Ai Editorial: 5 key areas impacting airlines’ journey of digitalization

First Published on 2nd April, 2018

Ai Editorial: There are many aspects that are being concurrently evaluated as airlines gear up for what all is needed to serve passengers in an earnest manner – content, data, analytics, technology, optimizing user experience (UX), embracing emerging industry processes etc., writes Ai’s Ritesh Gupta  


As we inch toward the commencement of the 12th edition of Ai’s Ancillary Merchandising Conference, to be held next week in Edinburgh, Scotland, a number of exciting sessions await us. It would be fascinating to assess how airlines are transitioning into a digital enterprise. Some of the key areas that are going to be explored are:

1.     Organizational structure: This aspect is often cited as major roadblock to being data-centric, be it for customer service or retailing. 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. It is worth assessing how certain airlines with a decision to appoint a team of digital leaders are progressing at this juncture. The roles include responsibility for accelerating transformation, facilitating decision making through analytics, making the most of cloud services, how to make the most of user experience and product development teams, cutting down on the threat or even negating the impact of cybercrimes, data breaches etc. Of course, an airline’s business continuity is of high priority, irrespective of whatever is being planned.

“Digital transformation goes really deep. It’s certainly not about assets, it’s not even about processes and methodologies. It’s about culture. The digital world brings significantly different complexity and speed as we are used to in the classical economy,” points out Marko Javornik, VP/GM Mobility and Travel, Comtrade Digital Services.

Also, airlines need to move swiftly when it comes to refining of their digital assets. Kevin O’Shaughnessy, CEO and co-founder, indicates businesses could explore the possibility of appointing a project manner, responsible for “getting something done quickly and get out of the door in an agile way”. This is an interesting approach to product development for the airline project manager. So consider the option of “microservices for your own project”, in addition to big IT projects and other approaches to IT set up, says O’Shaughnessy.

2.     Platform economy model: How to be a part of any 3rd party ecosystem and enable passengers to complete a transaction or even service them? How to make the most of 1st party data and blend it with data platforms of 2nd party or 3rd party partners to serve the passenger in the best possible manner? This is where airlines can benefit most from the platform economy model, leveraging widely available data in the context of each consumer’s journey. In such model, personalization and speed have proven to underpin value creation. Platform economics rely on open models and one major benefit is coming to grips with unforeseen synergies with partners. “Say, a consumer regularly orders a fresh food item, a dessert via an online retailer, and this same item is available on a flight. Can it be served to the same consumer on a flight? “With data, connectivity and the ability to map data, anything is possible,” said a source.

So airlines need to embrace open and accessible systems. This means that master data such as booking data, schedules, fares and profiles should be available for direct and real-time access for export to other systems and further it needs to be possible to update or enrich data by other third party systems. Certainly that is the job of IT vendors and travel tech teams are working on this with standardized XML technology, as explained recently by TravelSky Technology’s Lars Gaebler, Director - Marketing and Sales.

Also, from IT perspective, airlines are evaluating the possibility of incorporating new processes, such as IATA’s One Order, in their IT set up to come up with a consistent experience across the booking funnel. One platform that’s a blend of both offer and order management, standing out for business intelligence, passenger identification module etc. for a seamless journey (being aware of the current flight, current order, servicing needs etc.).

3.     Delivering digital experiences: Airlines need to be where their customers are, which means going to them and bringing the airline brand and experience to the customer. This means allowing the user to book a flight with an airline directly from any platform or digital device, for example if your customers are mostly on Facebook allow them to book the flight on Facebook, not try to convince them to visit a website, says Mike Slone, Chief Experience Officer, Travelaer.

Also, airlines need to control the user interface and functionality on their digital experiences. The future of an airline’s digital success is building their own “best of breed” platform that can incorporate seamlessly the best travel tech products or modules into one experience, says Slone.

Airlines also need to be spot on with their respective experience designs strategies. If we only refer to mobile, airlines still have a long way to go, be it for design for various platforms (operating systems work with unique conventions and standards), apt onboarding processes, evaluating the context of mobile interactions, etc. The capabilities of a smartphone, along with convergence of IoT sensors, be it for interacting with objects, voice search, augmented reality etc. need to be factored in and accordingly deliver relevant experiences.

4.     Machine learning, AI and open APIs: Airlines not only need to collect and capitalize on the 1st part data within their organization, but they also apply machine learning to better comprehend the journey the passenger is taking. In addition to this, by embracing API-first approach, airlines can connect with developers, technology partners etc.

Also, as airlines lend a new dimension to every interaction via chatbots, “digital humans” etc. they have a new touchpoint. On one hand, these assistants symbolize the core values of the organization they will represent but also they need to learn fast from a customer-facing role and make every interaction better. While a human computing engine, for instance, one introduced by Air New Zealand, thrives on emotional and artificial intelligence, is depicting emotional intelligence, organizations are also trying to count on facial coding or voice analytics in understanding how travellers feel or what their intent is. Say you choose to deal with a “digital human” and you are excited, you are in command. Even if this representative crosses the hurdle of answering basic questions that it is designed for, how about going deeper by blending bioanalytics in real-time and coming up with best possible answer in terms of making the most of the profile of the traveller (past history, preferences etc.), backed by apt business rules for content, merchandising etc. The blend of artificial intelligence, cognitive computing and emotional data could well lend a new dimension to ascertaining how a traveller “feels” and accordingly delivering the best possible customer service or an ad or a digital experience.

So there are new touchpoints, powered by AI, and there is new type of data (pertaining to travellers) that makes the puzzle more complex.  

5.     Being trustworthy: Even as airlines attempt to set up their respective core data assets, there is no scope for misuse of data. There is a need to be aware of registered consent when accessing customer data (so data coming from any touchpoint and system, the related computation or processing of data is to be done in sync with consent, assess how the data is being used, what data is being used and for how long that data can be used), address data audits in a speedy, exhaustive manner (say who has been accessing data) and ensure there is consent across all touchpoints (including integration with consent registration databases). The core data asset, say a customer data platform, needs to collect, manage, and store personal data responsibly. This is where the upcoming regulation, GDPR or General Data Protection Regulation, also comes in.


Hear from airlines, digital marketing and travel tech specialists at the upcoming Ancillary Merchandising Conference, to be held in Edinburgh, Scotland this year (9-11 April, 2018).

For more info, click here                   

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