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Airlines Struggle to Take Advantage of Big Data

Jul 28, 2014 7:30 am

PRNewsFoto  / Delta Air Lines

Delta flight attendants use Nokia Lumia 1520 devices on board. PRNewsFoto / Delta Air Lines


The aviation industry is sitting on a bundle.

The wealth of information available to airlines, and the potential revenue airlines can gain from Big Data is beyond measure. Airlines have an opportunity to use passenger information to revolutionize the passenger experience—if they could only figure out how.

With millions of passengers traveling every day, millions making bookings, and more potential travelers scouring travel sites and airline sites for the best deals, a googol data points are gathered daily; where they are trapped in data Silos to age and perish—the gold they represent squandered.

Though in measured words, characteristic of their big-picture, reserved, IT-friendly personas, this is what Boxever’s VP of Sales, Ultan O’Brian, and VP of Marketing, Allyson Pelletier, impressed upon us when we spoke to them about Big Data and aviation.

The reason for this waste is two-fold. Big Data at airlines is very big. IT departments at airlines, however, are not. Putting Big Data to work, allowing airlines to free that revenue from their silos, and improve the passenger experience, is such a big concept that many airlines have trouble figuring out where to start.

“Airlines recognize at an executive level that Big Data can improve services,” O’Brian tells Skift. “If they mine data, they’ll find gold but they’re not putting gold to use. It needs a bit of alchemy to get it right. Many airlines feel they can do this in-house, by recruiting data analysts. Some are succeeding, but other airlines are not ready. They’re trapped in a retail mentality.”

“Gathering the data is important,” Pelletier says. “But trying to bring that data together, and being able to use it to actively engage with the customer is the objective.”

There are many silos in aviation: the reservations systems, the email systems of customer service representatives, the intelligence and feedback gathered through social media, web-site data, and operational data. They have different operating systems, different methods by which the data is gathered and stored. Then, there is the ultimate compendium of silos: the silos of the customer-contact personnel (the check-in staff, lounge staff, gate staff and crew) whose interactions with the customer are one-to-one leaving the intelligence gathered from those interactions unrecorded.

This Big Data disconnect is responsible for many passenger pain-points: cumbersome and time-consuming flight searches to make reservations, lack of up-to-date flight information, delays, lost luggage. Add to that the general impersonal handling of customers which leaves fliers feeling lost, unappreciated.

Much as airlines and airports say they want to improve the passenger experience, their inability to apply stored intelligence on customers keeps aviation from reaching that shared ideal of a personalized and seamless travel experience.

“The types of data that airlines can tap into go beyond the traditional data in their IT silos and reservations systems,” says Helen Porter, Vice President Passenger Portfolio Strategy Passenger Solutions at SITA. “Social Media interactions yield a wealth of additional information to help personalize the passenger experience. And there are other types of data use evolving, with the internet of things, tracking resources, inventory, maintenance of the aircraft. The maintenance is an evolving area with opportunity for cost savings.”

“Travel is all about the context,” O’Brian says. “The context defines the experience. A data system needs to reflect an understanding of the benefits of that contextualized information. Just take Facebook, for example. Facebook is a survey going on 24 hours a day. Airlines should be able to listen to that and apply that knowledge. It builds more loyalty, more connection with the customers. It changes the relationship to one where customers feel: ‘you know who I am and what I want.’ Airlines who do this will win.”

“To support an effective strategy around personalization, airlines need an agile technology architecture and infrastructure,” Porter says. “What the passenger sees is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the technology footprint required.”

To complicate matters for airlines, as they struggle to coordinate the various sources of data they manage, airlines are introducing new technologies which will add new data to the mountain of data left to climb.

“Wireless connectivity creates an opportunity for airlines and service provides to provide passengers with personalized services,” Gregory Ouillon, Vice President, Air Transport Industry Cloud, SITA tells Skift. “It can be personalization based on the information loaded to the crew’s tablets prior to boarding the flight, allowing them to identify different passenger needs, but it can get more sophisticated.”

Capturing the Passenger Experience

One sophistication is the capitalizing on the hardware asset of IFE, with its potential to personalize entertainment for passengers at the same time that it gathers useful passenger data. “You can tailor content on the IFE based on what you know the passenger wants, and what’s more you can do more frequent updates of content,” Veronique Blanc, Chief Technical Officer at OnAir tells Skift.

“Right now, static content is updated monthly, but it can change to be more aligned with passenger preferences, updated live according to content offers which better suit the airline passengers’ historic preferences. That’s something we can do now with OnAir play. Airlines can stream content, and the software captures data on what people watch. It’s just a matter of bringing together the knowledge from previous passengers.”

Another sophistication, Blanc points out, is the effective use of hardware issued to crew and passenger service personnel. “65% of airlines will have issued tablets to their crew by 2016. Right now, the data is loaded on the ground, allowing for some automation of different tasks via the tablet, but with the tablet connected in flight the amount of information and services which can be provided improves,” Blanc says. “Take payment processing for inflight retail. Not only can the crew offer customized retail offerings to passengers based on previous preferences with special promotions, but they can also validate payment live. This is an important factor for airlines who suffer 3%-4% fraud on their retail transactions in flight.”

“An interesting application is to look at bad experiences.” Blanc says. “It sets the passengers’ mood. Now imagine that that information was captured, that one flight attendant knew that a passenger coming onboard just had a bad experience in a connecting flight, for example. They’re ready to step in and acknowledge the customer accordingly, give them extra attention, be aware of their mood before they board the plane and help to turn it around. It’s part to end-to-end service consistency. Moving away from a monolithic institution to a highly personalized service.”

“There is far better technology available today,” Porter tells Skift. “The exponential growth of data presents great opportunities for airlines. Capitalizing on that data is a competitive imperative for aviation.”

During our conversation, Porter used the term ‘competitive imperative’ several times. After speaking to our experts it is clear that Big Data management is a matter of great urgency before aviation falls even further behind the service standards passengers receive in from other service providers and the expectations of personalization those other experiences set in those passengers as consumers.

But, as Pelletier points out: “Most airlines are still trying to connect data points in the cabin.” And it isn’t just the data lost in the cabin which is problematic. All these technological advancements need funding from airlines—who operate on very tight margins. If airlines do not capitalize on that data, they lose income. Without income, airlines cannot develop the infrastructure to capitalize on that data.

This logic trap could account for the uncertainty and indecisiveness at the executive level of these airlines on how to proceed. But again, we come to Porter’s “competitive imperative.”

“Big Data gives a full view to airlines of passenger sales and customer service effectiveness,” Pelletier tells us. “If potential customers walk away from the website, airlines using data effectively can invite them back to make the purchase.” The visit to the website is not “forgotten.” The sales opportunity is not lost.

Solving the Mobile Challenge

Add new trends in mobility solutions. Airlines increasingly interact with passengers through their mobile apps as sales and booking interfaces, and are working on implementation of NFC-based and iBeacon-based transactions and wayfinding services–with the potential of producing yet more data to process. This presents airlines with a golden opportunity to capture intelligence on the consumer trends of their passengers, which can then be used to enhance the services they offer.

“By better understanding passengers as consumers,” O’Brian tells Skift, “knowing their consumer behaviors, airlines can provide individual offerings. Airlines will know when they book and how they book.”

“We can bring information on board which can benefit the airlines’ merchandising, helping them up-sell products. From a technical standpoint, anything is possible. Airlines can also use more effective social media monitoring to get better feedback, to identify what may be lacking in the product.”

There are cost reduction benefits as well: opportunities to streamline maintenance through the data gathered from nose-to-tail connected aircraft. Connected aircraft can send data back to operations on their systems, which maximizes the use of the equipment and resources; optimizing maintenance—reducing waste and travel delays.

Boxever points out that big as the Big Data behemoth might appear, resolving the challenges it presents is simpler than many airline executives might expect. O’Brian believes the greatest change necessary is one of corporate culture, an openness to a new way of looking at how information is gathered and exchanged.

O’Brian tells us Boxever can quickly integrate all the silos into one coherent and collaborative system of intelligence. He points out that change is faster at the lean and nimble low-cost carriers, compared to legacy carriers who have more Big Data baggage to carry. “It takes 18-24 months to do that,” he says of integrating systems at a low-cost carrier. “They could switch it on very quickly.” He adds: “Hybrid carriers, who want to differentiate themselves through the customer experience are already smart about Big Data.”

But nothing either Boxever or SITA told Skift was meant to discourage larger airlines from taking on the Big Job. To the contrary, both emphasized that even the largest carriers can establish effective systems of data integration with the right support, and both told Skift that some progress is already underway.

“Airlines have made great strides in learning how to use the data they gather. As a result, the industry has improved the passenger experience,” Porter tells us. She adds the caveat: “As airlines do more to engage customers directly they need better data to make business decisions.”

No matter how big a climb to conquer the Big Data mountain of aviation, leaving those mounds of gold stuck in silos is a waste aviation cannot afford.

Marisa Garcia has worked in aviation since 1994, spending 16 years on the design and manufacturing of cabin interiors and cabin safety equipment. She shares insights gained from this experience on Flight Chic and Tweets as @designerjet.

 

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