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Customer experience

Which airlines will soar above others this summer?

Article 02-May-2023 Read time: min
By Brian E. O'Rourke

The airline industry will be put to the test this summer. Fueled by a collective revenge travel1 mentality, travelers are ready to take to the skies en masse. In the coming months—after three years that began with an almost overnight collapse in demand, followed by unprecedented volatility—global air traffic is expected to close in on pre-pandemic levels.2 Only airlines that have spent the intervening time investing in technology enablement and operational agility will be up to the task.

Today, airline industry leaders face several, interconnected challenges. On the one hand, the staffing shortages that arose as a direct result of the pandemic persist today.3 At the same time, customer expectations are likely to be higher than ever from the past few years of disappointment due to reduced flight options and delayed vacations.

The stakes are high, with the trust of these travelers—and therefore their loyalty—on the line.

As an aviation executive with 30+ years of experience, every day I work with a team of colleagues who are as passionate and informed as I am about the business. Here’s how we predict this summer’s forerunners will soar above the rest:

Invested in a modern mainframe

Airlines thinking about how best to optimize their workloads with a hyperscaler have big questions to address. AWS, Microsoft, and Google bring different advantages and approaches to the table, and airlines must determine which hyperscaler or combination of hyperscalers is best for their unique needs.

Moreover, it's no great secret that the aviation industry has historically cut corners on funding for infrastructure as it relates to technical debt.4 These patterns of underinvestment only worsened during the pandemic. Many airlines’ priorities for the past couple years have been focused, naturally and out of necessity, on the safety of customers and employees first—closely followed by cost reduction in the face of countless waves of lockdowns and constrained travel restrictions. In other words, innovation and acceleration have often been put on the back burner.

And the cracks are starting to show. Many of these same airlines continue to run their mission-critical systems on mainframe technology that has reached end-of-life status—as well as end-of-service and end-of-support. While it may not result in operational mishaps in the short term, this reality does present a growing threat of system outages in the near future—and with them, disruptions, cancellations, and loss of business.

When a customer buys an airline ticket, it represents a contract and a commitment to transport them from origin to destination. If an airline cannot deliver on this commitment—especially for a long-awaited trip or vacation—the customer will switch to other, more dependable brands or else take to social media to give air to their negative experience.

The airlines that win this summer will be those with IT leaders who have made conscious decisions about their technical debt and legacy systems—in other words, businesses that have put together a real roadmap for IT hardware and software refresh and modernization plans, with a focus on end-of-life hardware and aligning the right workloads with the right platform.

A modernized mainframe may sound like the least sexy differentiator, but it is also one of the most critical.

A modernized mainframe may sound like the least sexy differentiator, but it is also one of the most critical.

Focused on cybersecurity

Airlines possess troves of sensitive data, which makes them particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks. Particularly considering the rise in ransomware and cryptojacking incidents across industries, airlines are taking these threats seriously. In their 2022 report, SITA found that 100% of carriers have already launched or will launch major cybersecurity programs by 2024.5

What will become clear this summer is which airlines have already begun to go above and beyond to protect their data. These are the airlines that have taken the time to assess their cybersecurity infrastructure and budget from the ground up—in other words, airlines that have taken the initiative to accurately evaluate what new technologies and initiatives will best prepare their enterprise to respond to and recover from the inevitability of an attack or breach.

Committed to a hyper-personalized traveler experience

Personalization is far from new to the aviation industry. What a successful customer experience looks like this year will be defined by novel tools and experiences, and much will come down to the way airlines leverage data analytics and AI.

Travelers are no longer satisfied with free headphones and a blanket on their seat. They’re looking to their airline for relevant and targeted travel tips: ideas for what to do and see once they arrive at their destination6—from recommendations on where to stay to suggestions for activities like which bay to snorkel in or trails to hike.

Beyond travel guidance, travelers now expect airlines to deliver a touchless or contactless travel experience.7 Over the past several years, airlines have made progress in this area with options from mobile check-in to personalized food selection. Now, the emphasis will be on how business leaders improve on these customer preference services and deliver something that goes one step beyond: a frictionless travel experience—in other words, catering to and fostering experiences for the connected traveler who is looking for airlines that address their particular needs, from hyper-personalized offers and services to seamless, end-to-end journeys.

Consider Delta’s Digital ID. Travelers who are part of the carrier’s SkyMiles frequent flier program can now opt in on their mobile app. The app unlocks a more seamless experience at the airport, giving them access to expedited lanes and deploying facial biometrics to speed their way through security.

And this is just the beginning. Delta is currently hard at work on tools designed to help the in-flight entertainment systems recognize travelers on a personal level and anticipate their in-flight service and entertainment needs.

What’s on the horizon

There is little doubt that the summer ahead is going to be a big and exciting one, both for travelers and the airline industry itself. All that remains to be seen is which airlines will soar above the rest. I know I have my top picks in mind. Now, maybe you do too.

Brian O’Rourke is Vice President and Senior Partner at Kyndryl.