Leaving home without your mobile phone will soon be as bad as being caught without a passport when setting off on international travels. The pile of paper documents that we associate with air travel, including boarding passes, transfer arrangements and hotel bookings, are quickly becoming obsolete, replaced by new, mainly mobile phone-focused, technology.
The growth in mobile travel technology and the implementation of new applications was a common theme at two key industry events, the London Business Travel show and Travel Technology Europe 2014, staged last month.
Virgin Atlantic, one of the airlines at the forefront of implementing new technology, provided a recent example of travel app diversification. Building on the convenience of the mobile phone displayed boarding pass, Virgin has also just announced a new multiple traveller initiative whereby groups of 10 passengers or more can now have all their boarding passes downloaded onto just one phone.
The development of new technology applications, in particular ones that are linked to mobile phones, is currently a major focus within the global travel industry. While travellers have long relied on these devices to access social media sites to get real time travel information, we are now seeing mobile phone displayed itineraries, boarding cards and hotel bookings also being increasingly used. In addition, travellers can also set up links to access messages regarding flight timings, gate openings and cancellations. There is also a growing list of mobile phone apps covering a diverse range of traveller’s needs from where they can locate the nearest toilet to how they can contact the emergency services regardless of what country they find themselves in. There are apps that will help interpret a foreign language for you or even remind you what you should pack when visiting a specific destination.
You would be wrong to think that Europe or the US has been the main driver behind this enhanced development of mobile travel-related technology. This growth is actually coming from China and other east Asian countries. In 2008, smartphone mobile devices accounted for just nine per cent of all mobile phone sales in China with fewer than 200 million phones being sold every year. By 2012 android and other smartphones accounted for 59 per cent of this market with 108 per cent growth in that year.
The enhanced use of apps in China and Asia goes beyond the significant growth seen in smartphone ownership and is more about the culture of mobile phone use there. While the use of mobile travel apps is on the rise in Europe and North America, it is more established in southeast Asia. A 2013 survey by US mobile technology company Jana highlighted that social media phone apps are most commonly used in emerging countries in Asia. For example, 87% of respondents in Indonesia have social media apps on their mobile phones.
While much of the growth in new technology is increasing competitiveness within the wider travel sector, there are concerns about an over-reliance on this approach. The technology basket can be a dangerous one for the sector to place all of its eggs. You need only look at how ‘computer glitches’ at the country’s main air traffic control centre left passengers stranded at some of the UK’s major airports last December.
When you consider the growing reliance on mobile phone technology, the concerns are that a loss of device or an extended network failure like O2 experienced in 2012 could have a huge impact on travel operations. It also raises significant questions for mobile phone manufacturers about whether their products are robust and reliable enough to be relied on when they are increasingly being used as the sole source of international travel documents
Of course, the introduction of new technology is welcomed and in many cases should be embraced but there are some key questions that need to be considered about its growing influence. Clearly we want to take advantage of the many benefits including reduced requirement of documentation and ease of transacting that mobile phones can offer us as travellers. However, this rise in consumer engagement means that the app designers, mobile phone producers and the wider travel sector must invest greater resource to protect consumers from potential fraud such as identity theft and ensure they can offer an alternative in the event of system failures.