Connectivity is the word of the day in travel
Connectivity is the word of the day in travel. Carriers and hotels that once touted their amenities now promote their accessibility.
“connectivity.”IFEC, as it’s now called, brings a whole new level of traveler flexibility to the flying experience.
In 2009, Delta became the only major US airline to offer broadband WiFi on their entire domestic mainline fleet. According to spokesperson Paul Skrbec, Delta is not only ready when you are but may be ready before you know you are. Having been on the wireless fidelity (aka,“WiFi”) bandwagon for at least five years, Skrbec claims Delta offers WiFi to more customers than any other airline – over 400,000 a day on 3,400 flights.
As they continue to expand, Skrbec says Delta is also working on ”next generation connectivity”by upgrading existing systems. By the end of 2013, all connections will be capable of streaming online video.
Initially, IFEC systems were tethered to ground-based technology; once flights headed over the ocean, contact was lost and connectivity was no more. However more sophisticated satellite technology promises to overcome one of the main barriers to universal in-flight WiFi. In April, in a demonstration of Panasonic’s super global satellite network, five passengers on five different flights over five continents simultaneously tweeted in the
Remember when travel meant taking a break from work? When a“business”trip involved expensing a few nips onboard and taking time away from the phone and computer to unplug and relax? Neither do we! While carriers and hotels once touted their amenities, many now promote their accessibility. Even in popular getaway locales, the ability to get back to it is considered paramount. In today’s business world, the only way to get ahead is to be connected every available moment. As a result, connectivity has become the standard for every aspect of travel.
Up in the air, back in the days of dropdown screens and seat-back telephones, the technology was once known by the simple three-letter acronym IFE (in-flight entertainment). Today, a fourth letter has been added –“C”– and that stands for
first global tweet-a-thon - #High5Live. Travelers aboard American Airlines, United Airlines, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, and Aer Lingus, took part in the historic exchange, sustaining a conversation spanning over five hours, 650 tweets and seven different languages.
In January, United became the first US carrier to offer WiFi connectivity on international widebody aircraft and hopes to roll out similar service on 300 mainline aircraft by year’s end.“WiFi service enables us to better serve our customers and offer them more of what they want,”said vice chairman Jim Compton.
Over at Southwest, satellite-based WiFi is currently available on over 75 percent of the fleet (more than 400 planes, plus those from the recent AirTran merger). Although there is an $8 fee, it allows all-day access. Southwest also offers a $5 video package of movies and live television programs that can be streamed directly to personal devices. “Our customers like to be productive while in the air” says communications administrator Katie McDonald. Asserting Southwest is “the largest satellite-based WiFi fleet in the world,”McDonald says Southwest was also the first carrier to offer wireless live television to passenger mobile devices.
“Customers should enjoy the same experience as they do in any other environment,”McDonald suggests,“such as a coffee shop or even the airport.”And while she admits that most in-flight WiFi is“not as fast as a wired connection at home,”she says they go a great distance in helping business travelers“stay on top of work”or“enjoy their time away.”
As more providers offer more services, prices have dropped, allowing even regional carriers to connect.“The reliable, low-cost equipment…allowed [us] to roll out,”says Alaska Airlines media relations manager Bobbie Egan.
While many carriers promote the breadth of their coverage, JetBlue is apparently all about speed.“We’re currently testing Fly-Fi,”explains spokesperson Allison Steinberg, adding that JetBlue offers free WiFi in their JFK terminal.“[It] promises to be the fastest in the skies.”
While Steinberg admits JetBlue may not have been first to the party, she claims the wait was deliberate.“We weren’t satisfied with existing products,”she says,“and decided to take the time to find better technology in order to deliver the fastest connectivity in the skies.”
Instead of the popular seatback screen, JetBlue’s services (like those at Southwest) will be available to all personal devices. “On the ground and in the air,”Steinberg observes,“people are using their mobile devices more and more, and the in-flight experience will potentially extend to the consumption of content across multiple devices for different purposes, including work and play.”
Ports in the Internet Storm
Airports are also offering more connectivity options. A recent survey identified nearly 50 North American airports with wired Internet access and nearly 100 more that offered free access.
“It’s become the expectation rather than just a hope,”suggests Dan Bucholz of Fairbanks International Airport, which has been offering free WiFi for years.
“The industry continues to evolve,” adds Maurice Jenkins of the Miami Dade County Aviation Department.“Airlines are becoming more reliant on connectivity [and] the need to have travelers connected went from a nicety to a must-have.”
Even though Jenkins’organization spent “several million dollars”to install WiFi, advertising and returning customers have nearly covered the investment.“We will recoup over time,”Jenkins assures,“and continue to provide a quality service.”
International airports are also connecting. According to Liza Dvir of Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel-Aviv, WiFi is “regarded as a service to the public”and is offered free of charge.
Though Munich Airport only offers free access for 30-minute sessions, they are rolling out innovative InfoGates that connect travelers and service agents in live video conferences.“The pillars can also display an airport map to show the quickest route to a gate, shop, or restaurant,”explains spokesperson Corinna Born, noting that the device won a prestigious European design award in 2011.
The goal at Boston’s Logan International (which was recently cited as one of the best airports for connecting romantically) is to make time more enjoyable and productive for the“captive audience.”In addition to offering WiFi, Logan launched a social media effort in 2009. Since then, thousands of customer comments have helped Logan update its brand and its offerings. Among its popular promotions was a contest between travelers in Boston and San Francisco that helped launch Virgin America’s new cross-country route. Since then, other airlines have gotten involved with their own giveaways and special Webbased offerings, making connectivity more significant and more profitable.
Los Angeles International is being wired as part of a city-wide connectivity initiative.“I am pleased that free WiFi service is available at LAX,”said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.“This furthers our LA WiFi Initiative to provide Internet services throughout the city and to connect to the global community and global economy.”
A bit north, Mineta San Jose International is also striving to be on the cutting edge of connectivity.“As Silicon Valley’s airport, it was expected that we offer this high level of customer service,”explains public information manager Rosemary Barnes.“This gave us a competitive advantage over other San Francisco Bay Area airports.”
Barnes and her team are so into the Internet that they hope eventually to offer 15-megabyte bandwidth across the entire airfield so even airport staff can stay connected.
“The future is here,”Barnes says.
Bus-ting Out All Over
But what happens if you cannot connect and, say, miss your flight? Are you out of luck and left out in the cold?
Far from it. Thanks to the explosion of options, even terrestrial transporters are connecting customers. In addition to shorter lines, fewer security hassles and no requirements to“power off”at any time, many trains and buses now offer every comfort and convenience of their airborne competitors.
“The provision of onboard WiFi directly addresses our customers’desire to stay productive and entertained during their journey,”says Amtrak’s Christina Leeds, “while also enabling Amtrak to stay competitive in travel industry.”Noting
that Amtrak was the first intercity passenger rail service to install wholetrain WiFi networks, Leeds adds that their AmtrakConnect system is now available on over 75 percent of Amtrak’s trains.
“WiFi in the transportation sector has become an expected service,”Leeds suggests.“Amtrak is prepared to leverage future advancements in communications technologies that will support us in our continued goal of providing a premium travel experience.”
In addition to wider, more comfortable seats and onboard services, LimoLiner coaches also offer the latest in connectivity as they shuttle customers from Boston to NewYork. Their service is so good, in fact, that wireless advisors from Farpoint Group say that traveling with LimoLiner can be even better than air travel.
According to LimoLiner‘s Andrea Bohn, her company (which launched with WiFienabled coaches in 2003) was the first public transportation company to provide onboard Internet, power outlets and live satellite television at every seat.“Today’s business traveler expects to be connected at all times,”Bohn observes.“Having these services available allows business to flow uninterrupted even while traveling.”
For those on a tight budget, MegaBus (they of the $1 plus $.50 fee ticket) offers free WiFi connectivity on all 250 doubledecker coaches.
“Technological connectivity has become the standard in modern bus travel,” suggests marketing VP Mike Alvich. “Customers have begun to expect this vital feature.”
Megabus also offers a mobile reservations and information app called MegaBus USA that has already been downloaded nearly 100,000 times.
“We feel the price of travel shouldn’t keep someone from the things they love,”Alvich says.“Just because you’re mobile going from one place to another doesn’t mean you have to be out of contact.”
Even America’s leading coach company – Greyhound – is also upping their Internet access.“As technology changes, motorcoach providers will have to adapt as well,”suggests spokesperson Tim Stokes, noting that over 75 percent of Greyhound’s fleet and 80 of their terminals are now WiFi enabled.“By 2014,”he adds,“all schedules [will] operate with WiFi accessibility.”
On their titular coaches and their popular lower-cost Bolt Bus andYo! lines, Greyhound is also pursuing social media, which they see as both a convenience for customers and a learning tool for the company.“The major benefit customers are receiving is the ability to stay connected,” Stokes says.“We learn a lot from our customers through social media.”
At the End of the Day?
But what good is all this connectivity if you cannot continue to enjoy it when you reach your destination? While many business travelers claim they want to unwind and unplug, we know better. Fortunately, many hotels offer access and even rely on it to attract customers.
For many years, Motel 6 has had the tagline,“We’ll leave a light on for you.” These days, the light may be the lowesttech thing that is on.
“Motel 6 offers WiFi at all of our 1,100 locations,”explains corporate communications director Laura RojoEddy, adding that they also have an app that allows users to book directly from Facebook.“We are one of very few hotel brands in the industry with this capability,” she says proudly.
Such connectivity makes connecting to the chain easier and therefore more likely. “The ease in booking a room benefits our ability to keep these guests coming back,” Rojo-Eddy suggests, adding that Motel 6 is also present on Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest.“Both guests and the brand benefit from the engagement.”
As many trans-Atlantic travelers stop in Iceland to take advantage of Iceland Air’s no additional fee policy, it is imperative that area hotels can connect effectively with potential customers. At the famed Hotel Holt, manager Snorri Valson is at the tip of the Internet iceberg.
“We have [had] free WiFi throughout our hotel since 2006 at least,”Valson says, noting that each room can now handle five devices simultaneously. Claiming WiFi as“a human right,”Valson touts his hotel’s 24/7 live chat feature that allows travelers to connect with staff without having to worry about time differences or expensive phone calls.
“You can be surfing the web while the associate finds the answer to your questions,”Valson says, noting that he gets a transcript of every interaction so he can personally ensure customer satisfaction. “It is vital that our online presence gives a great impression of our service culture and dedication to a perfect visit,”he concludes.
Fairmont Hotels also use connectivity to give their guests more.“Guests expect travel providers to offer the same level of technology they enjoy at home,” observes Fairmont’s Ashley Bleimes. “By exceeding their expectations our guests [can] get more work done, stay connected and have a superior experience every time they stay with us. It’s a win-win all around!”
In addition to loaning iPads, Fairmont also offers in-room panels that allow guests to engage content from their personal devices.
”Fairmont was one of the first brands to offer high-speed access to guests,”Bleimes claims,“along with attractive extras like their own fully routable IP address or VPN connectivity. We have always put a focus on making sure we’re offering technology that will truly enhance our guests’stays.”
Connectivity has become such big business that even non-human travelers are involved. According to United Parcel Service’s Mike Mangeot, UPS now receives more than twice as many daily tracking requests as they have packages. “Smart devices are…changing the world of commerce,”Mangeot suggests, noting that e-commerce shipments have grown to 40 percent of total volume.“Commerce via connectivity is only going to increase,” Mangeot predicts, mentioning UPS’s new My Choice system that allows customers to receive alerts about incoming shipments and to specify delivery time and location. “We’re happy to provide the infrastructure to facilitate that.” BT