Google Glass and Virgin Atlantic. And SITA.

Yesterday, the world learned that Virgin Atlantic were planning to use Google Glass for their customer relations management. The world also learned that Virgin Atlantic were planning to use Sony Smart watches as well but for some reason, that got sort of ignored. I don’t know why.

Virgin’s press release is here. If you do a little reading, you find out they are doing it in cooperation with SITA, whose press release is here.

Needless to mention, it generated a lot of notice, mostly about Google Glass, and not a lot about what Virgin Atlantic were actually doing. So the first question you really have to ask is are they doing anything particularly new on the business process point of view. The answer appears to be no.

Here’s the money quote from the Virgin Atlantic:

Virgin Atlantic, working with air-transport specialist SITA, is the first in the industry to test how the latest wearable technology, including Google Glass, can best be used to enhance customers’ travel experiences and improve efficiency. From the minute Upper Class passengers step out of their chauffeured limousine at Heathrow’s T3 and are greeted by name, Virgin Atlantic staff wearing the technology will start the check-in process. At the same time, staff will be able to update passengers on their latest flight information, weather and local events at their destination and translate any foreign language information. In future, the technology could also tell Virgin Atlantic staff their passengers’ dietary and refreshment preferences – anything that provides a better and more personalised service. During the six week pilot scheme, the benefits to consumers and the business will be evaluated ahead of a potential wider roll-out in the future.

My emphasis. With one possible exception, Virgin staff are doing nothing new here from a business process point of view:

  • Virgin Atlantic has a limo service for their Upper class passengers, so they already know who the passenger is.
  • They typically guide the passenger through check in when they arrive
  • They typically give the passenger flight information (everyone’s favourite, is this flight on time). Possibly they don’t do the weather and events thing at the moment (although it’s not impossible – I’ve never travelled Upper Class with Virgin Atlantic and the information is, in any case, easily obtainable, printable and easy to make available).
  • I have some doubts about the foreign language utility – I would love to see how that works out in practice.

There is nothing really all that special here – if you like, the key difference is the method by which they are managing existing processes. Frankly, I doubt very much whether they are carrying out check ins using Google Glass  – a bit more information from SITA would be nice in that respect because the language of the press release is interesting to say the least “start the check in process”.

But all of this could be done using technology which has been around for a few years – and it is entirely possible that Virgin Atlantic are already doing it – using things like d iPads so again the question, is what is this adding?

SITA Labs have already done a lot of research in this area and some of the applications are nice. They have a press release here and it has some interesting stuff in it. This is an interesting quote in the context of the Virgin Atlantic story:

Travel documents and loyalty cards can be scanned by smart glasses.


Peters added: “Specifically, our research at SITA has shown that for any type of use in the air transport industry the technology needs to be more robust to avoid breakages and the cost will have to come down. The camera quality will also need to be enhanced. Currently it requires near perfect light conditions within the airport for scanning documents to be successful.

This dates from October 2013 by the way and specifically, smart glasses were being looked at in the context of scanning barcodes. And they weren’t, at that time, up to the job on a day to day basis. It may be telling that the Virgin Atlantic trial focusses on a subset of passengers – a very small number.

SITA’s description of what the wearable devices are being used for is interesting:

Airline staff are equipped with either Google Glass or a Sony SmartWatch 2, which is integrated to both a purpose-built dispatch app built by SITA and the Virgin Atlantic passenger service system. The dispatch app manages all task allocation and concierge availability. It pushes individual passenger information directly to the assigned concierge’s smart glasses or watch just as the passenger arrives at the Upper Class Wing.

They really can only do this if they already know who the passenger is before they get to the Upper Class Wing, usually because they arriving in a limo which Virgin Atlantic already know about.

So what do I think about this?

Well, based on all the available information, Google Glass is, at best, replicating existing utility. Now you could ask the question is it really necessary to do that when we’ve got paper and iPads and the like but that is not really the right question. The question is does it make the experience more efficient for both Virgin Atlantic and the passenger. That is open to debate, and it is open to debate for this particular quote (also highlighted above).

In future, the technology could also tell Virgin Atlantic staff their passengers’ dietary and refreshment preferences

Airlines already have to ensure their staff are aware of dietary requirements for passengers, for vegetarians for example. So the interesting thing is right now, Virgin Atlantic’s implementation of Google Glass doesn’t appear to be able to deal with this sort of information. One key reason for this – right now – is that Google Glass is not being implemented in the business processes that involve the need to have that information, which for the most part, is probably cabin service in the aircraft. It is possible that it might well be useful in the lounge service for Upper Class passengers – but this service is not available to all Virgin Atlantic customers. It remains to be seen whether they will implement the hardware in the cabin – my gut feeling is that it will require regulatory agreement so it’s not going to happen soon.

What is happening is they are accessing information already in their possession using a different device. Where once it was a computer, or possibly a tablet, it is now some sort of wearable device.

They are replicating existing processes. Whether there is a gain for them in so doing – their press release talks about the glamour of flying and I don’t see this having an impact on that – is open to debate, and it’s what a 6 week trial is all about.

They are not using the devices to collect new data in the customer interaction zone at this point in time. and this is an important point. And if they do, well there are other considerations to take into account before implementing them.

Right now,, I would take the view that Virgin Atlantic are fully aware of things like data retention legislation and data protection. I certainly would not assume that they are hopping down the road to matching passengers up with their dietary requirements using Google Glass because they already do that using good old fashioned data entry and in any case, they have not implemented a business process with Google Glass applying that type of data at this point in time.

I will be very interested to see how this trial works out – I must make a note to check with SITA’s social media channels in about 8 weeks’ time to know if they will at least provide some sort of feedback given that this caused quite the bit of noise.




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