Artificial intelligence (AI), virtualization and natural language are among the technology areas that will grow in importance for the airline industry, an International Airlines Group (IAG) executive predicts.

IAG director of strategy Robert Boyle, speaking at the Future Travel Experience Europe (FTE Europe) conference in Dublin this week, said digital has gone from being novel to normal.

“Customers want everything and they want it now. The average time before they click or swipe away, if they are not given what they want, is eight seconds,” he said.

Boyle predicted an increased role for AI, where machines can think and act on their own, or on your behalf. He also believes there is a role for virtualization in the passenger experience.

“Virtual reality is finally making it out of the lab to be a thing that works and is getting affordable,” he said. “People can try the travel experience before they buy, which has never been done before.”

In the travel booking process, he said passengers suffer from filter failure when it comes to search engine results and they need recommendation engines. This role was traditionally performed by people, in the form of travel agents, but smart technology is taking over.

Boyle also sees technology use of natural language, such as Apple’s Siri and Google’s Alexa, as “the next wave.”

“It is pretty limited today, but this is clearly an area which is going to get massive investment and will only get better. We are doing a lot of work on this and how we should respond,” he said.

In particular, he sees this as an interest area for business travelers, as virtual assistant technology gains penetration.

To gain a foothold in this rapidly evolving market, companies will need to take an “extreme customer-centric view.” This means eliminating duplication – such as re-entering the same form data again and again – and harmonizing airport processes to cut down the number of times passengers need to produce the same documents during the same journey. Identity will play a critical role, Boyle said.

IAG will soon trial a SITA system in which a passenger’s face scan is used to get through airport processes in place of a boarding card and passport. US carrier JetBlue Airways is the launch customer for the technology and IAG will soon follow.

Boyle also predicted a future in which airbridges, as well as baggage and cargo loading and sorting, are fully automated. Likewise, once driverless cars gain public acceptance, this could pave the way for unmanned commercial flights.

In the nearer term, he said that the European Union’s decision to abolish mobile roaming charges has huge implications for airlines. “Previously, we couldn’t rely on passengers being digitally connected on flights or down route,” he said.

Victoria Moores victoria.moores@penton.com