FTE APEX: The Digital Future of Passenger Experience


The COVID-19 health crisis has caused virtually every single industry event to be held online this year, with FTE APEX among them. The conference focused on the future of the travel experience, featured an impressive slate of speakers all of whom shared their best practices for and predictions of traveling and improving the passenger experience.

Experts in the aviation industry are working to overcome the challenges of air travel ahead of passengers returning to air travel again. What does the airport of the future look like? What can operators, producers, and engineers do to boost passenger confidence? While it’s always challenging to predict the future – even more so amid a pandemic – the panelists at FTE APEX shared their vision, and what they plan to do in the future.

Below are the top moments from FTE APEX, along with a breakdown of what it means for the airline industry.

According to FTE APEX panelists, the future of airports will require new systems to safeguard passenger health. Chris Forrest, Vice President of Airports Systems at Collins Aerospace, described his organization’s efforts to revisit the entire airport journey process during his panel. The primary focus, according to Forrest, is to use technology in novel ways to improve the entire experience.

“This technology is not new,” Forrest shared. “Its adoption has just been inconsistent, slow or sporadic or regionally [focused].” Forrest views technology as falling into two categories, the first being technology that existed pre-COVID and the technology that was created over the last year in response to COVID-19. The former is already being used to increase the efficiency of airports, and the latter is close enough to be ready that the industry must begin brainstorming on how to integrate it.

The first category includes technology like cloud computing and biometrics, which will allow for more streamlined airport processes. “Airport operations will not have to take place on the airport campus itself,” he said. From baggage loading to checking in, airports can create environments that take advantage of new technology to limit passengers’ time standing still in an airport. The second category, Forrest noted, includes technology to scan and monitor passengers for signs and symptoms of respiratory illnesses. Forrest concluded by noting these contactless technologies will significantly improve passenger processing in addition to the health benefits.

Another FTE APEX panel featured several members of the international aviation community for a more global perspective. One expert, Tomohiro Nishihata, Managing Executive Officer of the JAL Innovation Lab, shared how his team has been integrating technology into their passenger journey. “We here at Japan Airlines, like many others around the world, have been working on making touchpoints touchless,” Nishihata said.

Drawing attention to their successes, Nishihata described how the JAL approach has embraced digital transformation. “We looked at customer concerns and worked to address hygiene and safety.” Nishihata pointed to avatar robots that can field basic questions throughout the airport, touchless kiosks, and more prominent signage for boarding and baggage claims as a few of the technologies that his airline has adopted. The priority, as JAL sees it, is visible ways to assure passengers that their safety and health are top-of-mind for the airline.

Brian St. Rock, Director of the Advanced Technology & Laboratories at Collins Aerospace, who also works as the lead engineer for cabin redesigns as part of Collins Aerospace’s Redefining Air Travel Taskforce, spoke at FTE APEX on the innovations driving airplane cabins. “The new normal includes a heightened awareness and focus on the health and wellbeing of the passenger,” St. Rock began. Several recent studies have shown that HEPA filters and air circulation make cabins very safe compared to other public environments, according to St. Rock.

While public perception of air travel safety will be an uphill messaging battle, St. Rock noted that assuring passengers of their safety will take more than just saying it. “We heard some very strong recurring themes which allowed us to focus in on specific technologies for future, hygiene minded aircraft.” These areas of focus included a frictionless journey, cleaning of surfaces and handling, and the overall cabin environment.

For each of the focus areas, St. Rock highlighted several technologies that he viewed as the most likely to fulfill passenger expectations. Among the technology that he referenced were contactless passenger interfaces, self-cleaning material on cabin surfaces, and the use of disinfecting lights in the cabin itself

Speaking on a panel about how to effectively scale innovation to be both impactful and cost-conscious, Daniel McCoy, who serves as the Chief Innovation Officer at the TSA, spoke about the importance of practical solutions. At the TSA, “We have an innovation task force that is primarily focused on problem identification and piloting technology,” McCoy noted, “and then distributing that innovation throughout the agency.”

This sort of innovation pipeline is nothing new. Many companies have had these innovation hubs before, “but one of the important things we are trying to do now is to expand that methodology to anybody who wants it.” McCoy explained that this style of innovation pipeline allows for any member of the TSA to submit their ideas on how to innovate the agency. Embracing a methodology where a front line employee can help innovate as much as a more specialized one, McCoy argued, is critical to implementing effective and meaningful changes.

With all of this new knowledge and important lessons learned about passenger expectations, we look forward to seeing the insights captured at next year’s event.