Cathay Pacific

Hacking into the future of flying

Over one sleep-minimised weekend, developers encoded our flying futures. JAMES DURSTON reports from Cathay Pacific’s 24-hour ‘Hackathon’

It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday in late autumn and an IT student is hurtling through a corridor inside Cathay Pacific’s headquarters. ‘HDMI! I need an HDMI cable!’ she shouts, panting.

There are just seconds until the end of the 24-hour event she and 130 other Hong Kong IT students have been a part of. She’s sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated and about to pitch her team’s idea to the judges.

It’s an adrenaline-fuelled conclusion to Cathay Pacific’s second ‘Hackathon’ – an invitation to designers, developers and product masters to help shape the future inflight experience with technology. The best product wins air tickets to anywhere in the Cathay network and the prestige of being the 2017 Hackathon Champions. You wouldn’t want to sacrifice that by being one HDMI cable short.

Cathay Pacific 24-Hour Hackathon

While travel pundits and futurologists have fun predicting how travel will look in 50, 100 or 500 years time (quick trip around Mars anyone?), the work happening in labs and offices is a little less headline-grabbing. But it has the advantage that these innovations should occur within the lifetime of anyone reading this article.

‘One of the products from last year’s Hackathon that helps friends sync their holiday bookings will be rolled out for use soon,’ says Lawrence Fong, general manager IT solutions at Cathay Pacific. ‘And another app that allows passengers to order blankets or water inflight from their phone, which means crew can bring them straight away in one trip, will be developed later for inflight service.’

It’s a sign that Cathay considers these events and the ideas that emerge from them as more than just branding or goodwill exercises. And it’s not alone.

Cathay Pacific 24-Hour Hackathon

Several years ago KLM launched its Meet & Seat feature, where passengers can share their Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+ profiles and then choose seatmates based on their social media profiles, creating interesting networking and socialising opportunities.

Now things have ramped up several notches, with airlines making major investments into tech startup incubators.

Malaysia Airlines, keen to transform itself into a ‘digital airline’, set up in-house innovation lab iSpace earlier this year as a testing ground for new ideas. The winners of its own hackathon event are already hunkered down inside, working on products including an interactive social media app that offers personalised destination content and an upgrade bidding app.

IAG, the airline group that includes British Airways, Iberia and Aer Lingus, is in its second year of running its Hangar 51 accelerator programme designed to support air travel startups. This year the startups include Airstripe, a crowdsourcing service that allows passengers to create flights and share them with other passengers; Destygo, an artificial intelligence platform that creates customer assistant chatbots for travel companies; and Inflight VR, a virtual reality ecosystem for the inflight entertainment industry.

‘Only a few airlines are fully embracing the potential of technology,’ says Ben Vogel, editor of Jane’s Airport Review. ‘It can be expensive, but airlines need to make the most of the “Internet of Things” and big data. Blending biometrics and inflight entertainment, enhanced personalisation, secure payments of onboard purchases, a biometrics-based inflight border preclearance…you’d no longer have to spend hours in a queue at immigration – imagine what that would do to the passenger experience.’

Cathay Pacific 24-Hour Hackathon

But which initiatives are we likely to see in the next five to 10 years?

‘We can expect to see a fully tailored experience based on individual preferences, both at the airport and inflight,’ says Vogel. ‘Plus greater inflight connectivity opening up new streams such as inflight shopping, and fast inflight broadband so that passengers can access the same services in the air as on the ground.’

Can’t wait till you’re home to finish the latest Netflix series or desperately need to show your YouTube followers the inflight meal? That could soon be possible.

What do airlines get in return? Loyalty – repeat business – if they do it right.

And insights. As customers we have a valuable currency to trade in return for a smoother experience: our data, if we’re willing to share it.

Cathay Pacific 24-Hour Hackathon

Cathay Pacific rolled out Wi-Fi on its A350s last year, one of the more than 50 airlines around the world that now offer it.

Looking slightly further ahead, things get even better, or scarier, depending on your outlook. ‘The trends we see are artificial intelligence, like chatbots, coming together with big data,’ says Professor Erwin Huang, a tech entrepreneur and one of the judges at the Cathay Pacific Hackathon. ‘If this is used well it can change the world.’

For the winners of the Hackathon, their world has already shifted a little bit. They’ve been offered fast-track access to Cathay’s IT trainee programme and their app, designed to make inflight service quicker and easier, could well be one of those given the ‘make it real’ treatment.

Top six ideas from the Cathay Pacific Hackathon

TouchCX (winner): Inflight service app for ordering amenities and making requests from your smartphone as well as group-buy options for inflight shopping and voice-enabled translation functions.

Fight4Flight (first runner-up): Delay notification and re-planning app providing status reports, alternative flight proposals and activity suggestions.

Aviators (second runner-up): Dining, shopping and activity manager, with in-airport or destination itineraries and suggestions targeting passengers on connecting flights.

Cathay First: Inflight service personaliser using Facebook and Asia Miles integration to create tailored movie lists, song lists, dining suggestions with gamification elements.

Betsy: Travel concierge and entertainment app with boarding time countdown, bill-split function and personalised inflight entertainment suggestions.

Hacksmart: Travel itinerary planner with a conversational chatbot, personalised route suggestion and Asia Miles redemption offers.

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