Customer Interaction – the next frontier for Airline IT

The 11th SITA/Airline Business IT Summit held in June in Brussels was, I think, the best yet.

I had the hard task at the end of the Summit – after a string of fascinating and lively speeches and presentations – of summarising those contributions.  This is what I said then.

Our first speaker was Peter Hartman, CEO of KLM, who told us about his team of over 20 members who drive KLM’s social networking strategy.  They were responsible for the ground-breaking initiative at Schiphol where they delighted passengers waiting to Board with small presents, tailored to their destination and their interests (as inferred from their Facebook or other social presence).   As Peter said about social networking, “Do it, don’t talk!”

Peter predicted that in future people will choose the airline they fly on through the recommendations of their social media connections.  After all, most of us use Trip Adviser now to check out hotels in advance.

In response to questions, Peter returned to the basics of what CEOs expect from Airline CIOs – the technology needs to work reliably and to costs must keep going down!

Dr Munir Majid, Chairman of MAS, talked about the convergence of technology in a “flattening World”.  Dr Majid argued that innovation matters for survival – something he illustrated with Malaysian’s innovative use of Facebook for Group bookings.

Jan Albrecht, CEO of the Star Alliance, stressed the importance of doing more IT for less.  He saw it as essential that airline IT departments provided users with modern IT tools and technology that worked with app-like ease.   Fresh thinking was essential these days in the new social-networked world.  He mused on what Steve Jobs would do for airline technology.   He asked how we as an industry could catch up with our customers’ expectations.

Having had a challenging start from the CEOs on both social networking and getting the basics right, the audience of IT Directors and CIOs returned (after a nerve-steadying cup of coffee) to a technical session on Cloud Computing.

This was a double act from Vivek Badrinath and Francesco Violante, the CEOs of OBS and SITA.  They described what I believe is going to be a game-changer for the Air Transport Industry – the Industry’s own private Cloud.  OBS and SITA described how they would provide on-demand services from a network of six data-centres in five Continents to airlines and airports – consistently, securely and cost-effectively.  Francesco pointed to the possibility of savings from virtual CUTE and SSKs, and on-demand apps.

After lunch, we were privileged to hear two industry technology experts who attempted to shock the audience: Philip Wolf, CEO of PhoCusWright, looked at how mobility and connectivity were transforming today’s travel industry. Online booking was continuing to grow and there would be 2billion new travelers by 2030.  “What would the impact of a travel app from Google be?” he asked.  His challenge to the audience was to wake up to the impact of mobility and connectivity – these days, devices know where you are, who you like and what you want.

Then Nawal Taneja, Professor of Aviation at Ohio State University, warmed to this theme and urged airlines to provide genuinely personalized service.  What if Google or Apple could take over the retail distribution of airline services? Then, he warned, the airlines would become simply the ‘manufacturer’ of seats!

Chris Klingenberg, CIO of Lufthansa (and fellow SITA Board member), provided what he termed an antidote to all this very technology-based agenda.  He said airlines would not be so foolish as to give away their “crown jewels” in the form of the link to their customers.  They would remain masters of their own destiny.   He also advanced the refreshing notion that you should be proud of higher IT spend than your competitors since this showed you were innovating ahead of them.   He advocated bringing IT out of the “Techie Corner” and getting the Boardroom to understand how important it was.  Great points, I thought!

We then finished with two excellent contributions, the first from Antoine Rostworowski, of Aeroports de Montreal, who stressed the importance of integrating airports into the new visions for airline passengers.  Then Qiang Li, MD of Information Management at Air China, talked about the challenges of massive growth that they face.  He came up with a tremendous list of the IT initiatives he is leading, which would form a great ‘to do’ list for any airline CIO:

  • Cloud Computing
  • Mobile
  • Social Networking
  • Passenger Service Systems
  • Customer Relationship Management, and
  • In-flight Connectivity.

So then I had to try to summarise what all this adds up to!  I think the most important fact is that there was total agreement between CEOs and CIOs, analysts and suppliers, airlines and airports, that IT really matters in the modern world.

We have heard that before and it is really important.  But there is another new factor: we in IT are now central to the airlines’ and airports’ relationship with customers through game-changing technology – mobility is now ubiquitous and social networking adds a completely new dimension to customer relationships.

So, IT matters – and that’s now widely recognised.

And IT is central to airlines in operations, in selling, in servicing and, now, in customer interaction.

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.

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