7 Surprising Things Airlines Are Doing in 2017

See recent posts by Neil Gladstone

Airlines have seen quite a lot of changes in last few months, from travel bans to new protocols stating that devices larger than a smartphone may not be permitted in the cabin of particular planes. But this shake-up is not only associated with politics. In fact, there are plenty of interesting inventions that airlines are testing and implementing to differentiate themselves and attract customers. Here are seven innovative new ideas airlines have already launched or will launch this year.

A321neo planes; Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

A321neo planes; Photo courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

1. A Picture-Perfect Boarding Pass

JetBlue is teaming up with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the aviation tech company SITA to enable passengers to use pictures as boarding passes. How will that work, you ask? When you’re getting ready to board, a picture will be snapped and sent through facial recognition technology to compare it against a passport headshot or other certified image in the Customs database. One of the many benefits of this new boarding pass would get JetBlue’s team out from behind the check-in counter and interacting with customers in a more personable way.

“We hope to learn how we can further reduce friction points in the airport experience, with the boarding process being one of the hardest to solve,” said Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue’s executive vice president of customer experience, in a statement. “Self-boarding eliminates boarding pass scanning and manual passport checks. Just look into the camera and you’re on your way.”

While the airline will begin testing the facial recognition technology in June, don’t get ready to show your selfies to every airline ticket-taker just yet. The service is only going to be available from Boston’s Logan International Airport to Aruba’s Queen Beatrix International Airport for now.

2. A Chatty Seat

While in-flight Wi-Fi can be quite pricey, Alaska Airlines launched free texting for passengers who use iMessage, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. “We know that staying in touch while on the go is essential to our guests, many of whom don’t need full Internet access,” said Andrew Harrison, Alaska Airlines’ executive vice president and chief commercial officer. “Free Chat is a great way to keep that connection alive without breaking the bank. And yes, it’s fully emoji-compatible.” The service is being offered in connection with Gogo Wi-Fi, so definitely be mindful of what is and isn’t free. Alaska Airlines launched the functionality in beta for passengers in January.

3. Check Your Bag With Your Face

Airlines may be seeing a lot more of your mug in the upcoming years. This summer, Delta is testing a new bag check-in machine that uses facial recognition technology to verify your ID. Potential benefits of the machine include a speedier check-in process and “freeing up” agents to be proactive with more important situations, according to Gareth Joyce, Delta’s senior vice president for airport customer service and cargo. Whether or not that means fewer check-in agents down the line remains to be seen. So far, Delta is only testing one biometric-friendly baggage machine this summer in Minneapolis-St. Paul. 

4. In-Flight Island Fever

Hawaiian Airlines plans to put its roots in the Aloha State on full display in the new A321neo planes, which will be introduced later this year. Interiors will include materials that pay homage to Hawaiian bark cloth and fishing nets. Plus, Hawaiian language will be used in the signage and the bathroom floors will be customized as a nod to island design. To top it off, the interior mood-lighting system is programmed to evoke Hawaii’s sunrises and sunsets — a feature travelers probably won’t get on other airlines.

5. Supersonic Returns

When the Concorde made its last flight in 2003, it seemed like intercontinental supersonic travel was going to soar into the great beyond. However, Virgin Galactic is now partnering with Boom Technology to create a new supersonic plane, with test flights proposed for the second half of 2017. The new plane has a speed of Mach 2.2 — more than twice as fast as most passenger airlines and 101 miles per hour faster than the Concorde. “I have long been passionate about aerospace innovation and the development of high-speed commercial flights,” said Sir Richard Branson about the partnership in a statement. “As an innovator in the space, Virgin Galactic’s decision to work with Boom was an easy one. We’re excited to have an option on Boom’s first 10 airframes.”

6. Virtual Economy

Perhaps it’s not surprising that airlines are interested in virtual reality. Qantas started experimenting with Samsung headsets for its passengers in 2015. Now, Lufthansa has started to use VR as a sales tool to help passengers make the big leap from economy to Premium Economy, which has extra legroom and premium service. In early 2017, Lufthansa placed reps with VR headsets at gates where the flights had space in Premium Economy. Using VR headsets may seem like a gadget-driven gimmick, but it worked well, as passengers were often convinced to make the upgrade. The trial run was done at Frankfurt Airport, but given its success, don’t be surprised if you see more passengers staring into VR space soon.

Stockholm Grand Central Station Lounge; Photo courtesy of SAS

Stockholm Grand Central Station Lounge; Photo courtesy of SAS

7. Your Own Airline Office

Why would an airline create a lounge that isn’t in the airport? It might be because catching a business traveler’s attention requires a distinctive perk, including a co-working space. In the beginning of 2017, SAS opened a lounge in the Stockholm Grand Central train station. It fits 130 people and stays open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. — not to mention, has free Wi-Fi, work spaces, and telephone rooms. Unfortunately, you can’t drop by the lounge whenever you want — your flight must be 24 hours before or after your visit.

“Research has shown that new ways of working are emerging,” the airline said in a statement. “To bring your office with you is becoming more and more common. Here, in a homely but professional atmosphere, you can either take it easy and relax or make the most of your working day with everything you need to do your job.”

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