One of the issues when predicting how the future might unfold, especially in travel, is that fairly often the trends being identified are already being played out.

KLM, considered one of the more progressive airlines around, at least in terms of how it interacts with passengers and tries all manner of quirky social media campaigns, has been busy trying to work out what it should be doing to cater for its passengers over the course of the next half a decade or so.

Pieter Elbers, the carrier’s chief operating officer and deputy CEO, was speaking at the World Lowcost Airlines Conference in London this week, in a session to discover the “future of the passenger experience”.

Given that KLM carries nearly 26 million passengers a year to 131 destinations, Elbers and his team should of course be trying to figure this all out.

Central to its view of the passenger experience is how they interact with the carrier when on the ground, as well as in the air – an important consideration as around seven out of every ten of its customers are on connecting flights.

It is the classic hub airline which happens to belong to a relatively small country.

So what does KLM think it should either doing or accounting for by 2020?

Our summary and analysis:

1) Fully-connected PAX

This isn’t about “always connected travellers”, but how that connectivity will evolve.

Until now the idea is that travellers will use their mobile devices to stay in touch with friends, family and brands.

But over time this will evolve to the extent that the device will become secondary – travellers won’t think about the technology (be it a mobile phone, tablet or wearable) being used, instead the expectation will be they should be able to interact with everything at any time.

This has huge implications for airports and airlines.

2) Total control and choice

Although an airline will never completely agree, given that narrow differences in price is perhaps the only remaining differentiator between many carriers (especially on short haul routes), by 2020 the power in the hands of consumers will have to be met in new ways.

If a passenger wants free wifi on-board, this will have to provided. Want to order a meal whilst sitting in the economy departure lounge, to be delivered either there or on-board? Do it.

3) Personalised

Big (and better) Data will become the currency airlines covet the most, giving them the opportunity to tailor their services AND service accordingly.

As retailing via the web picks up, so airlines and airports will become more than just portals for operations and flow – Amazon-style (now) opportunities and processes will have to be second nature.

4) Authentic

Don’t get those control and personalisation elements wrong.

Passengers want to feel that their journey and airport experience is authentic to them. True and valuable hospitality.

Technology will help or automate many of the processes, but a human who intrinsically understands it all will need to be there with a guiding hand.

5) Proactive

Airlines will be forced to be more proactive to how they handle not only the developments in technology but also the expectations of the passengers.

KLM reckons it is breaking the mould of decades in the airline industry by “learning by doing”. It is only way to see what works.

Elbers says there has to be a change in thinking – the “test, audit, test, audit, test, audit” approach given to the actual aviation part of its service MUST remain (safety is obviously paramount), but how other elements are tackled should be considered in a different way.

It’s trials of “smart boarding” technology and models (filling the aircraft not by seat numbers but by zones and position, all via an app) is one example.

Also trying new methods of passenger flow around airports and gates shouldn’t be thought about in the same way as engineers think about fixing parts of the aircraft.

In other words: keep the core values and (hoped for) high levels of service at the centre of the brand – but stretch your metaphorical wings whenever you can.

NB: Passenger airport image via Shutterstock.

Original author: Kevin May