Three wearable technology innovations changing travel…

From smartwatches that enable staff to check-in passengers, to Virtual Reality (VR) tours of hotels and resorts, and cabin crew clothes that display flight information, wearable technology is starting to impact on the travel industry. We look at three key innovations…




3% of British people own a smartwatch…and rising

Over three million wrist-worn wearable devices such as fitness bands and smartwatches are estimated to have been sold in the UK in 2015, up 118% from unit sales in 2014 which reached 1.4 million (source: Mintel). Currently, around one in seven (14%) people in Britain own an item of wearable technology, including 3% who own a smartwatch.

Both easyJet and British Airways are among the airlines that have created apps for the Apple Watch, enabling passengers to store boarding passes and receive real-time updates on their wrist.

British Airways is investing in wearable

In December 2015, British Airways also announced that it would be introducing 136 new scanners at check-in counters at Heathrow Airport’s Terminals 3 and 5, making it easier for users of the app to scan their boarding passes and prompt the printing of their bag tags. The British Airways Apple Watch app has certainly captured imaginations: its use increased four-fold in just four months at the end of last year.

Smartwatches are no longer geeky…

Lee Mason, Director of Greystone Wearable Tech, which works with businesses in the travel sector, says smartwatches have progressed from a “geeky toy” to a near mainstream gadget. “In the travel industry, smartwatch trials are beginning to proliferate as owning groups start to get to grips with what they can do.  

The trick with smartwatches is not to treat them like smaller phones.  The challenge is to find a use case – a specific business benefit – and solve it in a way that suits the device.”

Virgin Atlantic has been trialling smartwatches – to good effect

Virgin Atlantic has also trialled Sony’s Smartwatch 3 in the upper class lounges at London Heathrow airport, enabling staff to start the check-in process, and update passengers on their latest flight information, weather and local events at their destination, for example.

Tim Graham, Senior Manager of Innovation at Virgin Atlantic said the response from passengers was “extremely” positive. “Customers were impressed by the ability for our people to call up the latest information about their booking, flight, seating options, destination weather and Flying Club status.”

Virgin Atlantic employees were also won over: “Our people found the devices comfortable to wear; although they did initially take a bit of getting used to, by the end of the trial none of the employees wanted to hand them back!” said Graham.

22% of airports plan to embrace smartwatches over next three years

Lead Engineer, Kevin O’Sullivan at SITA technology research Lab,, specialists in air transport communications and IT, says that 22% of airports are planning to deploy – or at least experiment with – smartwatches over the next three years.

He adds that the devices can play a dual role at airports. “On the wrists of airport staff, they can relay information back and forth from operations to complement the sensor technology deployed in airports. On the wrists of passengers, they can receive real-time information and make it easier for passengers to move through the airport.”

“The smartwatch will dominate in 2016”

O’Sullivan strongly believes that the smartwatch will dominate in 2016 “with new technologies, applications and manufacturers – including some traditional watch makers – delivering new products.”


virtual reality


Oculus, Sony, Samsung and Google have all entered the Virtual Reality (VR) headset market, enabling users to transport themselves to another environment entirely, thanks to 3D.

Mintel reports that 43% of people aged between 16 and 44 are interested in using a VR product, and the technology lends itself well to the travel industry…

People are keen to take virtual reality travel tours…

Mintel data also shows that virtual reality tours of cultural places were cited by 50% of people as an area of interest, while 47% cited virtual reality tours of holiday resorts as appealing.

There are opportunities for brand partnerships

Sara Ballaben, Technology Analyst, Mintel says, “As more players enter the VR space, headset manufacturers should continue to foster the development of content in this area, for example through partnerships with tour guide editors (for example, a series of Lonely Planet VR tours), museums and cities around the world as well as hotels and spa.”

Mason adds that, while VR isn’t advanced enough to give us the hyper realistic world simulations we see in films, the technology can showcase information in a very immersive and impressive way.

Thomas Cook transports passengers using Oculus Rift

Take Thomas Cook, for example. At a number of its outlets, the travel operator enables customers to experience – rather dubiously – the in-flight experience, as well as the more welcome simulation of some of its resorts, using the Oculus Rift .

Thomas Cook’s Chief Executive, Peter Frankhauser has said that the company will expand its content to include more hotels, adding that it will deploy the technology beyond its outlets. “We will be well-positioned to deliver 3D hotel and destination experiences via our web site to customers in their homes.”

Virgin Atlantic has trialled Google Glass, increasing staff productivity

Its use isn’t restricted to passengers. Virgin Atlantic has also trialled Google Glass – now taken off sale while the Google team work on the next incarnation – among upper class passengers, with reasonable success.

As Graham says, Google Glass is in its infancy but is already showing great potential. “[Employees] felt that it helped them maintain eye contact with passengers, reduced the amount of paperwork and increased their productivity. They also felt empowered by the information available to them.”

He adds that limited battery life was the only downside of the technology when compared to smartwatches (presumably something Google will be addressing in the next iteration).

Copenhagen Airport used Google Glass to better engage with passengers

Google Glass has also been trialled at Copenhagen Airport, an example cited by O’Sullivan as innovative use of a VR headset. “The airport team used Google Glass to access services such as Google Translate as well as gate, baggage or flight information that would help them improve the dialogue with passengers.”

O’Sullivan says that the biggest benefit of a VR headset like Google Glass is that it is hands-free and enables a new way of working. “From an operational point of view, the ease of adoption and the user-friendliness of the Glass devices means it only takes a day for staff to familiarise themselves with the new equipment.”


smart uniform


Smart clothes are very much in their infancy, but they are an area to watch. In fact, Gartner has predicted that smart clothing has the biggest potential for growth out of all the different wearable types – reaching 26 million items in 2016…

Ralph Lauren’s shirts can monitor heart rate…

Some big brands are already investing in this area… For example, Ralph Lauren’s PoloTech shirt uses special fibres that monitor heart rate and breathing, streaming the data to the wearer’s device; while Tommy Hilfiger has developed a solar powered jacket, allowing wearers to charge mobile devices on the move. Clever, but perhaps a little gratuitous.

The enterprise market stands to benefit from smart clothing

As Erik Jacobson, Wearable Technology Practice, European Lead at Accenture says, “In the fashion space, designers are experimenting with what this integration of electronics and textiles can do for self-expression, social interaction and even emotional response. However it’s in the enterprise market that the biggest benefits could be found.”

easyJet uniforms can now display live flight information

In the travel sector, smart clothing is being adopted with a compelling business case. In November 2015, easyJet unveiled its new uniforms for cabin crew and engineers, incorporating wearable technology designed to improve communication and passenger safety procedures.

Technology being trialled on the uniforms of cabin crew includes LED lights on jacket lapels, displaying information such as flight numbers and destinations. Jackets will also have in-built microphones to improve communication between the crew, pilots and passengers.

And flight engineers can monitor air quality – from their jackets

Wearable technology will also be trialled in easyJet engineers’ uniforms, including in-built video cameras to allow for remote diagnosis of technical issues, along with surround sound and a microphone for instant communication capability. Air quality sensors and barometer features will also aim to help engineers monitor their work environment and create a map of air quality in different cities for passengers’ information.

…while hotel staff light up with the music

As Jacobson says, smart-clothing with built-in LEDs that can change colour or even display media content can be a great way to engage consumers. He cites the staff uniform at London’s Wyld bar, part of the W Hotel, which reacts to the music being played.

“We expect an even bigger market for wearable technology to be in the less consumer-facing roles where safety and work instructions are the priority – at the airport this could be the people directing planes on the airport apron, working on the engines in the hanger, or cleaning inter-terminal shuttles.”

Imagine a time when smart vehicles respond to smart clothes…

Jacobson says that enhancing worker visibility through built-in LEDs is just the first step. “Imagine a future where self-driving maintenance vehicles bring the right tools to the right person because they recognise the jacket while avoiding accidents with other workers in the vicinity who are also wear smart, connected jackets.”

“Within the next two to three years, smart uniforms will become commonplace”

Mason is equally as enthused about easyJet’s activity in the smart clothing arena. “This represents an important step in the development of wearable technology within the travel industry.

Aside from the technical aspects of the project, it shows that travel companies are beginning to recognise the potential to bring together technology, brand and staff themselves in exciting ways. Other operators will be following the success of this initiative closely, and within the next two to three years, smart uniforms will become more and more commonplace.”

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