When our IT Innovation Manager Tim Graham heard that our IT partner SITA was experimenting with computing devices such as Google Glass, he was immediately struck by the idea of using wearable tech to enhance airline customer service – and the project was born.
We caught up with Tim to find out more about the project; to see what it’s like working in Technology at Virgin Atlantic and how he came to be in his exciting role...
Virgin Atlantic has a good reputation for innovation in products and services. I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to work in partnership with SITA and more importantly allow our customers to be the first air travellers to experience the benefits of pioneering Google Glass technology and Sony smart watches as they arrive at London Heathrow airport. The pilot scheme, which started in February 2014, has concierge staff in our Upper Class Wing using wearable technology to deliver the industry’s most high tech and personalised customer service yet.
For the pilot, Virgin Atlantic agents meet Upper Class passengers as they arrive by limousine, then provide personal assistance with everything from baggage tags to seat changes to flight information -- which is instantly available through the devices.
Having begun using the technology, the agents are now regularly coming up with other ideas for features or key pieces of information that they'd like to add. What started out as quite basic information – like customer details, car registration, destination and so on – has evolved to include details of connecting flights, live departure/arrivals, or the local weather at the destination. Having this to hand (or eye) means the host does not have to return to the computer terminal, or stop to read a larger device, but can continue the physical movement of helping the customer get from limo to security channel as smoothly and as efficiently as possible.
Passenger reaction has been very positive, with some doing a double-take when they see an agent wearing the glasses – they ask what it is, and the wearer receives a lot of interest and attention. Some passengers already know or have read about them, and 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 assure them they are not!
Sony Smart Watches are getting less attention from customers because they’re 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 in that agents need to make sure they don't look down at them so often they give customers the impression they’re checking the time rather than assisting them.
So how did I come to be working on such a project at Virgin Atlantic?
Well, early in my career I worked in a mix of fields – mainly in journalism and the media industry – though I later fell into the world of IT, as so many do. But what really brought me to Virgin Atlantic was that I was simply a customer who loved travelling with Virgin. So when a suitable job came up, I thought why not try my hand at working for them as well as just flying with them? It seemed like a cool place to work so I applied, and here I am.
I joined Virgin in September 2000 in the IT Support Centre and worked in the Support Team. Over the years I gradually worked my way up to the position I now hold, which is IT Innovation and Development Manager. Clearly there is something quite good about it because 13 years later I’m still here!
I think it’s the people I work with who make Virgin such a great place to work, but it’s also rewarding to interact with non-technical colleagues around the organisation, and to understand their needs and how IT can support them. When I'm recruiting I'm not just looking for IT people – you can learn how to code or how to support systems. But what’s really key for the people in my team is for them to be able to interact well with their Virgin Atlantic colleagues.
So if you’re a technical person thinking of applying for a role at Virgin Atlantic, I’d say go for it. It’s a fantastic organisation to work for; you can use your technical skills to really make a difference, and there are a wealth of opportunities. After all, how many people get the opportunity to come to an airport and play with technology in such a fantastic environment? Plus you get all the great staff benefits of working for an airline.
As for the Wearable Technology project, I'll be looking at whether there were any difficult technical issues, and at feedback from colleagues and customers. So far, the reactions have been mostly positive. Recently, a Los Angeles-bound passenger asked the Google Glass-equipped agent about her following flight, and he stood right next to her and used Google Glass to tell her which terminal she needed to go to at the other end. She was amazed and thought it was absolutely fantastic.
And it’s not just our customers who are happy. SITA and Virgin Atlantic recently received a Smart Technology Award from The Wearables 2014; the leading awards for wearable technology and part of the 2014 Wearable Technology Show. The award recognised us for a pioneering pilot which could enhance the passenger experience.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.