Travel has typically had a modest profile at CES, the mega trade show formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show.
But when it was held last week in Las Vegas, the 115,000 attendees saw a more robust travel presence. Delta was represented on several stages, including a keynote by CEO Ed Bastian, to promote the airline's new Sync program. And there were three panels in the travel track this year rather than just the one that I've been moderating for the past few years.
It also seemed that, in 2023, travel-related technology was featured at a macro, rather than gadget, level.
My panel this year included the head of the TSA talking about technology and security; the CEO of the Travel Technology Association discussing proposed federal activities that may impact travel companies; and Expedia Group's chief global architect, who has responsibility for architecture, data management and data governance across all of Expedia's brands.
Rather than getting into the technical weeds about how the TSA stops bad guys, administrator David Pekoske focused on the agency's attention to customer experience. He cited several projects designed to remove friction from checkpoints, noting that the TSA won't invest in plans that don't enhance security, increase efficiency and provide as positive a customer experience as possible.
One of the most consequential experiments the agency will be undertaking could, if successful, eliminate the need for international connecting passengers to collect their luggage and be re-screened after arriving in the U.S. Although the concept was introduced as legislation in 2021, it didn't get funding until it was included in the recently passed fiscal 2023 omnibus appropriations bill.
"We asked for the authority to prototype this and received permission to test it with six last-point-of-departure airports over six years," Pekoske said.
"There's a whole series of reports that are required, and we want to provide them, because we want to firmly establish that this is a process that can work."
Given that checking bags through to the ultimate destination is the norm rather than exception in the vast majority of countries, I do wonder why it will take six years - eight, from the time it was first introduced - to be finalized.
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I asked Pekoske how a government bureaucracy with 60,000 employees can remain as nimble and innovative as it needs to be to both stay ahead of a spectrum of threats from technologically sophisticated enemies and to implement improvements for customer satisfaction.
In response, he characterized the agency as "agile" and said he institutionalized the innovation processes they use within an Innovation Doctrine. Its open architecture approach will speed up the time between when a threat is identified, requests for proposals are sent to contractors and a solution is added to the tech stack, he said.
Pekoske also pointed out that, since he was appointed in 2017, the agency has completely reworked its technology for identity verification and has streamlined the process. He cited that there's no longer a need to show boarding passes to TSA agents and that in a test program currently underway in Maryland, Colorado and Arizona, travelers can download digital driver's licenses to Apple iPhones, which he believes can speed up the ID verification process.
Travel Technology Association CEO Laura Chadwick, whose organization lobbies for OTAs, GDSs, short-term rental platforms and Tripadvisor, among others, said that travel tech companies have been caught up in the "techlash" that has put technology companies "very firmly in the sights of both Democrats and Republicans."
Of particular concern to her members are possible changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives platforms liability protections against lawsuits arising from consumer reviews or comments on social media.
"Reviews are a huge part of the booking experience to help consumers understand where they're going and how to set expectations," she said. "They help suppliers understand what guests are thinking about and guide improvements. If Section 230 protections are taken away, it will have a huge impact on our businesses and travelers."
Legislators are also largely ignorant of what Chadwick characterized as "the supremacy of the mobile phone." In dialogues with the DOT about the display of ancillary fee information, the department "is very much focused on what it will look like on a desktop. They're asking whether changes should also apply to mobile websites and apps."
Department officials don't seem to understand how critical mobile phones are to create seamless travel experiences, having the potential to "make it easy to connect what have been disparate, separate parts of the travel experience," she said.
There is, she added, a gap between government and most travelers in understanding the travel-related technology that's used by most people. "Forty percent of bookings happen on [our members'] platforms," she said. "And those travelers are their constituents. [Legislators] have goodness in their hearts but get a little mixed up on how things work."
*This article was originally published on Travel Weekly.