Ai Editorial: Data – a key starting point in digital transformation

First Published on 3rd September, 2018

Ai Editorial: Data, along with airline-specific systems for both operations and commerce, IT architecture, the talent pool for an agile set up and emerging industry processes such as IATA’s One Order, can propel customer-centricity, writes Ai’s Ritesh Gupta


Are full-service airlines in danger of getting disrupted or their hub and spoke model would remain a robust safety net?  Are we doing enough as an industry to efficiently leverage data to manage customer experience and operational efficiency?

These intriguing questions have emerged over the years as various external factors have been impacting airlines, including their overall customer service and offerings for passengers. The industry has responded, even though the pace of change is questioned quite often.

Every aspect of customer-facing facet is under scrutiny.

Data – the starting point 

If today the airline staff finds it challenging to manage customer interaction in case of a delay in a flight’s schedule or fails to have a bigger say in the early stages of the booking funnel, it does indicate that the airline is struggling in today’s connected era. This is simply because passengers’ expectations aren’t the same anymore.  Why aren’t we in a position to provide similar or better experience as Uber?

“Data management is the foundation to managing personalized customer experience and increased revenues”, asserts Vijay Anand, Global Industry Leader for Travel and Transportation at IBM. Given the complexities involved in airline operations, he believes it is not fair to directly compare airlines with Uber although there are best practices that can be adopted from other industries.

When asked about loyalty, Anand said that in his view “loyalty in today’s context is quite different than in the past. For example, the next generation is not worried about tier status and miles/points. They are looking for instant recognition and instant rewards!”

Data key to experience optimization

So where do airlines stand, considering that they have to deal with disparate data sources, organization silos and even outdated processes/ interfaces that the staff at the airport uses to serve passengers? There are cases where passengers are more proactive in gathering updates and information about flights than the airline/airport staff.

“It’s a work in progress. The industry recognizes the importance of integrated data management and several airlines have projects in place to manage big data and analytics more efficiently. We are beginning to see Airlines leveraging data at various tough points throughout the passenger journey. With mobile apps, Airlines are enabling employees with the right information at the right time, which helps in both customer experience management and faster communications internally to ensure efficient operations,” said Anand.

Benefitting from a robust data strategy  

·          Paving way for operationalizing of data: The staff at the check-in desk or at the gate is being equipped with mobile devices to serve passengers based on their travel history, frequent flyer status, the name of their company, past experiences etc.  Airlines can focus on uniting all business rules and decisions, and workout a central hub for business decisions to be made at scale.

·          Personalization at scale: With continuous ingestion of data, airlines can count on artificial intelligence and decision-making algorithms to handle increased complexity. IBM Travel Retail platform uses machine learning as an integral capability for personalization, including shopping, buying and in-journey experiences. The platform learns in real-time on what offers were selected to better optimize price, promotion etc. The system automatically integrates data, learns by itself and reasons what to offer and this includes one’s propensity to buy.

·          Refining data processing for NDC: As airlines sharpen their ability to store and analyze large volumes of disparate data, how are they looking at understanding the search pattern even from their indirect channels especially in the wake of IATA’s NDC standard? Airlines with robust XML data processing capabilities allow multiple data sources such as Kafka log queues or packet level network traffic from an NDC system to be captured and processed for key IT and business data content that can then be fed into corporate BI environment. So by counting on search data, an airline can differentiate their offering – by being aware of the intent and what is of interest to passengers, digital teams can embrace rapid learning cycles and work on tailored offering for different channels. 

To conclude, so be it for personalization, improving customer service at various touchpoints or making the most of IATA’s standard NDC or One Order, it is all about putting things in order to improve the passenger experience. All of this is part of the same puzzle. For example, with profiles of passengers being refined continuously and order management system being the central source of truth, a passenger comes and shares the name at a touchpoint, and that is enough to service in the best possible manner – by being aware of the current flight, current order, servicing needs etc. The last interaction, be it for self-service kiosk or a customer service agent, is clearly documented.   

As for retailing, airlines can differentiate by playing a role, starting from discovering a destination to offering trip essentials. Airlines already have set up a strong partnership ecosystem. The key is to offer the right product in a personalized manner. It is imperative for airlines to fill up seats at a much better yield. Working on a two-sided marketplace would take time. But, yes such model where a traveller or a loyalty program member is offered a relevant product, including ones from the non-travel category, means the airline can benefit from a data-driven learning loop.  More they click and shop, more the airline learns about the customer.

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