independent travelers instead of catering for the masses. Individual, tech savvy travelers want to explore the unknown.

Tech savvy travelers
Tech savvy Chinese travelers are driving the consumption of digital content, which is also reflected in changes in consumer behavior. For example, on-demand services, another marked characteristic, enable users to buy travel services such as airline tickets, ancillary services, hotel and other related services.

Combined, on-demand and personalized services will meet the needs of each individual traveler, delivering a truly personalized journey. Such characteristics will define the future Chinese traveler experience, which we can express succinctly as: simple (easy to create your trip), fast (a platform with services and social media content as well as payment services), and personal (a trip that addresses the traveler’s specific needs).

China’s fast 5G networks
Of course, China’s tech savvy travelers will need a robust and advanced communications infrastructure, which will also support the development and adoption of new digital business models. The core of this digital platform is connectivity enabled by 4G and the fast-approaching deployment of 5G, the next generation of wireless networks.

Critically, 5G is more than just a network upgrade. It represents a transformational shift in the types of services and applications that aviation can embrace, enabling airports, for example, to deliver much better networks for passengers, their business partners and tenants.

With speeds of up to 100x 4G speeds, 5G promises a whole suite of dramatic improvements, going beyond more than just speed. We’re likely to see the near elimination of processing delays, thanks to the highest levels of availability and reliability, with low latency for real-time applications.

While faster connections will be welcomed by travelers, we’ll also see major benefits on the business side. 5G will be a big game-changer for operations, propelling the Internet of Things by connecting billions of machines, appliances and sensors at low cost with significant efficiency gains.

Already leading the world in the mobile market sector, it makes sense that China will reach the top in terms of 5G and its users.

Continuous journey-wide
In China, as well as elsewhere in the world, it’s very evident that to deliver the ideal traveler experience there needs to be a willingness among all key players to collaborate, be they airlines, online travel agencies, airports, technology vendors and other suppliers (such as hotels and tour companies).

That’s because the passenger experience is not about one individual transaction or experience within the journey – we need to consider the journey-wide experience. Technology is providing the necessary connectivity and integration between all stakeholders involved in that journey experience to ensure that the traveler is always informed, in control and connected.

Collaboration and cooperation
Industry collaboration will be critical in developing a sustainable aviation industry in the post-digital age that incorporates technological advances with changes in processes as well as addressing regulatory mandates such as privacy, security and ethics.

At SITA, we’re already working with a number of airlines, airports and other stakeholders on opportunities that exploit the power of 5G networks and technologies such as AI, virtual reality and biometrics.

The focus of our work is to collaborate across the industry to improve economic benefits and operational excellence at and around airports, and in the air. Our vision is easy air travel every step of the way, and China is certainly a country where we see great potential in the realization of this vision.

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