One of the perks of this job is, unsurprisingly, travelling – often to interesting and/or lovely destinations. And thankfully, these trips tend to involve great hotels and hospitality, including excellent food and libations.
A recent trip was somewhat less glamorous, but nevertheless fascinating and enlightening: a daytrip to an aircraft hangar at Milan’s Malpensa airport, where Easyjet was hosting an Innovation day with some high-tech partners (being in Italy meant that despite the utilitarian venue, refreshments included huge wheels of aged Parmigganio and rather nice chilled wines).
A flying drone demonstrated HD cameras married with 3D laser mapping technology that can plot dozens of reference points on an aircraft fuselage, to create highly accurate “auditable damage records” of the tiny burns caused by lightening strikes. The hovering drone’s laser map was displayed on a big screen, showing us journos moving around the hangar – and sloping off towards the parmaggiano.
Another maintenance innovation is using telemetrics to predict component wear, so airlines can plan cost-efficient repair schedules. I tried on Oculus VR’s virtual reality headset, to move around an eye-popping virtual replica of an aircraft cabin – a cost-efficient proposition for training crew.
Meanwhile French firm Safran was explaining its advances in metal 3D printing, creating components that would be impossible to manufacture using traditional machining methods – it says this will soon result in aircraft engine components up to 75% lighter; a high-tech approach to tackling fuel consumption and emissions. Safran expects 3D printed engine parts to be used on commercial flights within two years.
We also saw Apple Watch QR code ‘boarding cards’, and how Easyjet is using Periscope broadcasts on Twitter to update travellers on disruptions and delays. New for July on Easyjet’s app is the ‘do you need a bed for the night?’ function, offered when passengers are subject to long delays: clicking ‘yes’ (via the app or online) will result in prepaid booking arrangements, hotel info and details such as meal allowances being put in place for the passenger.
"It's in our blood that we're an innovative and pioneering airline", said Easyjet chief executive Carolyn McCall, who was hosting the event.
Though technology does underpin much of the change happening in the travel industry, some of the critical issues feel as old as travel itself. McCall also told us that Easyjet is unlikely to fly from Heathrow as things stand, mainly because lack of slots mean the airline couldn’t operate at the scale it would want to. “We wouldn’t want to go in and dabble,” she said.
However, she said the carrier would “seriously look at operating from Heathrow” if it gets another runway. With anti-heathrow expansion sentiments seemingly a key qualification for London’s mayoral candidates at the moment, this seems a distant prospect. So there we are, back talking about an issue – UK airport expansion – that should have been resolved with spades in the ground more than 20 years ago.
Another hot topic in the sector is the Open Skies dispute between the ‘big three’ US airlines and their ‘big three’ rivals in the Middle East. This is an argument about sovereignity, competition and fair trade – issues that have been debated (and fought) over centuries before aviation existed.
Sometimes old is the new, er, new…