Emirates, hoping to shake off budget airlines coveting its long-distance customers, has set its sights on goggles.
The Gulf carrier is studying ways to equip staff with augmented reality glasses that display a passenger’s name and travel habits, allowing more personalized service, Emirates’ Chief Digital and Innovation Officer Christoph Mueller said. Travelers may also be given eye-wear to help them navigate airports or browse food menus.
“We could enhance customer service tremendously,” said Mueller, who was appointed last year to help modernize the world’s biggest long-haul airline. “The consumer will want to interact in a completely different way.”
Emirates President Tim Clark has warned the company faces a “gathering storm” from budget rivals such as Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA, which are expanding their north-Atlantic routes and threatening to erode the Gulf carrier’s market leadership. State-backed Emirates, which helped unseat western mainline carriers years ago with bigger planes boasting swanky bars and onboard showers, is now betting an investment in new technology can help it stay ahead.
Augmented reality, available on gadgets such as Microsoft Corp.’s HoloLens headset and Apple Inc. iPhones, is gaining traction at companies seeking to improve customer service and worker productivity. Fashion brand Gap lets shoppers virtually try on clothes by dressing an avatar. Car manufacturers including Jeep and BMW offer 3D versions of their vehicles on mobile devices. HP Inc.’s app guides users replacing ink cartridges. Thyssenkrupp AG repairmen wear goggles to access technical data, hands-free, when fixing skyscraper elevators.
Mueller is gearing Emirates’ technology for a new era as the airline grapples with some of the toughest operating conditions in its 30-year history. In addition to competition from cheaper rivals, the carrier has recently been hit by weaker oil prices which have hurt demand from the Gulf’s wealthiest travelers, and by tourists’ growing security concerns.
The Dubai-based airline in March announced its first annual profit decline in five years and halted dividend payments to its government shareholder for the first time in at least a decade.
To better compete against discount airlines, Emirates has started charging customers for picking their own seats and is offering wider access to its premium lounges at Dubai airport for fees reaching $200. These changes are a fundamental shift for the lavish carrier -- known for flying the largest fleet of Airbus SE’s A380 double-deckers, plush suites and tongue-in-cheek ads featuring Jennifer Aniston.
“We have been disrupted, which is quite obvious if you look at our performance,” Mueller said at the International Air Transport Association annual meeting in Cancun on June 6. “We are rewriting the business model for the Emirates group.”
Still, it may be a while before any Emirates mixologist dons goggles. Augmented reality technology remains in its infancy outside of gaming applications such as Niantic Inc.’s popular Pokemon Go, and usage at most companies is in the pilot stages. Corporate applications largely run over mobile devices -- rather than via eyewear -- and it’s hard to imagine how the clunky sci-fi style equipment will fit with Emirates’ sleek aesthetics.
“It still looks a little bit odd,” Mueller concedes. “But maybe that can be overcome.”