Few industries have escaped the relentless march towards digitisation and air transport is no exception.

Huge technological developments accompanied by rising customer expectations have sparked a scramble to incorporate digital solutions into years-old, deeply entrenched systems and processes. Air transport is relatively late in terms of digital adoption and everyone is agreed on the need to make this happen. But, in an industry where little has changed for 10, 20 or even 30 years in some cases, few are sure of how to go about it.

I read a lot about digitization in air transport, and the reports that hit the headlines are usually futuristic stories about robots walking through airport terminals, or chatbots helping passengers to locate lost bags. It all sounds very innovative, but these initiatives are years ahead of what is really needed now, in terms of a long-term strategy and the foundations that hold it all together.

In reality, the industry is a long way from joining up the journey of the connected traveler and delivering a seamless passenger experience. With so many grounds teams involved in handling a single flight, data is still held in silos across various locations, often lost in emails, Telex, walkie-talkie and other unstructured communications. With no joined-up management of data, it’s impossible to provide a rich, contextualised and personalized customer experience.

The fundamental question is therefore: how do you bring all that data into one place, in an intelligent way, so that every system and agent that interacts with the passenger can access it? And how can we connect that data so that the whole ecosystem can work more efficiently and deliver the kinds of services and experiences that customers are demanding now - and those they’ll be demanding for in five years’ time?

Faced with this challenge, many companies are tempted to turn to the traditional remedies, involving expensive consultants and big IT projects, taking a top-down, waterfall approach. You can find plenty of impressive reports out there from consultants, analysing and reflecting on the digitization problem, but none of them offer a solution – unless you pay them thousands of pounds that is! And when you do, the solution is likely to be an all-singing- all-dancing IT system, that faces so many complications and delays that the original purpose gets lost and nobody wants, or knows how, to use it.

Companies that provide these solutions are usually selling to the CSO or CXO, but this person isn’t involved in day-to- day operations. You’re giving them a mission that they are totally unable to fulfill. I truly believe that as a senior manager, you can’t explain to an agent how to do their job better, as you aren’t doing it day-to- day - the contrary should be true. Senior managers can’t think at a use-case level, which means they end up implementing solutions that aren’t really useful – and therefore ultimately end in failure. We see it all the time with corporate intranet and internal social network projects - users usually hate using them.

The only way to overcome these stumbling blocks is for users to decide on the solution and lead the adoption, with access to tools that:

  • Solve a specific use case and perform one task very well, with a perfect fit with the user’s expectations
  • Are plug and play, quick to test and with little or no training required
  • Have a smooth and intuitive user experience to ensure adoption and user engagement
  • Are supported by an agile development cycle, where the evolving needs of users are rapidly incorporated on an ongoing basis

Under this model, adoption starts at the user level, where usability and value are validated in a cost-efficient way. Once the user is convinced, he’ll convince his colleagues and eventually his boss, driving wider adoption throughout the organisation. We can all name numerous tools like this in today’s workplace – Slack, Trello and Dropbox are all tools designed for bottom-up adoption. Users start with a free subscription, discover how useful a tool is, then persuade their boss to pay for a premium or business license. The cost is a fraction of that paid for consultants and big IT systems, plus the risk is lower and the chance of success significantly higher.

Air transport is in desperate need of a simple solution to the digitisation problem, but in too many cases it is made much more complicated than it needs to be. It’s time to forget waterfalls, expensive consultants, big IT and complexity. It’s time to give the power to the people - and your startup incubator 😉