Terminal Technologies: A new era for air travel

Posted: 17 June 2014 | David Bulman, Director of Information Technologies at Virgin Atlantic Airways | No comments yet

From streamlining and automating check-in and security procedures, to the rise in cloud technologies, we are moving towards a new era in air travel, says David Bulman, Director of Information Technologies at Virgin Atlantic Airways.

The airline industry retains many of its historical processes and procedures, and check-in is one of these. This is despite that its purpose of confirming identity, of collecting baggage and of assuring presence is now being superseded by so many new technologies. There isn’t an airline today that doesn’t still use a check-in process, yet advances in new technologies have shifted the way that passengers make the transition – from purchasing their ticket, to dropping their bags off, to making their way through an airport, to getting on their flight.

High standards of customer service will always be a part of the Virgin Atlantic ethos and our passengers value face-to-face interaction, from booking their ticket through to arriving at  their final destination. To enhance the customer experience and to aid those who wish to navigate their way through the airport terminal in as little time as possible, we have been working hard to streamline the journey using automated systems and new technologies. Ultimately we want customers to have a choice about how they wish to make their journey using the most convenient methods to suit them.

Assigning a seat early in the ticketing process has now become commonplace and as confirming identity is now a requirement of so many governments, airlines have developed multiple methods of pre-checking documentation, helping to reduce airport queues. New technologies are moving towards electronic documentation that can be securely confirmed by such means as RFID and Bluetooth from people’s personal devices. It won’t be long before identity becomes standard in wearable devices.

Equally, all major airports are trialling different ways of collecting baggage. Home-printed bag tags, configurable hardware that changes with every new flight, even intelligent bags with their own mobile SIM cards are being trialled. Self-service bag drop facilities, though not yet ubiquitous, are becoming commonplace in airports.

Assuring a passenger is present at the airport so they can be boarded in comfort is becoming far easier. From mobile applications that announce a passenger’s presence upon entering an airport, to facial recognition and other biometric techniques, we are finally seeing systems that are mature with low error rates. It is absolutely crucial that this is done respecting privacy and with full permission, but the benefits in smoothing passage through an airport are clear.

At Virgin Atlantic we are moving forward on all of these fronts, both individually and within our industry. Our mobile apps will soon be able to let us know how you’re doing, and allow passengers to communicate back how we’re doing. As an airline, external factors mean that we can never fully guarantee against delays, but these advances mean that we can make sure our passengers are aware of any impact to their journeys.

Looking to the future, we will introduce multiple ways that passengers can select their seats before they get to the airport. For example, allocating favourite locations to frequent passengers in advance, or giving others the choices we anticipate they will want. Unless passengers tell us otherwise, we can assume and plan on their arrival. This personalisation is just another way we can enhance the customer’s individual experience.

We currently have ongoing trials into how passengers can mark up their own bags. Soon, a few key taps on a personal device will be able to update physical markings on a bag. We will have self-service bag drop sites so passengers can walk up, drop off, and be on their way to the lounge in seconds rather than queuing.

We are looking at the ways our staff work and how we can use technology to help them enhance the customer experience. Recently, Virgin Atlantic staff at the Upper Class Wing at London Heathrow have been trialling Google Glass and Sony Smartwatches when meeting our Upper Class passengers who arrive by limousine. Staff have been using this cutting-edge technology to help speed up our passengers’ journeys through the Wing and provide an even more personalised service.

The devices not only alert agents to an arriving passenger and their details, but also provide up-to-the-minute information on flight departure and arrival times, seat availability and destination weather. The technology could potentially advance to tell Virgin Atlantic staff their passengers’ dietary and refreshment preferences – anything that provides a better and more personalised service. This trial has been a big success and has generated a huge amount of interest with positive feedback from both passengers and staff. We are now looking at how we can roll out wearable technology over the next couple of years.

We are also looking at ways that the in-flight experience can be convenient and as enjoyable as possible for our customers. The ritual of turning off personal electronic devices for take-off is on its way out as passengers are now able to use mobile phones, e-readers, MP3 players and portable games consoles throughout their Virgin Atlantic flight, from the moment they get on board to the moment they arrive at their destination. Typically those travelling will carry an average of two or three personal electronic devices each and gate-to-gate usage will mean customers can now enjoy up to an extra two hours of personal entertainment on their flight.

Later this year the first three of 16 Boeing 787 aircraft will join the Virgin Atlantic fleet. These are the most technologically advanced commercial aircraft in the skies. We’re already operating a young fleet with many of our planes featuring in-flight mobile phone connectivity, touch-screen IFE and Wi-Fi capabilities. We are looking at the opportunities these new aircraft present for enhancing our customers’ in-flight experience.

Finally, with the full permission of passengers, we will be able to identify them automatically throughout their journey, and working with airports, speed the journey to the aircraft. We’re confident we will be able to minimise the time a passenger needs at an airport, giving time back to them and their job, or more time to put their feet up and relax in our award-winning lounges. And when they get there, we will already know who they are and will have made sure their favourite treats are ready.


David Bulman is Director of Information Technologies at Virgin Atlantic Airways. Prior to joining Virgin Atlantic, David held a number of senior IT roles. As COO at Broadsystem, he managed marketing services functions from data management to call centres. David oversaw the re-launch of the websites at The Times and The Sun before moving to the position of CIO at Aegis Group plc. There, he oversaw a number of transformational global programs, both at the infrastructural level and in business change. At Reed Business Information, he launched a number of cutting edge online data services.

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