Will ‘commercial exploitation of passengers’ data’ be a precursor to the next business model for air travel?

Checked luggage charges, fast lanes for paying, longer boarding times and tighter security are about to start, and the old guard is in serious trouble

In the next few weeks, airlines will start to introduce a new era of technology to their inflight service. Alongside major changes to ticket pricing, revenue modelling and onboard staff, cabin crew will have a new tool for ensuring passengers leave enough room in their overhead compartments. It will mean: cut short-haul flights, lengthen short-haul flights and deny boarding to those reluctant to pay twice for a checked suitcase or even three to put their fanny in a fast lane. It will only be fair.

The worst-case scenario is that passengers are able to do a virtual double check at home before going to the airport with their mobile phone. The potential for airlines to change passengers’ behaviour with their own brand of surveillance will give them the opportunity to radically change the industry. The biggest danger is that passengers will shun paywalls for content and rely on traditional media such as newspapers or TV to predict their journeys.

The other problem for airlines is that for the first time, they will realise that pricing is not enough. The new era of travel will need to be matched with new services, new regulations and new revenue streams.

It’s clear that a new generation of airline personnel are in for the fight of their lives. As airport and airport authorities face their own challenges, the fight may not be between the “loyalty” and the “personal service” camps, but rather the “privacy” and the “invincibility” camps.

Britain’s airports know this world better than most, having faced it over the last two decades. They know that even in a mature market, passenger numbers and revenues are growing, and airlines require investment.

We have a really good idea of what the future will look like, but few airlines are yet going to commit to it. They need to stop pretending that “business class” is better than coach, and realise that losing on boarding is worse than losing for a customer on the ground.

Understandably, there are real ethical issues around the commercial exploitation of travellers’ data. But the real challenge is convincing customers they will get a better deal by putting their data to work for them rather than just for the airlines.

The new era of air travel must avoid a race to the bottom. It must learn from other industries and stop trying to create legacy modalities that are faster, cheaper and more reliable. It must promise something new and innovative, such as a completely new cabin of travel.

Air travel will always be what it has always been. I suppose it could become faster, more efficient and safer, but we won’t see a better product or experience for a while.

The revolution starts with marketing and the differentiation of experiences in airports. A hotel that converts to an airport hotel may not gain share but it may become something less intimidating for those who are unsure about putting their luggage in the overhead bins or boarding a plane with thin crumbs on their lap.

The chance of flying will always be a random lottery, but there will be no pure lottery for people who want to understand when their flight will take off and how it might arrive at their gate.

This post is part of a series produced by The Guardian to mark the launch of travel startup TransferWise at Tech City UK’s Tech City Week.

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