Three Innovative Companies That Can Improve the Air Travel Experience


I spent last week at the IATA World Passenger Symposium in San Diego, and there was a lot of fun to be had. But I was there for more than fun; I was there to judge… literally.

On the final day of the event, IATA had its first Passenger Innovation Awards competition, and I was on the jury. We whittled down the 76 entries all the way to the final 3. Those finalists were invited to spend the week at the symposium and then present on the final day. In the end, our votes (50 percent) and the audience members’ votes (the other 50 percent) were responsible for picking the winner, but we really liked all three. I liked them enough that I thought it was worth writing about them here. Let’s start with the winner.

The winner of the competition was the Butterfly Convertible Seating idea from Paper Clip Design. The is a seat design that can morph between a premium economy and business class seat. I think a visual is in order to help explain this.

Butterfly Seat

To the left of this picture, you see the premium economy configuration. It’s two seats that are offset from each other. To the right, you’ll see that one seat folds down to make the two seats into one big business class suite. The other seat also folds down to make for one big bed that’s 80 inches in length (sleeping on a diagonal).

It sounds like a simple idea, but of course, making this comfortable enough to serve as a competitive business class seat while still minding space requirements is a huge challenge. The Butterfly design theoretically solves that problem, though it hasn’t been produced yet. (Plans are for a prototype to be built soon.)

If this can actually be done well, then it’s huge for the airline industry and for travelers. For the airlines, they won’t need as many complex subfleets. They can use the same airplane on a variety of routes by using different configurations. Even better than that, they can vary the configuration by route on a seasonal basis. They could have more business class in the winter and more premium economy in the summer over the Atlantic, for example.

For travelers, you could imagine someone sitting in premium economy next to an empty seat being offered the upgrade to business for a nominal fee. Or what if there are a bunch of cancellations and the airline just needs to move people? Convert it to premium economy and create extra capacity. There are all kinds of opportunities here.

It’s a tall task to make this sensible in a way that both the product and finance teams would approve, of course. But it’s a great idea that has been hard to turn into a real product up until now.

Second Place: BizTweet

In its basic form, BizTweet is looking to make Twitter more functional for a big business like an airline. You can see it in its most basic form by sending a tweet to @flightstatus with just an airline code and flight number in the body of the tweet. BizTweet looks at your profile to learn what language you use and then responds with flight status information in that language.


Having played with this, it’s clear that it needs more work before it’s ready for primetime. I’ve had several flights return as not being trackable. But as it gets better, it will be a really useful tool.

If someone signs up for tracking of a flight, there is more that can be done. For example, BizTweet can be used by the business to send offers to the customer. You can see where this can eventually go. If your flight is delayed, the airline could tweet you a meal voucher. It could also tweet you your new flight information during a cancellation.

The point here is that BizTweet uses logic to make sure that tweets are sent in a relevant way without human interaction. In other words, a robot like this will make more sense than your average American Airlines tweet sent by a human (allegedly).

Third Place: Routehappy

Many of you know that I’m an advisor for Routehappy, so I abstained from voting on the company while others on the panel put it into the finals. You may know Routehappy for its metasearch site that’s similar to what Kayak does but with in-depth product information for each flight. That’s not what won here. This was all about the Routehappy Hub.

Routehappy Hub

The Routehappy Hub is meant to be a big content repository for the airlines. Routehappy has already collected a vast database of product information by airline and is really good at matching varying products to a specific flight. That’s not easy. But the hub takes in further in that it allows airlines to pick and choose the specific products and amenities that they want to promote. They can then upload rich content (photos, videos, etc) so that the travelers can really get a sense of what they’re going to get.

But how will travelers see it? The point of the hub is that the airlines can create their database and then the hub has an API that can be used on other sites. Airlines could use it on their own sites. It can be used in advertising. And it can be used by online travel agents or metasearch sites. (Look for news in that space shortly.)

Obviously I’m biased in thinking this is a good idea, but others certainly validated that by putting Routehappy into the finals. Anything that helps people better understand what they’ll get when they fly is a very good thing.

So there you have it. As I said, we were happy with all three finalists. But what do you think about the order? Would you have picked it differently?

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19 comments on “Three Innovative Companies That Can Improve the Air Travel Experience

  1. What will lead to the Butterfly being successful or not will be 1) ease of transformation. If it requires significant work to switch the seats, it makes it less useful to airlines. It doesn’t appear to take much effort on their website, but it’ll be interesting to see it in practice 2) Reliability, if they bust frequently or not 3) Staffing, especially if the seats are converted to the two seat arrangement where it could potentially result in a need for an extra flight attendant. If these hurdles can be reached, it really will result in a game changer for many domestic fleets, which will be able to converty between short-medium haul, to intracontinental configurations rather rapidly.

    1. I’d figure since the aisle seat can be converted into a bed, the window seat could be converted just as easily. I’d make a guess that the FAA would have both of them considered as seats in whatever configuration they’re in.

    2. Sean S – Staffing would only be an issue if you’re doing this at the last minute. There are still plenty of applications doing this in advance. You could schedule the same airplane to fly to Hawai’i as you would to London but you’d configure them differently.

      Nick – I’m sure the FAA wouldn’t consider them all as seats. After all, American put a little block on four 737-800 seats to have those not recognized as seats. But there would definitely be an issue if we’re talking about last minute seat sales.

      1. CF, that block that AA had on the 737-800s was a semi-permanent thing, and couldn’t be removed except by a maintenance crew, whereas the butterfly convertible seating seat looks like it is intended to be moved by flight attendants and/or passengers.

        While its onboard operations aren’t governed by the FAA, I’d be curious how Air New Zealand handles this with their Skycouch, since those can sit two or three passengers.

        1. Nick – I wouldn’t think they’d want flight attendants being able to do this. It opens up too much liability for fraud and bribery. So I’d assume they’d want it to be hard enough that it would require someone to do it who has no interaction with the customer.

          As for Air NZ, those SkyCouch seats all have individual belts and are sold on their own. Those would have to be considered single seats for this purpose.

  2. Wondered if anyone submitted this crazy idea. When you call a US Airline customer service agent, someone who is employed by the airline working somewhere in North America answers the phone after just 11 numbers are dialed.

      1. I think Delta has. AA, don’t know. However I know UA still does outsource. I think their goal is to outsource everything. How great it would be to just dial 11 numbers and someone answer the phone.

        1. Don/Nick – American/US Airways and Delta have all reservation agents in the US now. (American never outsourced, from what I know.) United does still have plenty outsourced but there is a substantial group in the US, mostly from the pre-merger Continental side and the elite lines from pre-merger United.

  3. So the convertible seating starts with a premium economy seat but most fleets I see have 3x seat configurations for this class…737, 320, 757, etc. What do you do when there is a 3rd seat? Can’t imagine they’d limit themselves to the outside seats on 767’s or the left side of old MD90’s.

    Personally I like the offset design with the plain premium economy seat. Would be nice not to rub shoulders with people all the time.

    1. A – This seat is for widebodies for the most part. The idea of 8 or 6 abreast in premium economy and 4 or 3 abreast in business is pretty common on a lot of widebodies out there.

  4. I like and have used Routehappy. Or should I say I “liked” Routehappy because I was (with everyone else) bumped from submitting flight reviews/scoring when they announced their most recent pivot. Now I am wondering how they differentiate themselves from e.g. Kayak. Their old promise was that the happy factor/score was determined by real people who scored based on individual experiences. Now that this is gone out the window, I wonder how happiness will be determined?

    By offered amenity from the airlnes? Too little differentiation. By sponsorship? Goodbye trust, hello bias.

    So I used to “get” Routehappy as a platform, but now I don’t anymore.

    1. Maarten – Well, this particular presentation was all about the Routehappy hub, which is a B2B thing and not B2C. So this is a change from what the company originally did. From what I remember, user ratings were only a part of the happiness factor. This is really all about getting the hard product information for everyone and judging on that. Then each carrier could decide how they want to promote that in different channels.

  5. I don’t understand how some of the entries can be considered Passenger Innovations Award … :
    using tweets to inform about a particular flight status isn’t really innovative, and even if the tool is better than what existed in the past, it should be only part of the idea. What is needed is any tool that would push the information I need in every single form of communication I’ll have at the same time. No need to differenciate, as often, i do not know what channel will be available to me at the time. If one of my flight is having a disruption, I want the airline to communicate with me through all channels, consistently, efficiently and preferably with solutions !…
    Are you sure it wasn’t a Travel Industry innovation award ???

    1. Chris – Twitter is only a part of that one. The idea is to start with that but it can be used on other platforms as well eventually. The real pitch here is that it’s a decision engine.

  6. Hi CF,

    The @FlightStatus is a demo account and we deliberately only push real-time data which is approximately 80% of flights. We have scheduled data for the remaining 20% but feel providing that information which the pax should already have doesn’t add much/any value. The @FlightStatus is purely a demo though, once airlines/airports come on-board we would be taking a feed from them so (a) we’d have 100% of their flight information (b) consistency with their other communications, FIDS etc.

    We are indeed a decision engine and the innovative part is that we are using social profile data to ensure to communication is as relevant to the passenger as it can be i.e. not everyone on the same flight gets the same message. However this is seamless to the passenger as they wouldn’t be aware of the decisioning going on at the “back-end” as they just see the final content.

  7. I just wanted to tell you people that they had implemented that kind of seat designs but the never got past approval because the plane couldn’t be evacuated in less than 90seconds.

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