Torsten Welte, Global Vice President and Head of Aerospace and Defense, SAP
As anyone who experienced the crowds jamming airports and airplane cabins this summer will attest, air travel has rebounded in a big way. And that means reaccustoming ourselves to the realities of flying.
For too many travelers, those realities include frustrating, hurry-up-and-wait delays, if not to a flight then at security or some other point in the journey, feeling nickel-and-dimed by the airline’s service, and overall, an often disjointed, unpleasant experience. As convenient and horizon-expanding as air travel is, the actual door-to-door experience is frequently lackluster. And while it’s tempting to point the finger at the airlines, the real culprit is a lack of connection, communication and collaboration among the various segments of what today is a haphazardly connected experiential chain. What if, instead of a stressful lead-in to a family vacation or business trip, the experience before, during and after a flight was synced and seamless, so it complemented or even enhanced the journey instead of detracting from it?
That experience could go something like this: Lana has a business trip to see an important client. Through a single, integrated online portal, she reserves her roundtrip flight, as well as Lyft rides at both ends of the journey. Through the portal, she also tells the airline the home improvement shows she wants to watch in-flight and, through partner businesses that also are part of the portal, orders and pays for a chai tea and pastry that she’ll pick up on her walk to the gate.
On departure day, Lana gets a text that her flight is delayed an hour, and that factoring in current traffic and wait time at airport security, her Uber will be there 45 minutes later than originally scheduled, to ensure she gets to the plane on-time. Oh, and her order for the chai tea and scone will be pushed back 45 minutes, too.
Once Lana is seated onboard, chai and scone in hand, the intelligent seat and climate system immediately adjust to the comfort preferences the airline has on record for her. While in the air, she decides she wants to visit a certain restaurant in her destination city. And a pedicure sounds good, too. So, using the airline portal she accesses through the seat-back entertain system, she contacts the airline’s online passenger concierge, who schedules those for her. Later, just as the “Fixer Upper” episode she’s watching concludes and the plane begins to descend, a message appears onscreen telling her which baggage carousel to grab her suitcase, and where to meet her Uber driver.
Experiences like this are on airlines’ radar. During a recent podcast from the New York Times, American CEO Doug Parker said that in the post-pandemic world, he expects airlines will put “much more focus on services customers are willing to pay for in addition to getting from Point A to Point B. You’re going to see more and more of that as we come out of this.”Those services, he added, will be geared toward improving the customer experience:
“More room, boarding earlier, services on the ground. You’ll see product differentiation within the airplane itself.”
Elevating the air traveler’s experience isn’t an easy fix, however. It will take cooperation and a commitment to digitalization among a wide range of organizations that are (or could be) part of the air travel value chain. And will take a catalyst, a hero, within those organizations.
The CIO is ideally suited to play that role. In fact, they’re already doing so in the automotive value chain, helping OEMs, their suppliers and other entities to reinvent the customer experience around and inside the automobile.BMW, for example, is using a collaborative digital experience management platform to solidify relationships with its dealers and end customers. On a broader scale, the Catena-X Automotive Network is a cross-industry alliance of companies(Mercedes-Benz, Deutsche Telekom, Bosch, Siemens, Volkswagen, SAP and others) that is developing uniform standards for the secure, transparent exchange of data and information within the German auto industry, with the goal of strengthening the supply chain to improve customer outcomes.
The air travel industry can, and should, be pursuing similar alliances. But it’s going to take a top-to-bottom commitment from not just the airlines, but the companies that provide their engines, entertainment systems, seats and even the parts that flyers don’t see, as well as airport operators and others, to embrace collaborative, digital and data-informed business practices. By embracing connected, digital approaches, the air travel industry has an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent the air travel experience, and their own businesses.
On the Ground
Creating a seamless door-to-door journey like Lana’s, from home, across multiple airports and beyond, requires development of cross-industry business networks in which airlines, airport operators, airport vendors, transportation services, etc., are connected and sharing information with and about the customer in real time. The more robust, integrated and connected the value chain, the more seamless the experience that chain can offer the air traveler, and the better positioned that value chain (and its constituent companies) will be to attract business.
Ultimately, we’ll see entire value chains competing against one another, not just individual companies. And those that provide the highest-value experiences will come out on top. Getting there will require companies to reinvent their business models to become more service- and value chain-focused, and (as Catena-X is doing) to develop a connected, non-siloed digital infrastructure to support that focus.
In the Cabin
The same connected, networked and collaborative cross-company and cross-industry approach will be instrumental in elevating the air traveler’s in-flight experience. In July, HAECO Cabin Solutions announced a partnership with Diehl Aviation to partner on aircraft interior products and services, from lighting, lavatories and seating to galley design, installation and certification, with Doug Rasmussen, President and Group Director of HAECO Cabin Solutions, touting their ability “to provide a level of service to our customers which we feel is missing in the industry…The overall combination allows us to provide more efficient and passenger-centric cabin interiors.”
Alliances like this hint at the opportunities for the air travel value chain to collaborate in support of the “connected traveler.” Airlines could, for example, develop a deep knowledge of travelers like Lana to learn their preferences for in-cabin climate and comfort settings, food, drink and entertainment preferences, etc. They then can share this information with their suppliers — the companies that build seats, entertainment systems, climate-control systems and their subcomponents — in order to collaboratively design more customer-friendly products. This collaboration focuses on data. Having companies tightly networked and sharing design data for future products, along with data from manufacturing, supply chain, certification and actual product operation, would shorten innovation cycles by establishing a true digital thread, enabling them to bring improved products to market faster, and to develop in-flight services that heighten the flyer’s experience. So, for example, the home-improvement show Lana didn’t finish during the first segment of her journey would, once she got settled during the second segment, pick up right where it left off, even though she’s flying two different airlines.
For the aerospace and travel industries, meeting customer expectations for a seamless, connected experience will take an unprecedented level of trust and common purpose across the value chain, similar to what we’re seeing with the Catena-X initiative. It also will take a hero. As heavily as that experience will depend on digital networks and data, who better to play the hero’s role than the CIO?