The ink is hardly dry on the assessment of my 2009 predictions for the travel industry, and the airline direct channel in particular, but now it is time to see if I can do any better in 2010. I haven’t read too many other travel industry predictions (although I do find them interesting and hope to remedy this over the coming weeks), but I did see one person, also called Martin, using word for word one of my 2009 predictions as his 2010 prediction. Pure coincidence of course, but I mention this for the sole reason of covering myself in case by some another industry pundit has made a similar prediction to one of mine below.

1. Death of Twitter as a model for customer service

Despite being a fan of almost anything Web 2.0, I have no time for the evangelists pushing Twitter as the model for customer service. In 2010, someone will do a decent study comparing the cost of using traditional methods versus social media for dealing with customer complaints. I saw some initial hints on this prediction in 2009, but those hints were far outweighed by news like US cable TV company Comcast now employs 12 people to field customer service enquiries through twitter and stories such as Twitter: the killer app for customer service.

After watching the above video, I need to make one caveat. If Twitter is manned by volunteers who are advocates for your product, then this is very different to actually employing people to use Twitter as a customer service tool. In this case, it is just a modern version of the bulletin board or user forum; and there is no doubt that pushing passengers to online self service is a winner. Below are some interesting stats regarding online forums.

In an airline environment, the volunteer help model is far less applicable than in consumer electronics, but what I am really hoping to see in 2010 is a study showing that the way to really improve customer service in a cost effective manner as a combination of call centre and online support, with Twitter being the domain of people in the airline PR department.

2. In flight entertainment will move beyond the cabin

Virgin America was generating some good hype about the potential of their in-flight system back in 2007, although I don’t think anybody ever expected the games to appeal to true gamers. But there is something potentially very interesting here. In June 1999 they were running a puzzle solving game that could be played in flight to win some decent prizes, and I heard of another interesting but unverified example from Air New Zealand. With Linux OS  and Panasonic popular (and taking at least 48 technicians to install and maintain for Turkish) there is a need to show a more direct link between IFE and revenue generation. The obvious stuff is pay per view and food ordering, but with open source software and a flexible environment for installing new apps, there is huge potential to do so much more – maybe even to blur the line between in flight and pre flight IFE, for want of a better term.

I was recently looking at a 2009 summary of the main US carriers and their IFE’s, and also thinking of Guestlogix expanding what is sold in flight, but despite the title of this prediction being pretty clear, I’m still being a little guarded on details. The airline that gets it right first will be copied quickly by others – unfortunately this IFE related prediction doesn’t offer the same defensible first mover advantage that building a successful travel social network would have, but it certainly would make the career of the first airline marketing executive able to pull it off. I think 2010 will be the year that an innovative airline manages to tie their website to the IFE product beyond just listing what movies are playing, and be able to show increased revenue as a result.

3. Semantic will fizzle, not sizzle

For as long as I’ve worked with airline websites (approximately five years) I can remember certain people trying to say the future of search was semantic; the only thing that changed was that until about a year ago, they never seemed to use that term, but now they love it.

In a way, part of this has already happened with general web search, as the average number of words per Google search has increased; but this is different to travel and airline websites, as you are only searching content rather than content AND availability. In this latter case, returning thousands of results with inaccurate availability is really not useful at all if the internet user still has to do a second, old fashioned  non semantic search, at the end of the inspiration piece in order to book flights.

Be careful not to misinterpret my dismissal of semantic search on airline websites for more than it really is – I am dismissive of long free text queries, but when it comes to bringing airlines further to the left of the Bow Tie Model through the use of wider search criteria and cached availability data that can be sorted using sliders in the browser, then this I am absolutely in favour of. Remember one thing, those searches will be best facilitated by structured inputs. Maybe one day I’ll be able to enter a free text semantic search into a travel booking website, but even for those that offer it in 2010, the results will be nowhere near as good as when the same user enters it in a structured format using drop downs and check boxes to set preferences, and therefore semantic in travel booking sites will not be widely embraced by consumers in the coming year. And probably not for quite some time beyond 2010 either.

4. Rebundling is the new A La Carte

OK, so the title may be a bit provocative, but no-one in the industry can deny that ancillary revenue and a la carte pricing have been done to death during the past 2 years. Hey, I’ve been fanning the fames, so it is kind of like the sad but frequently true story of the volunteer firefighter who was actually found to have lit the fire in the first place!

I first mentioned rebundling in March 2009, but back then I was still a little skeptical. Then in April, seeing the apparent success SouthWest was having, I started looking at this topic in a different light. And then in October, my mind was made up. A la carte will not go away, and nor should it, but what happened a lot in recent times was airlines pandering to stock market analysts and reporting growing ancillary revenue numbers whilst at the same time not remembering one of the most beautiful things about the internet for airlines is the ability to properly brand airline tickets into fare families. Thinking back to what I wrote in May on Frontier or in July with the iPhone example, upselling is something that a lot of people talk about, but few really get right. 2010 will see an increased focus on better defining the customer value differences between fare families, and as a result an increased focus will be placed on ticket revenue PLUS a la carte fees, rather than just the slavish regurgitation of ancillary revenue stats that we saw in 2009.

5. Data will transform travel

This prediction will probably be the most difficult one for me to rate the success or otherwise of in 12 months time, but I am convinced that so much more can be done with data. Starting with what already exists in the PNR, and then moving to the loyalty database, the data warehouse and wherever else passenger data resides.

The data and analytics market has seen considerable action this year, from Merkle’s deal for CognitiveData to Adobe’s acquisition of Omniture. Even credit card giant American Express launched an analytics and consulting division last month that promises to help marketers make their campaigns and research more relevant. Leading Hotels of the World is working with American Express to supplement the analytics work it does based on its customer data. The sales and marketing distribution company markets its services to upscale independent hotels.

I have no idea in what form this prediction will come true, but there is no doubt airlines and their partners have a mass of data that can either be used in house, or even merged with third party sources to create extra value to shareholders, and 2010 should be the year in which this becomes a reality. Maybe the Super PNR will be part of the answer, but it is not the only contender.