Emirates, hoping to shake off budget airlines coveting its long-distance customers, has set its sights on goggles.
The carrier is studying ways to equip staff with augmented reality glasses that display a passenger’s name and travel habits, allowing more personalised service, said Christoph Mueller, Emirates’ chief digital and innovation officer. Travellers may also be given eyewear to help them navigate airports or browse food menus.
“We could enhance customer service tremendously,” said Mr Mueller, who was appointed last year to help modernise the world’s biggest long-haul airline. “The consumer will want to interact in a completely different way.”
Tim Clark, the airline’s president, has said that the company faces a “gathering storm” from budget rivals, such as Norwegian Air Shuttle, which are expanding their north-Atlantic routes and threatening to erode the Gulf carrier’s market leadership. Emirates, which helped unseat western mainline carriers years ago with bigger planes boasting swanky bars and on-board showers, is now betting an investment in new technology can help it stay ahead.
Augmented reality, available on gadgets such as Microsoft’s HoloLens headset and Apple iPhones, is gaining traction at companies seeking to improve customer service and worker productivity. The 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. Thyssenkrupp repairmen wear goggles to access technical data, hands-free, when fixing building elevators.
Mr 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 travellers, and by tourists’ growing security concerns.
The 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 added fees for checked baggage. The new policies represent a fundamental shift at the lavish carrier – known for flying the largest fleet of Airbus A380 double-deckers, plush suites and tongue-in-cheek ads featuring Jennifer Aniston.
“We have been disrupted, which is obvious if you look at our performance,” Mr Mueller said at the International Air Transport Association annual meeting in Cancun this month. “We are rewriting the business model for the Emirates group.”
Still, augmented reality technology remains in its infancy. Corporate applications largely run over mobile devices and it’s hard to imagine how the clunky equipment will fit with Emirates’ sleek aesthetics. “It still looks a little bit odd,” Mr Mueller said. “But maybe that can be overcome.”
Follow The National's Business section on Twitter