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Innovation in the Skies: Quicker, eco-friendly ‘birds’ in express flyways

Aviation is perhaps the pionner who leads the innovation in the travel industry. In this article Dr. Stavros Sindakis explores the deep waters of the innovative developments of the aviation companies, airlines as well as airports.

Innovation in aviation is a rich, never-ending field for both industry experts and academics. European Commission published a Call for Project Proposals, titled “Breakthrough innovation for European Aviation.” Europe alone hosts a number of 448 airlines, 701 commercial airports, with more than 600 million passengers benefiting from the growth and safety of aviation. Yet, a lot remain to be developed in the industry, with governments and aviation organizations setting ambitious goals to reach, radical innovations to pursue and new solutions to create, not only to solve today’s issues, but to address tomorrow’s challenges.

The aviation industry consists of much more than the manufacturing of aircrafts. New concepts are developed and novel technologies are used every single day in aeronautics as well as in airports. New approaches to propulsion, to the use of energy, and new types of vehicles emerge to make the transportation of people and goods safer, efficient, and faster. One of the most pioneer aircraft manufacturers, Airbus, invests in eco-efficiency and safety, aiming to continue the tradition that air travelling is the best mean of transportation. The triangle of more flights, fewer emissions, and quicker passenger times comprises the company’s vision for 2050, called “Smarter Skies”. On the other hand, Boeing names the ‘digital airline’ as the innovation of the future. Airlines will be data-driven companies connected with passengers, maintenance units and other stakeholders of the supply chain creating a highly interconnected airline ecosystem, which enables airlines to maximize their efficiency, profitability, and environmental performance.

But, what is the common denominator in this value added chain of innovation? Airbus collaborates with other industrial partners and experts to meet the challenges of the future, developing innovations in five axes. Eco-climb system, for example, will allow aircrafts to climb onto the sky quicker, significantly reducing the noise of take-off. Likewise, landings will also be smoother with free-glide approaches, which reduce landing speed and require less runway. Intelligent airplanes of the future will consume alternative aviation fuels, and will be able to select the most efficient and environmentally friendly routes, using 4D navigation systems that will allow them to create express flyways. Other aircraft manufacturing companies, such as Gulfstream, Dassault Aviation, and Bombardier compete to provide technologically advanced jets of superior technology, comfort, and performance. Dassault Aviation is proud of its digital technology capabilities, which enables the company to build and sell aircrafts, having only digital mock-ups. Gulfstream envisions creating a business jet that would fly at nearly twice the speed of sound, while Bombardier is famous for its innovative business planes and amphibious firefighting aircrafts.

Technological innovation and design are, therefore, the key elements that the aviation industry relies on. Innovation is the driver of progress, enabling companies to combine their technological capabilities with customer insights, developing integrated businesses, products, and services. The so-called, Consumer Technology, drives the development of airline product and service innovations. Virgin Atlantic and SITA, the airline IT provider, commence a pilot program at London Heathrow Clubhouse, equipping Virgin Atlantic’s staff with hands-free tech devices (i.e. Google Glass and Sony Smartwatches) enabling them to identify a customer, check their flight information and preferences, and proceed to check-in. Similarly, numerous small or big innovations emerge from the airlines around the world. KLM, which has made big investments on social media innovation, will allow passengers to pay for services via their social networks. Qatar Airways will soon launch an all Business Class flight from its hub in Doha to London Heathrow. This service innovation for the Middle East actually emulates the Business-only flight of British Airways from London City Airport (LCY) to New York (JFK). Air France, in an effort to please its La Première and Business class customers, organizes gourmet creations on board and inflight cocktails with award-winning chefs and bartenders. The big idea, however, comes from Delta Airlines. Delta Innovation Class is a mentoring program that takes place at 35,000ft. According to the company, this initiative is “a new way for frequent travelers to user their time in the air”, providing the opportunity to new generation of innovators to interact with and gain knowledge from leaders and experts in business, art, and technology, while flying over to events around the globe.

What is more in the aviation industry, it is the way vehicles, passengers and freight are handled, the way airports are organized and connected to other modes, the way information is shared, used and handled are also fields that research and progress never stop. For example, Airbus has developed technologies that allow aircraft engines to be switched off sooner on landing. This enables the runways to clear faster resulting to reduced ground-handling emissions. Furthermore, the Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL) in Canada has introduced an e-system for security check, the SecurXpress. Passengers simply enter their flight and contact details to the airport’s online form, and get back a text message providing them with a reserved time at a specific security checkpoint. This concept is similar to the Disney’s FastPass innovative system, which reduces long waits at the most popular attractions. Similarly, the Dubai International Airport (DXB) installs next-generation virtual assistants to provide targeted information to travelers in English and in Arabic.

Innovation however is not limited to efficient and greener aircrafts or to security procedures. The airports’ technological innovations advanced the overall travel experience. We see London Gatwick (LGW), which teams up with Regus, a serviced office provider, to install the first-in-the-world private and self-contained workboxes for passengers at the departure areas of the South Terminal. Likewise, Helsinki Airport (HEL) offers workspaces for travelers equipped with comfortable seating facilities, unlimited free Wi-Fi, laptop chairs, and power sockets. Aéroports de Paris, the operator of Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and Paris Orly (ORY) airports, has collaborated with IKEA to build an airport lounge at CDG Airport, offering a public 'democratic' lounge to all passengers. Nevertheless, the most luxurious terminal in the world is still in Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) with significant design innovations, such as the southeast-orientated skylights that take full advantage of the heat gained from the early morning sun, and the environment-control system that reduces energy consumption and carbon emissions. Some airports invest in design and high-tech architecture, aiming at becoming greener or satisfying travelers’ needs for convenience and comfort (e.g. San Francisco (SFO) and Munich (MUC) Airports), while others (e.g. Melbourne (MEL) and Manchester (MAN) Airports) focus on raising security standards by adopting technologies – such as the 'strip search' full body scanners -, which allow them to scan travelers and see through clothing.

In this context, the Conference on Technology and Innovation in Airline Distribution, which takes place in London this month, invites several executives from the world’s largest airlines to discuss, among other issues, about the new ways to catch passengers’ attention through innovations in branding, advertising and merchandising as well as how IT solutions can transform customer service and passenger experience. Overall, we know that the aviation industry was hit the most by several economic crises over the recent years, and is considered as one of the industries that exacerbate climate change. For these reasons, aircraft manufacturers, airline companies, and technology firms work together to make the traveling experience as safe and pleasant as possible. Innovation in aviation is a technology-driven and customer-oriented field that moves towards a sustainable future, full of safety and comfort.

Share your experience:

  • How satisfied are you with the level of consumer technology and performance of the airports that you usually use?
  • Which airline do you think is the most innovative in in-flight experience? What is so exceptional in its services?
  • Apart from the cost of the fare, the punctuality and the safety of flights, what are the other factors affecting the traveling decision of the customers?


Assistant Professor of Management - Researcher - American University in Dubai | + Posts

Dr. Stavros Sindakis is Assistant Professor of Innovation Management at Bangkok University, and member of The Institute for Knowledge and Innovation – South East Asia. His principal research interests lie in innovation and development of new technology-driven and customer-oriented products and services as well as in the exploitation of entrepreneurial opportunities in the knowledge intensive industries.

Dr. Sindakis participates as speaker in many international conferences, and is leading several research projects, funded by Governments and University institutions. He is also the co-author of 4 books on such topics as entrepreneurship, analytics, innovation and excellence-driven sustainability, social-ecological innovation, and customer-driven innovation. His main academic contributions relate to Innovation and Enterprise Excellence, Organizational Sustainability and Growth, Coopetition and Entrepreneurship.