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Next-Gen Airlines, a Digital Business
Author: Ravinder Pal Singh, Chief Information & Innovation Officer, VistaraSubscribe
Next-Gen Airlines, a Digital Business
Ravinder Pal Singh, Chief Information and Innovation Officer, Vistara offers an experience based look at why airlines need to work on their digital presence
HOW AIRLINES WORK
Having been involved in commercial aviation and aviation IT for some years now, I wanted to take the time to reflect on how things have evolved in that time and whether there might now be some new ideas of ways to develop the services offered by airlines. In one sense, the genesis of this article can be traced back to attending an Aircraft Commerce conference five years ago as a computer science engineer; flying aircraft and writing software for engine diagnostics. Since then, I have learned a lot about the industry and worked writing software as well as growing a business from US$8 million to over US$300 million with 4 digit growth in digitization and automation but, I wanted to learn more about airlines, how they work and what a technologist can do in an airline; and not necessarily from a maintenance perspective. I was also taken aback at how little commodity technology is being used in airlines globally today.
WHAT PASSENGERS EXPECT
So this article is going to look at how a technologist can think about digitization or how an airline can operate in a digital mode. But before that, one thing I have noticed is that there is nothing fancy about the business of an airline; the whole notion that airlines and commercial aviation are glamorous does not accord with the reality. This article will look at airlines from the point of view of an engineer, a code writer using the example of a glimpse at a particular platform that I am writing for how a journey for a customer, a passenger of an airline, can be improved: how that passenger seriously thinks about the airline and what it offers and how they should interact. The whole idea started when I was trying to book a ticket for my mother and found myself struggling. But we’ll return to that later.
Also, while observing the end-to-end digital landscape of travel, in an extreme scenario a passenger is expected to download the apps for the car rental/taxi company, the airline, the departure airport, the connecting airport, the arrival airport, and the hotel. That’s six apps for a single trip, which may or may not occur again. Hence from a technology perspective AI (artificial intelligence) and bots will be one the four technologies which will disrupt airline software landscape, today they are cheaper so let’s adopt them and build something cool which is disruptive and truly differentiates an airline.
AIRLINES AND DIFFERENTIATION
One of the first things that the board and leadership of any airline should ask is ‘can we generate more revenues out of our digital channel?’ Usually most veteran technologists in an airline react by looking whether there is something that could be copied and, to this end, may shop or look around at some mobile applications, some domestic applications and some international applications.
This is not to be critical of any particular airlines but the more I looked at their digital presences, the more I felt that the applications available were mundane, boring, similar, confusing… in short, there was little apparent differentiation. Every airline, was saying, ‘Hey, we are different and our digital channels are different.’ But if one actually looks at these various airline digital offerings, they are all very similar, as if multiple software developers had come together, created a template and, apart from individual colors or slight variations in the arrangements of the main items, created very similar products.
That may work for a reservations system, GDS (global distribution system) and suchlike where you don’t have to compete with your competitors. But, in terms of digital; capability, airlines do compete with so many other people, even with some young disruptive software writers or, perhaps in the future, with Google itself.
WHAT CONCERNS PASSENGERS?
A lot of people talk about machine learning, natural language processing (NLP), big data and so on. But I have rarely seen an airline that is seriously thinking about creating something and, when it has been created, truly conversing with customers and making money out of it. The cool thing here is that it’s not necessary to worry too much about the NLP part, the algorithms already exist; it’s a question of tuning them.
The luxury of being an Innovation Officer is you can hold things like an ideathon or hackathon with some young people who’ll ask questions such as, ‘How come when I’m on an aircraft, I don’t know whether my baggage is on the same aircraft or not?’ or ‘Why can’t you tell me how much time it will take to complete the journey at a particular time of day because Google Map can tell me how long a journey will take at different times of the day?’ These are just simple questions and comments that give an insight into how customers think, what are their priorities and what options they want as opposed to the kind of options that airlines might think customers want.
So, returning to what started my thinking on this, when I was trying to book a flight for my mother who requires special food: I was trying to identify an airline where there would be somebody who’d understand what that ‘special’ really means instead of pre-defining it (for example what diabetic means?) and ensure that she would get the correct food. I needed somebody who would arrange a taxi for her and could, when the taxi arrived, SMS to me the driver’s number and name and make sure that they’d understand that she is diabetic and take care of her. I wanted to find an airline that would email me to confirm that her baggage had arrived safely because she has to carry a lot of medicines when she travels. I needed to know if somebody could tell me is it raining where she has arrived and if so could they make sure she had her umbrella. These are all very small things but are, in my opinion, true service differentiators. I’m not looking at it as an airline professional where you think about differentiation as different aircraft, different seats in different colors but in similar formats with similar cabin crew and similar pilots flying similar routes. Perhaps the food on offer varies but the journey will be similar and that is what can become a differentiator for the business.
DIGITAL TECHNOLOGIES CAN SHOW THE WAY FORWARD
The technologies that I have referred to (NLP, Cloud, machine learning) are fancy technologies but you don’t have to understand those fancy technologies. When considering a software solution to differentiate airlines according to what their passengers want rather than according to what it is easy to achieve within the solution template, I simply combined some of the ideas from the ideathon/hackathon mentioned above with the experience gained when booking a ticket for my mother (also above) using easily accessible language to create a piece of code in about 20 days which could be developed as a software solution in a few months. The major problem that I found was in terms of using the APIs (application programming interfaces) of the platform; not because those APIs were difficult to use but they were difficult to understand in terms of what they do, how to call them, what would be the end results, etc. The real problem was the pricing part of it, it is very expensive to connect and complete just one transaction. But I’m sure that can be overcome, as expensive platforms, especially if they are used by a community, are bound to become commoditized and thus cheaper, I’m sure disruption will soon happen in areas of GDS, reservations systems etc. in alignment to CASK (Cost of Available Seat-Kilometer) and RASK (Revenue per Available Seat-Kilometer) of airlines, all kinds and formats of airlines.
Overall, I see a real opportunity for airlines to build very distinct service offerings by listening to what customers want and by using available software augmented with purpose built solutions to support simple ideas that really matter to the travelling public.
Ravinder Pal Singh
Chief Information & Innovation Officer
Ravinder Pal Singh (Ravi) is an award winning technologist who has worked in various IT organizations and created future technology avatars. In the recent past he has been associated with a leader in technology and big 4 management consulting firm to help their customers in transformation. His most recent role before his present position was at a leading Aviation Engineering Services firm. As Chief of Information and Innovation he is helping Tata-SIA (Vistara) to consolidate, identify, acquire, evaluate and incubate the right technology for its business.
Views mentioned in this article are the views of Mr Singh as technologist in his personal capacity.