Last night, the APEX/IFSA awards were handed out at the 2021 Expo. I’ve been a judge for these awards — which recognize the best in passenger experience and catering — for years now. I don’t often write about the results, but this year I thought I’d highlight three airline winners with things I can’t believe I glossed over when the news first came out.
Spirit Wins Best Airport Innovation for Self Bag Drop
Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that Spirit has won an award for passenger experience.
That may sound shocking, but when you consider that there is both passenger and airline benefit to Spirit’s self bag-drop system, it starts to make sense.
As the pandemic raged during 2020, Spirit quietly pushed ahead with its plan to allow people to check their own bags. Keep in mind that tagging your own bag is nothing new. But with those, travelers still had to get their IDs checked by an airline employee who would then take the bag and put it on the belt. Now, Spirit has built something that does away with that.
Travelers still have to go to a kiosk to check in, pay for bags if needed, and get the tag printed. But then instead of walking a few feet ahead to an agent, they walk ahead to the belt. Once there, they insert either their driver license or passport, the machine reads it, compares it to the traveler’s face, and then confirms a match. If there’s a match, the bag can be whisked away without any employee involvement.
Spirit, of course, can get value from not needing an employee to do this, but wait, there’s more. The system scans each bag’s dimensions and weight to ensure it isn’t breaking any rules. If it is, travelers can swipe a card right there to submit payment for over-size and over-weight bags. And now you see why this is a winner.
This isn’t everywhere, nor will it be. It is in busy airports like LaGuardia and Chicago/O’Hare and will roll out to more, but don’t expect it in small cities. You can read more from last year’s press release.
United Wins Best Inflight Entertainment for Bluetooth on IFE
I knew there had been talk about Bluetooth going onboard aircraft, but I guess I didn’t realize it was now flying. United is the first US carrier to put Bluetooth capability onboard, which means travelers can all use their wireless headsets. (As a side note, this can, of course, work with any Bluetooth device, including a loud, portable speaker… so I’m guessing Spirit customers and anyone flying to Vegas should never be given this option.)
The idea of Bluetooth shouldn’t be anything new and crazy, but any time you put anything on an airplane, it gets a lot more challenging. United has thought through this in agonizing detail above and beyond even those basic requirements to make sure the integration works right. You can see a little bit of this in this video which those who have flown United have probably already seen way too many times onboard.
For example, it is fully integrated with all of United’s accessibility features. The airline also had to think about how to message for those who have devices that can only be connected to one item via Bluetooth at a time. The need to explain that it has to be disconnected from a traveler’s phone for it to work is important since flight attendants are not the Geek Squad.
United also worked through the process of ensuring that if someone went to the lav, it would automatically reconnect when they returned. The end result appears to be a winner.
Unfortunately for now, the only aircraft that have this flying are the 737 MAX 8s, of which there are more than a dozen. But retrofits are starting soon, and the whole fleet will have it down the line. Here’s the press release from the summer that talks about the whole United Next fleet plan.
WestJet Wins Best Connectivity Innovation for ZeroTouch Content Loading
This one is a little bit more “inside baseball” than the other two, but I still find it fascinating to think about. Have you ever wondered how airlines get content pushed out to all of their airplanes? These planes go around the world, and the sheer volume of content is huge. Traditionally, airlines have to load manual updates to get the new content onboard, and it is a slow mess.
This summer, WestJet was the first large scale airline to quietly roll out Panasonic’s ZeroTouch system which now automates the whole process. The airline can now roll out content updates at the touch of a button to the entire fleet within a matter of just a few days. The data is transferred over mobile networks, so it works anywhere in the world.
Why does this matter? Well, it’s obviously quicker and easier, but also, it can change the way airlines think about content loads. Instead of giant bulk loads, this creates the opportunity to more subtly shift content over time, and quickly. WestJet said nothing about this during the awards judging process, but my mind immediately went toward the ability to load a premier of something on a specific day, or really anything that could benefit from greater recency.
There were many more categories and winners. Head on over to apex.aero/awards to learn more.