Wearables: the next travel tech frontier?

Las Vegas, USA - March 12, 2016: An editorial stock photograph of a space grey Apple watch on a wood background. Apple watch is a smartwatch developed by Apple Inc. It incorporates fitness tracking and health-oriented capabilities with integration with iOS and other Apple products and services.

In just a few short years since the launch of the Apple Watch in 2015, wearable technology has gone from niche applications to being everywhere, changing the way we exercise, communicate, eat and even sleep.

Australia has a growing appetite for the technology driven by voice commands, health monitoring and better-designed smartwatch apps. And lately, the industry saw a further boom with people focusing more on overall health, fitness and connectivity during the lockdown.

The adoption of wearables until recently within the travel industry was a ‘nice to have’, driven predominantly by a desire to improve the traveller experience. However, COVID-19 has accelerated the need for industry-wide adoption as a necessity to ensure passenger safety and hygiene through contactless processing.

Simply put, wearables and biometrics are now an imperative for post-COVID recovery that the travel industry has to move quickly on.

Here are four wearable applications that I think have the biggest potential for changing the way we travel in the post-COVID landscape, and what the industry needs to do to get on the front foot:

Contactless and seamless passenger processing at airports

Wearables can be used as the new ‘ticket’ for passengers to pass through airports seamlessly, without having to touch their surroundings and maintain social distance.

On smartwatches, the technology already exists for a single code to be locked on the screen. Or, for an app or digital wallet to push travel documents to the wearable at the exact time that they are needed, based on the user’s location within the airport.

Ultimately, the wearable carries the traveller’s trip ID, allowing passengers to pass from baggage drop to gate with minimal friction and contact. It can also be used to provide real-time information about the trip and destination – all conveniently displayed on a smartwatch or announced directly to the passenger via their earpods.

Airports and airlines would need to ensure that implementation go hand-in-hand with advances in biometrics to guarantee that safety and security keep pace with ease of movement. The ability to eradicate points of physical contact from passenger processing could be well worth the effort for airports seeking to reassure travellers that it is safe to fly.

Parallel reality for safe airport experiences

Other exciting applications of wearables are hyper-tailored wayfinding and crowd management, which have obvious benefits in a post-COVID world for helping reduce queues, thereby maintaining safe distance, particularly at busier parts of the terminal.

This is done through parallel reality technology, whereby hundreds of passengers can simultaneously share a digital display, sign or light and each sees something different – all made possible by wearables. Display screens can be tailored to communicate individual messages to each passenger in their language at the exact time. This is already being beta-tested by some airlines and, if successful, could quickly become mainstream to provide completely personalised wayfinding and travel information in the terminal.

Enhanced in-flight services

Beyond the terminal, wearables also have the potential to enhance the in-flight experience. In the post-COVID world, this may be more important than ever to tempt reluctant flyers back on board.

Advances in wearable technology in recent years means that everything from a passenger’s temperature and body clock to hydration and anxiety level can be measured and used by cabin crew to pre-empt specific needs making the flight as comfortable as possible. In a post-pandemic world, these will be critical in making passengers feel safe.

The aggregated in-flight data can also be used by airlines to make real-time strategic decisions, from what entertainment to offer, overall cabin temperature and lights-out timing on certain routes, to re-shuffling passengers if needed.

In-trip add-ons

Hotels, resorts and cruise ships can apply the same principle as airports and airlines in using wearables as a single passenger ID. This can have enormous benefits for traveller’s experience, as long as they are offered on a transparent, opt-in basis and customers are comfortable with how their data will be used.

Not only does the data collected by wearables help with the ability to geo-target, but can also provide highly-personalised recommendations along a traveller’s journey. Imagine, for example, being able to send push notifications offering an extension in car rentals when the wearable shows that the traveller is unable to make it to the collection point on the day of return. Or, being able to offer bespoke discounts for attractions to passing tourists that match their needs or circumstances!

Beyond these benefits, wearable IDs can also become a boon for the hospitality sector in the post-COVID world; satisfying customer demand for cashless and contactless, and possibly also playing an important role in tracking and contact tracing.

Although the use of wearables in the travel industry is still in its infancy today, the potential is huge and immediate, and COVID-19 has only accelerated the need for pan-industry integration.

In all of this, safety and security must be kept at the top of mind, as wearable applications are scaled and, in the long term, it is also important that the industry finds a way to start integrating the traveller’s wearables via opt-in apps to ensure a seamless experience. This will require collaboration across the entire travel ecosystem.

Ultimately, the wearable question is one of when, not if, so the airlines, airports and hotels who invest now will be in the best position to capitalise and benefit in their post-COVID recovery.

Simon Akeroyd is the vice president of corporate strategy and business development at Amadeus.

Feature image source: iStock/LPETTET

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