How to get passengers to the airport more efficiently and generate new revenue opportunities when they get there are two issues currently preoccupying airlines.
That’s according to senior technologists from American Airlines, who flew to Dublin recently to meet representatives from Ireland’s fast-growing cluster of travel technology companies.
Spencer Kaiser, principal architect emerging technology at American Airlines, and Kyle Lloyd, its innovation manager, addressed an event co-organised by Enterprise Ireland, the trade and innovation agency, in conjunction with the Dublin chapter of Travel Massive.
How to sell into the world’s largest airline
The purpose of the event was not just to showcase the breadth of travel technology companies in Ireland already succeeding around the globe, but to provide insights to travel tech start-ups about how to sell more effectively into one of the world’s best-known airlines.
American Airlines is the world’s largest airline by any metric – fleet size, revenue, passengers, kilometres flown, and destinations served.
Ireland is an established hub for travel technology across a range of subsectors. Established players include companies like Hostelworld is the world’s leading hostel-focused booking platform, with 30,000 in 180 countries. Personalisation platform Boxever uses data and AI to help companies such as Ryanair and Viva Air Group to make smarter customer interactions. Specialist room revenue agency Revanista provides solutions to hoteliers across Ireland and the UK.
Currently more than 3,500 people are employed in the sector, a talent pool that has attracted more than 100 travel technology companies to base their operations in Ireland. In addition, Ireland is also the world leader in aviation finance.
How American Airlines tackles innovation
It’s an innovative environment that should prove attractive to American Airlines, famous for supporting innovation internally through initiatives such as its annual hackathon.
Some 1,000 of the airline’s designers, developers and IT experts travel to Austin, Texas for a 24-hour event where they are charged with ‘forming, storming and norming’ new apps of benefit to both customers and staff.
But the airline is also open to working with new technologies coming from outside the company. In all cases, the innovation team has a simple rule: “Save money or make money. Anything with those as its big focus will have eyes on their idea,” said Lloyd.
Currently some of the most interesting applications the airline is looking at are aimed not necessarily at the travel space but in analogous industries, they said.
Those pitching solutions, however, will find it’s not just their technology that will be evaluated, but themselves, including the strength of their business and their experience in what they are building, delegates heard. The team, their depth of industry knowledge, and whether they are driving development themselves or outsourcing are all key considerations.
Critical, too, is an assessment of whether or not they have the financial runway to stay the pace. Deal cycles with the airline are famously long. “Have they raised enough money to cope? It can take a very long time, so really it’s about evaluating the companies as much as evaluating the technologies,” said Lloyd.
The speed and efficiency with which American Airlines is engaging with companies is improving, however, delegates heard.
It currently has 20 internal teams with the word ‘innovation’ in their title and is developing its own innovation practice. Part of this is around ensuring greater understanding internally of the power of core, adjacent and transformative innovation, said Lloyd.
How to deal with an airline as a start-up
Helping the airline’s innovation leads see what the world looks like to a start-up, something which many of them have no experience of, is helping too, he said.
Dealing with any airline means working with numerous stakeholders. “Be patient,” said Kaiser.
To make it easier for the airline you are selling into, provide structure around what you are building and providing, make it easier to work with you by providing a contact, facilitate the process by being accessible and, above all, “if it’s not ready, don’t push it. It will show super quickly and not end well,” he said.
Make sure you really understand the process and all the stakeholders involved. Then, “don’t call us up in two days,” added Lloyd. “Understand that it will move slowly. We have 140,000 people across the business, a lot of politics and stakeholders. Accept that tonnes of different people will be involved in what you are doing. Be patient, trust the process.”
For certain, do not attempt to bypass it by going around a stakeholder who has already agreed to champion you, they cautioned.
The airline will work with certain start-up accelerators in strategic areas, including Dublin and Toronto, said Lloyd.
The appeal of these regions is that they offer a model wherein the government, through, in Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, academia and the corporate sector all work closely with start-ups “to help them succeed,” he said.
Opportunities for travel tech in the airline sector
The commercial opportunities for travel technology in the airline sector are enormous, the audience heard, with the fact that unaccompanied teenagers must still walk around with lanyards around their neck being a simple case in point.
“We’re far behind as an industry with the whole digital experience,” said Kaiser. Digitising processes will not just boost efficiencies, but potentially drive new revenue opportunities for airlines too, including in the provision of new services.
Airlines are particularly keen to cover the complete travel journey, from the home to the airport and on arrival, “what they do when they get there,” said Kaiser.
All along the way opportunities exist where current procedures remain paper-based, or where infrastructure needs digitising, such as cameras at gates. Whether it is through providing computer vision or tracking events, or anything from logistics, to data, to efficiencies in terms of how aircraft – and component parts – are moved, are all areas of opportunity right now.
Customer experience is another area the airline’s innovation team is giving its attention to, including apps that can provide passengers with information about their flight and directions to their gate as soon as they arrive at the airport.
“Basically anything that focuses on making the small details of user experience more pleasant, things that make the customer happy – before, and during, booking, before and during check in, and while in the air,” said Lloyd.
WiFi, which would allow customers to browse and allow the airline “to make a little extra money too, is definitely something we are looking into,” he said.
Future trends in travel tech
In terms of wider future trends, the rise of megacities will be a major factor driving future innovation. Simply getting to the airport is already becoming increasingly challenging, delegates heard.
Airlines will be looking for solutions to make the trip to the airport faster. “That’s definitely an area we are looking into and which is quite urgent,” said Lloyd, pointing out that, perhaps surprisingly, one of the newest competitors on the Austin to Dallas route is a plush bus service. “It’s eating into our market share,” said Lloyd. “Getting people to your gate is an area we’ll see the biggest changes in.”
From a technical perspective, it’s all about IoT, biometrics screening and increasingly contextual data, said Kaiser. For passengers, “We’ll see more of the right data being presented to you at the right time. User preferences will get better and give you more of the information you want, when you want it.”