Ai Editorial: Airlines and customer-centricity - do focus on unique challenges and people

First Published on 6th October, 2017

Aspects like an airline’s business continuity or the organizational structure are often cited as major roadblocks to being data-centric, be it for customer service or retailing, writes Ai’s Ritesh Gupta


Every interaction – be it via app/ website, self-service kiosks or staff at the airport, a chatbot etc. – matters today.

Airlines, just like any other e-commerce organisation, are gradually finding ways to work out a single view of the customer.

As it turns out, more than any investment, any data-centric platform, any IT-related move etc., it is the entire organisation that has to come around and ensure that every data trail is being capitalized on.

Aspects like business continuity or the current organizational structure, including unique challenges posed the way a majority of airlines are run, are seemingly the major roadblocks to being data-driven. Of course, extracting data out of transactional systems associated with airlines is one area that can’t be ignored, too. But equally important is the tendency of airlines not to embrace change. It needs to be countered.

Taking “digital” out of shadows

Airlines executives themselves are probing critical areas – is it time for airlines to split digital commerce from operations? Is an ecommerce/ digital business sitting under the same roof as operations curbing customer-centricity and data-driven retailing at airlines?  Airlines need to take the quantum leap into the future, combating organizational/ cultural defiance, limitation of this industry’s legacy technology and operational silos.

Nik Laming, GM - Loyalty Division at Philippines’ carrier Cebu Pacific Air believes that these businesses will more often be physically split into an operating business and more of an Uber- or Airbnb-style business, which is very focused on e-commerce. This would pave way for businesses to be quick enough, innovative enough without the operational concerns to respond to the new market conditions and harness them for profit. “ When there is supposedly an ecommerce/ digital business sitting under the same roof as the operational business it tends to be get slowed down, caught up in procedures and processes that weren’t  designed for nimble and disruptive growth, but were rather designed for operational delivery, regulated delivery where it not about speed, but it’s about accuracy, and quality and safety.”

Being pragmatic

Today the whole talk around digital transformation is being scrutinized minutely. Every airline’s journey is different. But there are some key lessons and recommendations that are emerging from experienced professionals:

·          Any change, right from sharing a mission and goals, needs to be top-down driven, with incisive leadership laying a strong foundation. “The executive leadership needs to buy into and own the undertaking of this magnitude. Then push it through the entire enterprise, break down the barriers for the working group to work,” recommends, Blair Koch, Datalex’s CTO and President USA.

·          Data alone cannot provoke change - rather accessibility, acting on it, customer support, training, incentivizing employees and ending up with the development of a customer-centric culture is key, Barcelona-based RJ Friedlander, CEO of ReviewPro, a specialist in guest intelligence for hotels, told me in an interaction this year.

·          Count on cloud for time to market, agility and cutting down costs. But this doesn’t need to be confused with the actual delivery of customer-centric capabilities required by an airline.

How to be data-driven?

So there is a need to prepare people in an airline.

Learning how a hotel company is doing the same, as explained by the Thailand-based hotel company AMARI, various departments need to take the responsibility of collecting data, and in turn, actionable information is being provided to ensure the experience of a hotel guest improves.  So, for instance, if a guest who has booked via an online travel agency, the hotel front desk staff is being instructed to collect the email id and being trained to get this guest enrolled into a loyalty program. Similarly, if a loyalty program member has turned up, then the screen (yes, there is an additional dashboard on the screen used by the front desk) would reflect relevant information and offer an opportunity to enhance the experience of this guest. So if a guest tends to stay in a certain type of room or prefers a particular location, then the staff can offer the same to them.

So how AMARI is bringing about the change?

“We talk everything in terms of a guest or customer profile,” shared Chetan Patel, ONYX’s Hospitality Group VP Strategic Marketing and E-Commerce. “We are moving towards real-time, 1-to-1, personalised, seamless interactions with our guests. That’s the end goal,” says Patel. The company is working on a new platform.  

As explained by Patel, relevant people in the company are capturing data right from what triggers the search to the next trip, and this entails what people tend to do and what are the opportunities to influence the behavior of the traveller. “The entire journey is being evaluated for our own systems and touchpoints,” mentioned Patel.

There is clarity on the following areas:

·          What data needs to be collected from each touchpoint?

·          What system will be involved at each touchpoint?

·          Where the data will be stored at that touchpoint?

·          Who will be the owner of that data once is collected?

Having an integrated customer profile that combines online and offline data is what AMARI is prioritizing.

Each airline has to chart their own journey. There are common challenges, where one can learn from some of the proactive organizations. Interestingly, in a recent post by Adobe, it was suggested that don’t rush to eradicate the problem of silos. Yes there are organizational silos that block departments from being on the same page working toward one goal, but also be careful about pushing for a sudden change. People aren’t going to be responsive to “new jobs, new skills, and new people to work with” resulting from drastic steps. Don’t risk the continuity of teams, it suggested.

Referring to marketers, it recommended that focus on collaboration (work out a journey map to help address technology and skills gaps), assess goals (cross-team KPIs that align well) and evaluate the transition plans for overall change management.


Hear from experts about unique challenges that airlines face as they attempt customer-centricity at the upcoming 8th Mega Event Worldwide, to be held in Palm Springs, CA, USA (29 November – 1 December, 2017).

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