Karen McCandless explores the solutions that can help airlines improve the in-flight experience through personalized customer service.
"Hi seat 14D, what would you like to drink today?" That's the typical interaction consumers have become used to when they fly today. Historically, airlines have interacted in a limited way with passengers on board a plane. Once a traveler passes through the gate, they become a seat number. If a flight attendant wants to find out their name, they must search through reams of paper to find it. Last minute seating changes are often not taken into account, meaning they sometimes address the wrong passenger. And opportunities to provide additional assistance to premier passengers are missed because flight attendants are not sure who they are. But the new generation of consumers – used to customized interactions in industries such as retail and hospitality – are demanding more.
"Travelers want more from their in-flight experience," says Matt Muta, global hospitality and travel managing director at Microsoft. "To meet the demands of consumers, travel organizations need to provide a more meaningful and personalized experience. When a passenger boards the plane, the cabin crew should know who they are, if they have flown with the airline, whether they are a high-value customer and what their preferences are. Instead of the flight attendants asking if you would like a drink, they already know that you like diet Coke. When they are serving the meals, they ask if you're going to have the chicken again because that is what you have eaten on previous flights. This makes you feel like a valued customer."
"In the airline industry, ensuring a positive customer experience is critical – especially in today’s digital era where the viral impact on business is high,” adds Dan O’Hara, VP of mobility at Avanade. “One bad customer experience could mean that they’ll never fly with that airline again – and they’ll tell all their friends."
Airlines can improve the customer experience by implementing mobile solutions on board to provide better service and create new revenue opportunities. "Mobile devices provide cabin crew with the tools to offer digital consumers a new level of interactive and personalized service," says Muta. "Meanwhile, passengers can use mobile devices to access entertainment systems, shop the on-board duty-free store, order food and sign up for airline loyalty programs."
"Airlines have the opportunity to take the same mobile-driven experiences that we see today in our personal lives and apply those to the customer experience," adds O'Hara. "For example, working with Avanade, Delta Air Lines is leveraging an advanced mobile in-flight sales and service solution based on the Avanade Mobile Airline Platform. With this solution, Delta is able to radically improve customer satisfaction by empowering flight attendants to deliver a better in-flight experience and streamline on-board purchasing for passengers."
According to O'Hara, these mobile devices mean flight attendants will have instant access to the information they need at their fingertips. "They will be able to process credit cards in real time for on-board purchases and even be able to e-mail receipts and scan coupons," he says. "They can also look up gate change information for individual passengers, thereby personalizing the experience. And, not only does it improve the customer experience, it also lowers costs and increases overall productivity – making the lives of both customers and flight attendants that much easier."
Equipping cabin crew with mobile devices enables them to maximize efficiency and provide a higher level of customer service. "They can walk through procedural checklists, manage food and beverage service and duty-free inventory, review passenger details and flag VIPs for special care," says Muta. "They can also pull up information from their customer relationship management or loyalty systems so they know where their high-value customers are sitting. Better informed employees are able to provide more relevant and targeted offers, which drives upsell and cross sell, and improves customer satisfaction. How can I provide this passenger with a service that would make them want to fly with us again or have an upgrade? To do this, airlines need to ensure they have the right infrastructure and that their systems are integrated to avoid the problem of siloed data."
Flight attendants can also use devices to automate many operational procedures. "Many airlines are still very paper-based. If a seat belt is broken or a light doesn’t work, they have to fill out a form and wait for maintenance to fix it," says Muta. "With a tablet, they can capture this information electronically and e-mail it to the relevant department. They can also speed up landing procedures by telling the gatekeeper what they need before the plane has even arrived. This could be extra wheelchairs, for example.
This means passengers don't have to wait for a long time once they have arrived."
This personalized experience also expands to the on-board entertainment system. Many airlines provide content through in-seat screens, but this is not personalized or specific to one traveler – it's a one size fits all approach. However, wireless in-flight entertainment systems such as BoardConnect from Lufthansa Systems are improving the experience for customers.
"Airlines can choose how passengers access our system – whether that is through in-seat screens, airline’s devices or the customer's own device," says Norbert Müller, SVP BoardConnect at Lufthansa Systems. "There is also an option for a personalized login that provides airlines with valuable information on former passenger choices or details on onward travel. The system therefore can, for example, make recommendations based on films the passenger has watched previously, provide connecting gate information or recommend items from the shop, and combine this with data provided at other touch points such as check in. It can also provide discounts and different options for high-value customers. Passengers can then pay for the order electronically from their smartphone, laptop or PC, which provides a real revenue boost."
BoardConnect can also reduce the crew's workload by allowing them to seamlessly process purchases and manage inventory, as well as send announcements or promotions to individuals or groups. "The crew's time is limited and they are not always able to provide the service they would like," says Müller. "Our system reduces their paperwork and administrative tasks, which frees up their time to improve the customer experience. It personalizes customer interaction and enables entertainment and information to be delivered in ways that create a unique and fully-branded on-board experience. This in turn increases brand loyalty and image and boosts the bottom line."
BoardConnect uses a number of Microsoft solutions such as Windows Server, Smooth Streaming, PlayReady DRM and Silverlight and runs on Windows 8 tablets. Avanade also leverages Microsoft technology such as Dynamics for Retail in its Mobile Airline platform. It is this combination of Microsoft and partner technologies that enable airlines to provide superior service, build customer loyalty, boost revenue and improve their products and services.
"Through Windows 8, Microsoft provides an enterprise-class platform that is secure and manageable and can be delivered on a form factor that suits the airline – whether it is on a phone or a tablet running Windows 8," says Microsoft's Muta. "It enables airlines to run apps for multiple purposes – for example training, on board concierge, collaboration and cashless cabin – all from one device. Other technology such as Dynamics for Retail, Dynamics CRM, Windows Azure and Windows Server act as the enablement platform for this. Microsoft solutions enable airlines to capture the preferences and interests of their customers and deliver unique personal guest experiences."