The details on Virgin Atlantic's Google Glass pilot

A Virgin Atlantic Airways agent at London's Heathrow Airport assists a passenger using Google Glass. Credit: Photo courtesy Virgin Atlantic Airways

When Virgin Atlantic Airways heard that its IT partner, SITA, was conducting experiments with wearable computing devices such as Google Glass in late 2013, airline representatives quickly began expressing their interest in the experiments. 

SITA, which specializes in air transportation communications and IT, already had its strategic technology research group, SITA Lab, testing and comparing wearable technology devices and developing applications for airlines and airports.

The idea of using wearable computing devices to raise the bar on airline customer service got the immediate attention of Tim Graham, the IT innovation manager for Virgin Atlantic. The companies began talks and a project was born.

"We were basically talking about innovations we could try together," Graham told CITEworld. "Virgin Atlantic has got quite a good reputation for innovation in products and services. We thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to work in partnership."

This month -- merely three months after talks began -- the project launched as a six-week-long pilot involving one pair of Google Glasses and three Sony SmartWatches. The low number of devices used in the pilot so far is partly due to the difficulty in getting more than one Glass device for the trial, as well as a desire to start small to get a handle on the experiment from the start, he said. "We would love to get our hands on more of them," said Graham. "One pair is all we could get our hands on for the trial. If we could get more, we would."

For the pilot, Virgin Atlantic agents meet Upper Class passengers as they arrive by special limousine, then provide personal assistance for everything from providing baggage tags to seat changes to flight information -- which is instantly available through the devices, according to Graham.

"We kind of meet and greet them," he said. "Then they go through a private channel through security to the airline's lounge."

Employees getting more intrigued with Glass

When announcing the wearable computing pilot project to affected employees, Virgin Atlantic first asked for volunteers to try them in their jobs. "There was a little bit of hesitation from some agents, who were afraid they would make them look funny. But now as one agent has led the way, we're now getting other agents interested in trying it out."

He continued, "Every day, they're getting another idea [for a feature to add] or for a key piece of information that they'd like to add," he said. "What started as a job allocation system with information about the passengers basically has already been expanded. A host can check here faster than going to a computer. They're starting to get information so that they can answer the customer's questions almost before they ask them. It seems like little bits of information but each of those little bits of information keeps them from have to go and stand behind a desk."

Other airline operations could also benefit from the use of Glass in their work, including general passenger check-in and boarding, aircraft mechanics and even baggage handlers, he said. "Right now when it comes to baggage, the standard is still the use of bar codes [on bags] in many airports. Definitely, if you could use Google Glass to scan a bag and see that the bag is in the wrong place, that sort of application could be helpful."

Graham was a little concerned about battery life for the devices in the trial, particularly Google Glass, but those concerns have so far been unfounded. "That doesn't seem to be a problem" because the Glass devices are activated as needed by the user and aren't in constant use, he said. "They're kind of using it in short bursts of time. On busy days, I think you would have to charge the device during breaks. It's generally not as big a problem as we thought it would be."

Connectivity was another concern for Glass. "For the trial, we are using 3G as the phone network," said Graham. "We were kind of concerned that might be an issue, especially in Heathrow, where a lot of devices are being used [by many travelers] in a concentrated area. But it's generally working very well."

And despite some initial worries that airline use might prove to be tough on the devices, that has also not been an issue so far. "Practicality wise, we were wondering if the devices were going to be damaged in regular use, but they seem to be standing up to the challenge," he said.

After about three weeks of use, passenger reaction has been mostly positive, said Graham.

"Passengers are kind of doing a double-take when an agent is wearing the Glasses," he said. "They ask what it is, and the person wearing it is getting a lot of interest and attention from people. A couple of passengers know about them or have read about them. A few have been worried about privacy, asking things like 'are you using the camera?' or 'is the video in them using facial recognition?' We are assuring them they are not."

The Sony SmartWatches are getting less attention from the customers because they are not as readily visible as the Google Glass device, which is worn on the airline agent's face. And the watches have a bit of a drawback compared to Glass because the agents have to be careful that they don't look down at the watches so often that they give their customers the impression that they are checking the time rather than assisting them, said Graham.

"They are conscious of the fact they didn't want passengers to think that they are rude by looking at their watches," he said.

At the end of the pilot project, Virgin Atlantic will look at whether there were any difficult technical issues, at the reactions and feedback from airline employees, and at the reactions from customers.

So far, those reactions have been mostly positive. "It's been a big hit. Everybody stops and asks about it. Lots of them want to try them on."

Recently, a passenger came through Heathrow who was on the way to Los Angeles and she went up to the Google Glass-equipped agent and asked about her connecting flight on another airline, said Graham. "He stood right there next to her and used Google Glass to tell her which terminal she needed to go to for her connecting flight," he said. "She was amazed. She just thought it was absolutely fantastic."

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