Battle for clients goes hi-tech as airlines turn to smartphones

 A Kenya Airways e-ticketing office. Players in the aviation industry are turning to mobile phone products to boost services and save on cost as new era travellers embrace the devices for Internet. File
A Kenya Airways e-ticketing office. Players in the aviation industry are turning to mobile phone products to boost services and save on cost as new era travellers embrace the devices for Internet. File  

Airlines have shifted their battle to enhance travel experience to mobile phone products in efforts to grow passenger numbers in an increasingly competitive industry.

Emirates is the latest in a growing list of airlines to launch a mobile boarding pass platform, reducing stress on its customers to print it while supporting an International Air Transport Association led initiative designed to get all global carriers make their transactions electronic.

“The launch of Emirates’ mobile boarding meets the demands of a new era of travellers, who seek a more sophisticated and efficient means of managing their business and leisure travel,” said Mohammed Mattar, Emirates divisional senior vice president for airport services.

“It puts flexibility and control completely in the hands of our customers, while making a small step towards reducing our environmental impact,” said Mr Mattar in a statement.

The airline estimates that the use of mobile boarding passes will save a minimum of 550kg of paper, in the first year of implementation and allows customers to keep all their travel information in one place.

“Consumers are far more mobile than ever before. There is a constant need for products and services to cater to the fast paced lifestyle that today’s individuals lead, people want it here and now, without exception,” said Essa Sulaiman Ahmad, Emirates regional manager for East Africa.

This comes at a time when the national carrier Kenya Airways is investing in technology from booking and reservations to cargo handling, to improve its efficiency and speed as well as cut costs.

In the year ending March 2011, Kenya Airways saved Sh462 million on sales commissions as passengers embraced online booking supported by the mobile money payment solutions. KQ’S commissions on sales was Sh2.7 billion in the period under review, compared to Sh3.2 billion paid in the previous year, a 14.2 per cent decline.

But the shift to mobile payment platforms is promising further reductions in business for travel agencies as more travellers opt to book directly with the airlines, despite their efforts to develop an Internet presence by creating travel websites, with detailed information and online booking features.

“We are giving customers a choice and this transition is worldwide. If we cannot do things more efficiently, we will lose out to our competitors,” said Titus Naikuni, Kenya Airways chief executive officer.

This has made it critical for agencies to offer value added services including consultation to remain afloat.

Physical bookings

Industry players also expect increased online bookings to cut down operating costs involved in physical bookings that require more human capital and rental expenditure.

Players in aviation say that e-ticketing is rising as consumers look for cost effective transactions since they have to pay service charges when dealing with agents or travel companies.

According to Damian Cook, the CEO of an online booking company, E-Tourism Frontiers, tourism companies have to embrace e-commerce to ease shopping, arranging, booking and paying to remain in business.

“With continuing growth in online sales despite the global recession and more than 60 per cent of travel for both business and leisure now being booked via the internet and raising well more than $150 billion, the Internet cannot be considered a small part of the tourism sector,” said Mr Cook.

Kenya Airways has also installed an electronic cargo monitoring system to reduce costs, improve transit times, accuracy and competitiveness of its airfreight.

All this comes as domestic travel increases in the country and Internet penetration gets deeper mainly driven by the mobile phone as Internet access becomes the new battleground for Kenya’s four telecoms operators following the recent plummeting in voice call tariffs and the resulting decline in its importance as a revenue driver.

Smartphones are expected to be the key drivers of online mobile services. Currently, the cheapest smart phone is retailing at Sh8,499.

Smartphones are expected to account for 37 per cent of the global mobile phone market by 2014, with the Middle East and Africa as the main drivers of the growth.

According to the latest global market research firm TNS report, Mobile Life 2011, Kenyans are using their mobile handsets more to access social networks, source for music and transfer money; moving away from the traditional personal computers, making it crucial for airlines to move develop products that can run on mobile applications platforms.