Picture this - airline X tells says your flight has been delayed 24 hours. Frustrated? Yes, until a GAFA comes to the rescue and presents you, via your mobile device, with a boarding pass for the next available flight on a rival airline.
At the recent CAPA Airlines in Transition event, GAFA - Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple - were proposed by airline strategist Nawal Taneja as potential travel "facilitators" (intermediaries, distributors) of the future.
So, what are the characteristics of these new potential entrants to the marketplace:
- They are powered by information and analytics which helps them predict consumer behaviour, what they are likely to do and why and therefore devise the best strategy
- They are going to enable metasearch and semantic search
- They have the financial resources
- They have the marketing power
- They are going to provide personalised services
But, here's the big question: How?
Taneja presented a situation where one or more of these companies positions itself to buy 10% of all airline seats in the world and what they don't sell they sell as distressed inventory. Hypothetical? Sheer madness? More than a little scary?
This is just one of the potential future shocks the airline industry has to contend with alongside all the current issues such as fuel prices, legislation, commoditisation etc and other trends such as changing consumer behaviour, new players (LCCs), new technologies (social media, mobile, payment systems).
Do you buy it? Probably not if you work in travel technology because of the complexities of selling travel electronically. But, what did an illustrious panel of GDS, online and airline technology chiefs (Travelport, Datalex, Skyscanner and SITA) make of it all.
There is agreement that things are changing. Think payment systems and how consumers are being enabled to buy more and more via mobile devices. SITA technology chief Jim Peters points to Merchant Customer Exchange, a mobile payment system created by a bunch of US retailers including Walmart, Shell Oil Products and Sears.
He also says wearable technology and its use cases are evolving with concepts such as cabin crew having a "bendable, touchable display" in their jacket sleeve now being looked at.
Then there are developments such as Amazon's patent for anticipatory shipping, highlighted by Travelport vice president of merchandising and distribution, Fergal Kelly, which sends you stuff before you order it or even know you want it.
But, here's the rub - well, in travel at least. You need data from many sources, as Kelly points out, if you're to have a complete view of the customer:
"Even the challenges of joining up disparate pieces of information is a huge under-taking and requires process change, technical change and change in the thinking of management.
"Then you go to other services such as Facebook and the unimaginable data there is, so much data the problem is how you make sense of it, what does it actually tell you, how do you pick out the signals. It is all very well knowing stuff about people but another thing is do you know what to do with it."
He highlights research showing 50% of airlines enable consumers to book a flight via mobile but only a fifth enable them to change a flight but yet it is the ability to "manage change" that will be remembered.
So, what do airlines do to prevent themselves from becoming what Taneja refers to as "buses in the sky". This next bit at least won't come as a shock, it has been said before.
Start with the small things - the little pieces of data, the things that are within an airline's control.
As with many panel sessions, it ended before it really got going leaving the audience thinking about whether GAFAs could really be the new intermediaries.
Facebook is an interesting starting point because travel is said to be the biggest industry on the social network but questions remain over how it will monetise that.
Apple seems to be stealthily adding to its patents around iTravel as well as developing services around its Passbook functionality while momentum gathers around iBeacon.
Google, meanwhile, has consistently been highlighted as the once to watch because of its existing strengths in the travel ecosystem as well as products and services - Hotel Finder, Google Flights, Maps and Field Trip.
So, that just leaves Amazon with its local deals service which seems to be its only foray into the travel sector so far.
And, would it be so terrifying if these were to become the new facilitators/intermediaries or, would it create opportunities for existing companies to partner, hopefully create new revenue opportunities and capture different audiences?
At a later session, BMI Regional's boss Cathal O'Connell made a good point about airlines having to be involved in as much of the transaction as possible or risk being sidelined.
And, ultimately who wins? Hopefully, companies which manage to strike a balance between the value of the product and the cost of distribution and the customers themselves if this personalised, seamless travel experience can be achieved.
NB: Electric shock image via Shutterstock.
NB2: Writer's accommodation at the event was supported by Travelport.