IT in airlines over last decade – how many marks out of 10?

Last Thursday I spoke on a panel with Edouard Odier of Air France/KLM at the World Air Forum on the subject of the next digital decade and what it means for the air transport industry.   The WAF is now under the auspices of Airline Business and Editor Mark Pilling moderated our panel in his inimitable way. 

Edouard and I did brief introductions and then we had a good discussion with Mark and the audience about what works on the web. How – although online is now pervasive in sales and servicing – you still should cater for those times when people need and want to talk to you. And how other channels are still important.  

I suggested that, now flat beds were pretty pervasive, a lot of innovation is going to be IT -led or IT-inspired. 

Then, Mark asked his final question:  if you had to mark IT out of 10 for its contribution to the airline industry over the last decade, what would you give it? Mark gave IT 4.

Nauturally, as someone who became CIO in 2001 – and has chaired SITA since 2003 – I took vigorous exception to this.  I gave IT an 8!

I did so because I believe that IT has completely revolutionised the air transport industry in the last decade.  Think of the changes online:

  • booking;
  • choosing your seat and meal;
  • changing your flight;
  • booking hotels and car hire;
  • entering APIS data;
  • check-in and printing your boarding pass;
  • downloading it onto your phone;
  • information during disruption like ash clould

and so on and so on. All of which adds upto Air Transport being the most internet-centred industry globally. 

And that is just the customer-facing areas. Behind the scenes, IT has revolutionised how engineering inventory works, resources are allocated at airports and aircraft fleets optimised.

IT has enabled the development of alliances and codeshares, the integration and exchange of Frequent Flyer programmes and, of course, helped every other department in the airline to reduce their costs through automation and optimisation.

I could go on (and on) but perhaps the more we shout about it, the less effective we are.

So I personally believe – and so did Edouard, who awarded IT 8 of 10 as well – that IT has delivered for the Industry over the last decade.

But maybe Mark has hit a raw nerve here? How many of your colleagues – and informed observers like Mark – are not yet convinved?

So I would be very interested in your comments – or simply your own marks out of 10 for IT. 

And also your thoughts about how we can convey to the rest of the Air Transport Industry, just what IT has delivered in the last decade and, even more importantly, just what it will achieve in the next…

About paulcoby
I am CIO at the John Lewis Partnership in the UK. I was Chair of SITA - the airline solutions company owned by the Air Transport Community - for 11 years. I am also on the Boards of Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank and Pets at Home. Previously I was Head of BA Services and for 10 years CIO at British Airways. I am interested in Roman and Military History. The views expressed are entirely my own not my employers.

5 Responses to IT in airlines over last decade – how many marks out of 10?

  1. Douglas Holland says:

    One of the Problems of giving a simple ‘n out of 10’ answer is that in some areas the mark would be high as is your list of Customer Facing Services and Facilities, but in other areas progress has been incremental, or an individual carrier has leveraged there Planning, Crewing Operations and Maintenance Systems aggressively, with good results, whilst another carrie has done the same, but the result ahas shown little benefit. So for Customer Facing systems I would give industry wide 8/10. Providing useful Cabin Managements Systems probably only 5/10. As for Planning, Ops, Crewing & Maintenance: Well in some cases 8/10 because connected all the dots and turned the disparate information each held into a cohensive whole and then used this to maximise benifits to Planning, the Operation in being, post-operation analysis and providing managment at all levels well presented information to make informed strategic and tactical decisions. But others 3/10 not because they didn’t have the basic systems, but they did not leverage them to maximise the potential.

    • paulcoby says:

      Thanks Douglas – you are right that in different areas in different airlines we have very different results. I still think that a blended total is an interesting exercise since it does make you think along the lines you set out here. And of course as you also point it is no use having the 8 out of 10 IT systems, if you don’t utilise them effectively: proposition, process, people then IT.

  2. Ku... says:

    My problem with airline (and many generic travel) systems online is the expectation that you know where you are flying from and to and when. OK, this is probably a reasonable expectation for a lot of travel. However quite often I only know that I want to fly from my local airport. I may have a window of a coupe of weeks in which I would like to be out for 7, 10 days. I find it very difficult to get back the “fuzzy” data from online resources. EG: I want to fly from Airport X, anytime Friday through Monday and I don’t want to fly more than 4 hours. Where can I go? What days can I fly back on? Do ticket prices vary by day of week? etc. I’m going through this right now tryign to organise a short family break. No wonder package holidays and printed brouchures are still so popular!

    Conversely when we flew out to Hong Kong it was easy as anything to find flights, seats, meals, etc. and chose arrival and departure times to suit us. But there, we knew the variables.

    • paulcoby says:

      A|istair You are right airline systems are excellent at answering questions about choices for specific journeys. Much harder to answer the fuzzy question which often occurs around leisure choices for reasons around the complexity of choices. We are working on this.
      Meanwhile you might like to take a look at BA’s dynamic packaging offer (ie the flight + hotel) box on the search screen on the landing page on, where we try not to overload you with choices but give you enough to be very flexible in the package you assemble.

  3. If we focus on IT (the online version) and its contribution to airline industry, then I will agree with Paul, by giving an 8 too. Airlines understood their customers’ needs aka to do everything online, with less hassle and sometimes cheaper. The point is, did the Airline World act as fast as other sectors?
    IMO No and the problem laid at the Airline’s core IT applications, such as its reservation, fares, ticketing and dc (departure control) systems. These systems were the “show stoppers” of any Airline’s IT Dept. due to their complexity and their “legacy” background. Old protocols like Edifact, type b messaging, script languages that a “normal” IT Dept. never heard off, created a glass around these “silos” where was almost impossible to touch them. Only the creativity of “internal geeks” saved the day.
    Words like xml, web services came long after. Even then, an Airline had to create layers of communication to “break” these glasses.
    Six years ago most of the big 4 (Amadeus, Sabre, Travelport, EDS/HP) realized the need to change their legacy systems and transformed them into “open systems”, thus giving Airlines the opportunity to serve their customers the way it should be.
    But they miss one important element: Because they focused on their transformation to open systems, they never thought to change the RULES, the BASICS. Airline world is a complex word, not only because it involves aircrafts or it has a complex operation, but because is a world that was made in late 50s and after so many years, we still have pnrs, tickets, fares basis, classes made by Alphabet letters (!?), mcos, codeshare and interline agreements, through checkin, passive segments, emd, etc, etc.
    The ideal world will be when the big 4 (or newcomers) together with IATA and other governmental entities decide to simplify the Airline Business. Only then we can see the true value of IT-led or IT-inspired.

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