As we come to the end of 2013, I find myself in a reflective mood as I look back at the many things the travel industry has got to thank innovation for. As we prepare to usher in 2014 in a few hours, the future can only be bright.
Allow me to take you down memory lane as I re-examine some great ideas that changed the face of travel permanently. The ideas are, of course, not limited to 2013 but go way back to the late 70s
When Airlines started issuing electronic tickets in the mid-1990s, which was later followed by online check-in and self-service kiosks, the age of the paper ticket looked doomed to certain extinction. If there was a CITE or IUCN equivalent for technology and innovation facing extinction, the paper ticket would be on its Critically Endangered list.
More than a decade later in 2008, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) finally declared paper tickets a relic of the past, ushering in the age of e-tickets.
An immediate result of this move is that the frequent phenomenon of lost tickets has become a thing of the past. You always have a soft copy of your ticket in your inbox that you can print whenever you misplace your printout.
In fact, you do not even need a printout – you can simply walk to a check-in desk with a soft copy displayed on your mobile phone and show it to a check-in attendant and you are good to go.
The birth of Wifi in 1996, courtesy of one Dutch electrical engineer, Vic Hayes, et al, heralded a new culture and breed of travellers. The entrepreneur, for instance, who could not leave the comfort of his office for fear of missing out on a crucial business email now, thanks to Wifi technology, could roam around the globe carrying their valuable inbox with them all the time.
Wifi quickly began to emerge as an industry selling point and hospitality brands started using it in their marketing pitch. Hotels, eateries and airports that did not offer Wifi (whether paid or free) were not considered cool and lost out on big business. Today virtually any lodge or hotel worth its value in salt offers free Wifi to its customers.
Perhaps now the next step is to ensure that beyond the mere availability of Wifi, speed, reliability and connection quality will be given priority. Wifi access in some facilities here in Kenya is laughable if not a hair-pulling affair. It was better if such places avoided claiming they had it!
We all know that IBM gave the world the first viable, affordable and portable computer. That happened in 1986. Since then, computer portability has undergone a complete revolution to offer the modern traveller a range of convenient solutions to manage and share memorable moments on the go.
Today with a Kindle or iPad a traveller can combine the video, photo and word processing power of such devices to capture compelling memories of their travel while keeping their friends and family back at home informed through their personal blogs and social media spaces.
Online Trip Advice
When Stephen Kaufer founded TripAdvisor in 2000, he did travel what social media did to journalism – a complete disruption. Travel review was no longer the preserve of experts but any travel enthusiast could now share their opinion of a place or facility they visited complete with photos, with other visitors wishing to go to the same places. This provided a cheap, unedited source of intelligence that greatly influenced travel decision patterns and citizen travel review was born.
Imagine the boredom and monotony that characterised international air travel before the 1980s? A direct flight from Nairobi to London, for instance, which takes about 9 hours, must have been unbearable, I would imagine.
The arrival of in-flight entertainment in the 80s changed all that. Passengers on such long flights would be treated to a mixed-grill of music and films from all genres imaginable. Long-distance air travel had suddenly become awesome.
You, of course, have seen a couple of documentaries about early European explorers to the ‘uncharted’ lands of East Africa and you have also seen how tropical diseases always came in the way of their great dreams of discovery and adventure. The main culprit was and still is the dreaded Malaria.
Early travellers had to brave the numerous side effects of malaria treatment until the year 2000 when the wonder drug, Malarone, entered the pharmaceutical scene. With Malarone, which is administered orally, travellers were at ease moving around certain parts of Africa including Kenya, because it was an effective deterrent to the tropical disease.
Perhaps one of the most impacting innovations of our time was the advent of the digital camera in 1975 when the world’s first prototype from Eastman Kodak’s engineer, Steve Sasson, first surfaced. For the first time in history, travellers could share photos they had taken moments ago right where they were.
The age of the film roll, where you risked running out of film or had to wait until you were back home to develop the films only to realise a little too late that you had all along been wasting time because overexposure had claimed your shots, had come to an end.
When we first wrote about Full-Body Scanners, we did not also realise what profound impact they would have on the travel industry until much later. Full-body scanners were the industry’s response to the increasing threat of terrorism. Mostly used in major airports, the scanners were used to help in the detection of weapons without needing airport staff to pat-down travellers.
Their introduction sparked a major debate on how far people were willing to go to sacrifice their privacy in exchange for enhanced security. Am not yet aware of any African country that is using Full-Body scanners.
When Harvey Alpert’s Oakfield Farms Solutions served the first boxed meal for Continental Airlines in 1978, their first client, I bet they had no clue what a revolution their innovation would cause in the industry. Back then, Oakfield Farms Solutions was offering cheese, crackers, raisins, a chocolate bar, a napkin, and a knife – all shrink-wrapped in a wooden box.
Today, there is no airline that does not offer in-flight meals for their flyers – and for over 3 decades, the practice has never changed except maybe for the elegance of the package that varies from one airline to another.
Airlines from the Arab world, I hear, offer some really elaborate aeroplane meals. I have never used any from that side but I have had a chance to fly with Ethiopian and I personally find their in-flight meals very delicious not to mention they come in large unselfish rations that are very filling – really good stuff Ethiopian Airlines. Keep it up. You are doing a good job there!
Because of these 9 innovations travel has become easier, bearable and a lot more fun. They all were truly game-changers in their time. One looks back before these innovations and wonders how we survived without them!