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Missed Connections: What Airlines Don't Understand About Their Passengers

27/07/2017 17:18 BST | Updated 27/07/2017 17:18 BST

Customer-experience management is supposed to be advanced in the travel industry, but the data says otherwise.

In an age of the personalized customer experience, it's astounding that even premium brands struggle to deliver a smooth, joined-up service. Air travel is a good example. Why is it that, with all the decision-supporting data available to them, airlines so commonly fail to get the basics right? A recent industry survey found that more than two-thirds of passengers experiencing a delay of two hours of more were dissatisfied with how they were treated. A similarly high number were unhappy with the way their lost or damaged baggage was handled.

Attempts to optimize flight capacity aren't going well either. The post-mortem following the recent United Airlines furor - where a passenger was forcibly removed so more staff could get to where they next needed to be - revealed that it was a regional partner operating the flight in question. Capacity had been poorly managed, developing needs weren't communicated quickly enough and passengers suffered the consequences. The fallout will go down in history as an object lesson in how not to handle customers.

Reviewing reaction times

Even if the United fiasco was an extreme case, it illustrates several shortcomings associated with scheduled air travel - not least the inability to respond quickly to changing circumstances. If something is going badly (delays, a missed connection and so on), ideally an airline would spot the customers most likely to be affected and offer them an on-the-spot sweetener - a texted voucher, an upgrade, free champagne, a discounted next trip. Enhanced targeting could help them quickly identify regular or high-value customers who may warrant additional pacification.

Issuing an apologetic message at some later point isn't going to cut it. These days, angry customers are quick to air their grievances on social media, where issues swiftly go viral and wreak havoc with reputations. United Continental's share price took a dive as the video clip of its now infamous passenger-ejection incident circulated globally.

Interestingly, United's rival Delta takes a more proactive approach to capacity management. It uses a bidding system to let passengers weigh up the hassle of missing their preferred flight with the number of travel vouchers needed to compensate them, giving customers more of a sense of control over the situation. This data is helping the airline refine its booking and pricing algorithms, and improve departure management. It's amazing what a bit of thought can do to turn a potential negative into a positive.

Managing variability

Travel involves so many variables that a good experience depends heavily on real-time, high-volume data processing (up to 80 per cent of travel data changes daily, and much of it does so by the minute).

There's operational data, where updates on flight delays or the latest weather conditions can have a knock-on effect on entire schedules. There's pricing and booking data, which changes dynamically as algorithms optimize pricing based on demand. And there's live customer data, which airlines could be using much more creatively to enhance the passenger experience.

Smart mobile devices and improving 4G and Wi-Fi coverage already provide a means of interacting with customers throughout their journeys. Tellingly, this year's winners of Singapore Airlines' annual app challenge developed a prototype for a chatbot, offering continuous assistance to passengers - from booking to final destination. It gives some sense of where things are going.

But unless the loop is closed, so that airlines are able to react and communicate based on up-to-the-minute data, creativity soon stalls. Innovative customer-relationship management doesn't just depend on having joined-up systems that can communicate with each other quickly; it also requires an ability to process incoming data at speed, make instant calculations and turn these into timely outcomes.

Closing the feedback loop

Sri Lankan Airlines has begun capturing passenger feedback as they travel. To ensure prompt reaction to service interruptions and critical issues that affect passenger satisfaction, it sends real-time alerts to the relevant supervisor via SMS, while live dashboards display the overall mood of customers using color-coded cards. The plan is to integrate the passenger feedback system with its customer-management system to enable staff to adapt responses using a passenger's preferences and recent experience.

Elsewhere Gulf Air uses live social-media sentiment analysis to react quickly to the mood of customers as they express themselves online, especially during the busy summer season.

The cloud is a powerful facilitator for many of these customer-service initiatives. Gulf Air performs its social-media analytics in a private cloud, where it's easier to scale up the necessary processing capacity.

Cloud use is likely to soar along with other initiatives to reduce the stress of travel - for example in the digital tagging and tracking of luggage. Delta Airlines, for one, has invested $50m in digital tagging to reduce baggage losses globally.

As a result of all these initiatives, the volume of live data airlines will need to cope with will increase exponentially. And that's as it should be - as long as airlines can maintain data's integrity, ensuring it stays in sync as it moves back and forth between live systems and cloud-based analytics facilities.

It's commendable that airlines want to take the customer experience to new heights. Having the right vision is a great start; the next challenge is to make everything work smoothly in real time.