Airlines are complex systems and when bags go missing or delays occur, they’re often the result of multiple operational hiccups. While some things like the weather are out of an airline’s control, other operational glitches that impact customer experiences can be mitigated if the back-end systems are better connected and employees are empowered with the right insights to problem-solve.

SkiftX interviewed Dee Waddell, global managing director for travel and transportation at IBM, to better understand how technology can play a key role in connecting employees to deliver on an airline’s brand promise. Airlines should take an integrated approach to how they plan and deploy technology solutions, Waddell said, so that employees can be empowered to leverage the right information and tools to connect the dots in the customer journey.

SkiftX: What do airlines need to do to effectively deploy and adopt new technology solutions?

Dee Waddell: Everybody in an organization must come together to deliver a relevant customer experience under an integrated vision, strategy, and plan. Point solutions and discrete initiatives can work in the context of a larger strategy. Today, airlines must leverage technology so that every department can get a complete view of the customer experience, including maintenance, operations, and crew management teams. Even the teams that are behind the scenes need to closely collaborate and support the vision of how the customer-facing teams will support the travelers. For example, if the maintenance team doesn’t keep gate agents informed about the severity of an airplane glitch, the gate agents won’t be able to make the most informed decision about whether to delay boarding or not. Therefore, airlines — even if they don’t take a fix-everything-at-once approach — can develop discrete capabilities as long as they work within an overarching customer experience strategy.

SkiftX: How can technology help connect employees better to be able to deliver a seamless experience?

Waddell: Take the example of a family of four who is rebooked on a different flight because of a missed connection. When this family is rebooked, the gate agents might not be able to offer them seats together because the new flight is already pretty full. But, using our Seat Roster mobile app, the employee can locate other passengers in the waiting area, speak to them, and find a way to seat this family together. Apart from exponentially improving the customer experience, there are a few other things happening here: The employee is mobile and can service passengers in the waiting area instead of asking them to queue up behind a desk, the employee is able to be proactive, and since this was done before boarding, the entire boarding process will be easier and faster. Similarly, on board, it is annoying when a frequent flier is told that his or her regular order isn’t available. This is something that could have been prevented through better coordination with the catering team. The flight crew, if aware before they start food service that they are running low on the item, can prioritize the high-loyalty-status members.

With access to the right technology, tools, insights, and teams, employees can collaborate and be proactive to improve the customer experience.

SkiftX: What are some of the benefits that IBM has helped deliver for airlines by using an integrated approach? Could you give some examples?

Waddell: Being able to empower customer-facing airline agents at the airport to resolve customer issues from anywhere with their mobile devices has helped reimagine how airlines deliver services. We have also made it much easier for pilots to prepare for take-off, instead of them having to go through pages and pages of the aircraft manuals in a room at the airport. Not only can pilots be more efficient with their planning but can also play a role in delighting customers. For example, they can give a top-tier flier a special mention or offer a child a tour of the cockpit, thereby creating a delightful experience. United Airlines has really empowered its employees with mobile applications to personalize the on-board experience — from in-flight duty-free shopping and food ordering to reporting cabin faults and real-time passenger compensation for travel mishaps.

But this is just the start. In the future, we will see these connected technologies creating opportunities on the commercial side as well. Once the doors are closed and the safety checks are done, due to various reasons, upselling generally does not happen. Now, using artificial intelligence, imagine if the cabin crew could target those passengers most likely to upgrade to premium economy or business class. Say one of those passengers happens to be allocated a middle seat, but is a high-value flyer, the crew could offer that passenger a business class upgrade for a compelling and reduced price — based on his or her overall value to the airline. Integrated systems allow employees to focus on the customer and deliver incremental revenue and superior customer service.

SkiftX: Is it true that digital transformation has to be a huge financial investment? What can small and medium-sized airlines do to realize some of the same benefits?

Waddell: The value of having an overarching vision and buy-in from all stakeholders is that digital transformation efforts can be executed over time and may not require a heavy financial investment upfront. This then allows airlines, even small ones with limited budgets, to focus on the key capabilities that will have the most significant influence on fulfilling the brand promise and delivering a great customer experience. Airlines can identify which discrete initiative will deliver the largest business impact and return with the least disruption and effort. Relatively simple initiatives, such as adding a text-like chat feature for customer service in the mobile app, may enable customers and employees to elevate the quality and speed of service. There are many digital opportunities to pursue. However, it is important for airlines to ensure that these initiatives are anchored in an overarching digital strategy and transformation plan with buy-in from management teams. This drives a longer-term focus and ensures that capabilities to improve customer experience can be developed in a modular way and as budget is available.

SkiftX: In 2015, you said that “the travel and transportation industry is at an inflection point.” In 2019, do you think that airlines have turned the corner and are truly re-imagining their business with data and modern technology?

Waddell: We continue to be at an inflection point as opportunities to elevate the customer experience by leveraging technology continue to grow and evolve. Some forward-thinking airlines have already found ways to work with us by leveraging artificial intelligence, mobile, and other technologies that are on the leading edge to drive business value. For example, we have done ground-breaking work with Malaysia Airlines by using artificial intelligence to personalize offers for its customers. By focusing on driving key business outcomes like more revenue and better customer experience, the solution we deployed resulted in a 20-percent increase in overall bookings, 54-percent increase in business class bookings, and a 44-percent increase in revenue against a control group. This is a great example of how artificial intelligence can have a fundamental impact on the bottom line.

One very important principle is taking an agile approach to understanding where we can define and deliver business and client value. We use the “IBM Garage” method to host a workshop with our clients and understand their challenges and their business priorities first-hand. We then create solutions that help companies overcome their challenges and realize their business priorities while connecting technology and people.

This content was created collaboratively by IBM and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.